Fourth in a series of nine daily essays leading up to the 2008-09 college basketball season.
If you're just now dropping by and don't know what this is all about, this site is all about going to mid-major college basketball games. A lot
of them. I attended 117 total games last year, and I've been to 508
over the past five seasons. I'm still married, happily so, in case you're wondering.
As I travel around the country visiting mid-major arenas from Big South to Big West, I notice a lot of common elements from venue to venue. The national anthem is played or sung or piped in before every game, the rims are always 10 feet above the court, games tend to be 40 minutes long and the shot clock never, ever reads 36 seconds. But the most striking similarity is the stock character I keep running into from sea to shining sea.
The mid-major beat writer.
In a lot of cases, the only two people on press row are the mid-major beat writer and myself (mostly due to lack of local interest and Associated Press cutbacks). So I spend a lot of time with them... or rather, "him." Most wear the official uniform, an untucked collared shirt and a pair of jeans, a few days' worth of stubble, and questionable posture. After weeks on the road I can be easily convinced that it's the same person, just following me around as I go.
Most approach the games in the same way -- with near-total detachment, spending more time checking ACC or NBA scores than watching the game, managing instant-message popups, browsing threads at SportsJournalists.com, or fielding cellphone calls.
Their reports, whether in the newspaper the next day or... okay, I peek sometimes... are usually bored boilerplate recap, or columns about everything the team is doing wrong, written in the popular current style that makes use of a lot of one-word paragraphs. The team lacks "toughness," or can't "finish games," and certain players aren't "stepping up." Lots of future coaches in this business.
Is this an overgeneralization? Sure. But this script repeats itself over and over, uncannily so. Walk a few thousand miles in my shoes, and you'd see it too.
There are certain exceptions, of course, and I don't want to embarrass anybody by naming names. They know who they are, because I go out of my way to personally praise their work and tell them how much I respect their efforts and dedication. These are the writers who won't and can't shut up about the teams they cover, who can discuss the SoCon or Southland or Horizon League for hours on end, who have well-formed opinions about recruiting, 15th men on rosters, conference politics. These are my heroes in this business.
But in the rare instances when the MMBW returns my attempts at friendly conversation, it's usually to look at my nameplate and ask if "ESPN is hiring," whatever that means. I hope my stunned silence comes off as less rude than what I'd actually say out loud. But I guess this is what passes for ambition in some circles -- that this is all about catching "breaks," finding the people whose simple roles are to smile and hand over the secret code to the castle door, or point the way to the golden career escalator.
Which is why I find that doubly offensive, the idea that somebody would or could ever be rewarded for slapdash reporting on a subject they have no respect for to begin with. The idea I have held all along, and the concept this site has attempted to push forward for the past four years, is that it's okay to work hard at this, and it's perfectly acceptable to take this seriously.
Power-conference basketball is important because a lot of people have agreed it's important, and efforts here begin and end with the idea that mid-major basketball is important too. Every game is connected with every other game by separating degrees, every team is a complicated puzzle worth studying. Every possession can unlock a new facet of this game of basketball, can offer a lesson about countervailing forces.
That message doesn't register with a mid-major beat writer who's biding their time before fulfilling their destiny as a power-conference beat writer. Which is fine, I guess, because there are those others that "get it" without my intervention, and did so long before I ever showed up.
In my short career as a paid chronicler of college basketball, the business side of things has been good to me. I'm lucky to make a good living at what I do now, and I've somehow been able to make more good decisions than bad ones. One of those moves, which dates back to just over a year ago, was to spin off a large portion of this website
to a new home called Basketball State
. It's been quite successful, more so than I would have ever imagined.
Starting later this month, once the season begins, Basketball State will begin publishing regular features from a tremendous group of talented writers. We'll have a few medium-sized features a week, all freely available and safely outside the subscription wall. Not all of the contributors will cover our side of the Red Line
, but what each has in common is a keen commitment to quality. Each possesses an internal compass that points to interesting and informative work. Most of the names will be recognizable to those who like reading about basketball.
As we move forward with this project, I'm hoping to increase the use of that site as a way to recognize true ambition among those that cover mid-major basketball. I want to offer good writers an outlet where they can act as good conduits
, where they can earn a decent rate -- more than a blog can pay -- in return for copy that treats this level of our game with the respect it deserves.
My primary issues with the common mid-major beat writer are the presumption, the lack of hunger and imagination, and the unwillingness to respect their subject. They're not doing their own careers, or the schools they cover, any good. If they aren't taking this seriously, there's no reason for their readers to take it seriously either -- and this is a major reason why the public at large doesn't take this seriously. I'm just hoping that, going forward, we can help distribute the antidote.