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Six Feet

Adding context to the world’s newest unit of measurement.

Luke DeCock Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

I was standing in line at the grocery store the other day, one pair out of a sea of eyes staring from over fabric, my shoes scuffing absentmindedly at the tape line on the floor. The tape is six feet from the next piece of tape on the floor; the store’s valiant effort to teach us a safe distance from other people. As I stood there, on an island in the midst of a tensely-spaced crowd of people trying to check out with their milk and pasta and baking necessities, I found myself thinking idly about this new unit of measurement that has been created for us. This almost-arbitrary-seeming and yet all-encompassing six-foot radius, the dimensions of which will forever be stamped in our memories because of this virus and the way it has changed our world.

There are other ways than tape marks on the floor to remember what six feet looks like, though, if you’re into that kinda thing. For example, a little over three years ago, a kid named Luke Maye found himself with approximately six feet of space around him as he caught the ball with the last seconds trickling off the game clock. You may be familiar with what resulted from all of that space, so I won’t go into detail. Next time you’re in public, though, if you think you may be too close to someone else, just ask yourself—are you far enough from the next closest person that you could rise up and send the Heels to the Final Four, even if that next closest person was a 6’3” guard from the University of Kentucky who would prefer that you didn’t? For me, that radius is probably a substantial amount bigger than six feet, but these days it really is the more the merrier.

Or, if continually reliving one of the greatest moments of my sports life in the checkout line of a Food Lion isn’t really your thing, try this: picture yourself standing with your heels on the goal line in Kenan Stadium, with a three point lead, facing a make-or-break stop as your hated rival lines up across from you. Do you have enough space between you and the person closest to you to read their attempted pop-pass? Do you have enough distance there that you could pick that ball off and seal the win in front of a packed house? Just put yourself in Chazz Surratt’s shoes, in October of last year, facing 1st-and-goal from the two yard line, and you’ll be close (but not too close).

If that still isn’t really clicking for you, imagine for a second that you’re a point guard for a team that doesn’t wear light blue. Maybe it’s late in the game, maybe you’re frustrated that the man you’re guarding has been eating and you can’t seem to get anything of your own. Or, perhaps it’s a close game, and you feel the pressure to put the team on your back and go score the ball. I mean, he’s playing on two sprained ankles, right? So you try to take him to the hole. He’s quick, though, and he’s an upperclassman; he knows the drill. Somehow, he gets his feet underneath him and catches your shoulder in the chest as you lower it, maybe a little too much. You hear the whistle and you look down, incredulous, as he claps from the floor after forcing the turnover. The soles of his shoes are right at the toes of the Nikes you thought were tight until you saw his Jordans. As Joel Berry II looks you dead in the eye, waiting to be helped up by his teammates, you suddenly know just how big six feet can feel.

These are a few other ways to think about six feet, if you’re sick of staring at taped lines on linoleum floors while a mask tickles the bridge of your nose. Sometimes it helps to focus on things that are familiar but apart, memories untouched by this pandemic we’re living through. Whether you like to imagine you’re Luke Maye, Chazz Surratt, or simply some poor sap who had to play against Joel Berry II, six feet is six feet—and it’s important. Stay safe, y’all.