Empty Box Syndrome

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and let go of my old Rebel stuff


In the beginning, it was a stack on my childhood toy shelf. Then it was a box in the garage. Then it was a box in a different garage. For 20 years I dragged that set of old UNLV basketball programs from town to town, from tiny California dorm room to soggy Seattle basement and finally back to my very own little patch of Vegas suburbia. The box began to decay. The packing tape went yellow. Occasionally I’d tear the box open and witness its riches.

You might not remember the names, but you’ve got to admit their poetry: Eldridge Hudson on a wounded knee in ’83. Jarvis Basnight in flight in ’85. It was classic game-program photography; even the action shots were weirdly static: Here’s Gary Graham playing ferocious defense on … nobody. There’s that feather-soft Larry Anderson jumper over an absent defender, the ball already out of frame. There was something touching about those covers. My all-time favorite, from the old Holiday Classic tournament at the Convention Center, had a line drawing of Santa Claus and an autograph that I never could read.

I treasured the programs, but that box began to take on some kind of nasty symbolism, something about my mistaking the artifacts of living for life itself. That box—and it was a really big box—was taking up garage space that might otherwise be used for, say, winter clothing and emergency nonperishables. OK, the problem was less about storage capacity than psychic space; I suffered through insomniac nights picturing my future home library where the programs were shelved in chronological order in plastic slipcovers. In the mornings I looked in the mirror at my tired eyes and thought, This can’t be right. So when my wife and I and our son prepared to move to Oregon in July 2006, I was determined to lighten our load.

One day, a week or so before the move, I was over at my parents’ house in Henderson when my father, who has always had a more level and less sentimental head than mine, suggested a small line-item for my Material Goods Reduction Plan.

“You’ve got all those old programs,” he said. “Get rid of the programs.” This seemed to make a good deal of sense.

I looked at it as a test of character. Could I renounce the tyranny of material things—particularly material things that had resided in a box for two decades? If I could get rid of these things that I really liked, I reasoned, I’d be able to get rid of everything.

I did, however, want the programs to go to a good home. First I checked with Henderson’s Paseo Verde Library, but the library did not need old basketball programs. I might have checked with UNLV Special Collections, but I can’t remember. What I do remember is my brilliant idea to donate the programs to the UNLV Sports Information Office, where they would not only be housed, but be useful. Imagine: my programs—a permanent Rebel reference library right there in the bowels of the arena. At least that’s what I kept telling myself.

So, on a sweltering day I parked at the Thomas & Mack Center, opened my back door and reached in for the box. I paused. Maybe, I thought, I’ll keep a couple really good ones. So I chose the Santa Claus program. And then another, with a picture of Ed Catchings or Anthony Jones or someone from the Rebels’ mid-’80s interregnum period. Then another—Gerald Paddio!

Soon I had a large stack of programs to keep and a small stack to donate and I was thoroughly disgusted with my spiritual incapacity. No. I won’t let this happen. Life is not what you have, it’s what you are, and if you have too much, then what you are is weighed down. It sounded convincing at the time. It put the steel back in my spine. I put all of the programs back in the box. Even Santa Claus. I picked the box up and locked my car and marched my programs to the Sports Information Office.

I gave the programs to a guy in the office. I tried to keep from sweating on them. Or crying. I must have somehow succeeded in appearing sufficiently dispassionate. The guy was thrilled.

“I guess one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” he said.

“Oh, they’re not trash,” I said.

He looked at me. I looked at him. He carried my box away.

I walked out fighting the impulse to take the darn things back. My donation haunted me all through the wet Oregon winter. Material reduction was not bringing the hoped-for spiritual relief. I hadn’t just donated a box, I worried, but a biography—crucial evidence of my life and times.

But then a funny thing happened. The once-mighty Rebels, who hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game in 15 years, went clear to the Sweet 16. Maybe, I told myself, my donation had put some old magic back in the program. That made me feel better. When suffering from irrational feelings, it’s always helpful to fight them with still more irrational feelings.

Last summer, we moved from the Northwest back to Las Vegas. In four years, my son had accumulated three drawers of Oregon Ducks programs. On moving day, I took them out of the drawers.

I put them in a box.

You can come see it in our garage.

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