I. Into The Wild
INDIANAPOLIS, Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport, March 25 -- One of my favorite books of the past 15 years is Into The Wild
. It was a national New York Times
bestseller that was made into a major motion picture (Emile Hirsch was great in it). It's the non-fictional story of a young student-athlete named Chris McCandless whom, after graduation from college in 1990, renamed himself Alexander Supertramp, gave his savings to charity and hitchhiked around North America. He ended up dead in a remote region of Alaska, where his decomposed body was discovered by hunters.
The book is so powerful, and contains such immediate language, that it's pretty much made Catcher in the Rye
obsolete as a meditation on young American male restlessness and wanderlust. And it hits quite close to home, too: that was same era during which I was thumbing my way around the United States, separated from my family with a new name, aloof to the dangers of the road. In the summer of 1989, between my junior and senior years of prep school, I hitchhiked from New Hampshire to California and back, looking for something pure that I never found. In Indiana, on my way west, the driver of an El Dorado stabbed me with a hunting knife while trying to take my backpack. I still have the scar, a two-inch permanent sunburn above my right hip.
But perceived simpatico is not why I love Into The Wild
. Two-thirds of the way through the book, author Jon Krakauer slides into the narrative all Kilgore Trout-like, and tells his own adventure story in two cutaway chapters. In 1979, a young Krakauer made a solo 20-day expedition to Alaska and successfully reached the summit of the Devils Thumb
-- a 9,000-foot unclimbable peak in the state's Boundary Range. It was a difficult ascent up a diorite wall covered in feathery ice, a climb that repeatedly came close to costing him his life.
Upon his return to civilization, however, Krakauer learned a sobering lesson: it didn't matter.
The euphoria, the overwhelming sense of relief, that had initially accompanied my return to Petersburg faded, and an unexpected melancholy took its place. The people I chatted with in Kito's didn't seem to doubt that I'd been to the top of the Thumb; they just didn't much care.
...Less than a month after sitting on the summit of the Thumb, I was back in Boulder, nailing up siding on the Spruce Street Townhouses, the same condos I'd been framing when I left for Alaska. I got a raise, to four bucks an hour, and at the end of the summer moved out of the job-site trailer to a cheap studio apartment west of the downtown mall.
It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to a obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams.
This was not a popular section of the book with most readers, and I've heard it described as grandstanding, unnecessary filler, narcissistic even. Hollywood had little use for Krakauer's tale -- the film version edited him out altogether, and opted to make Chris' sister the primary narrator instead. But for me, this threw the entire book into a five-dimensional perspective, give the work ballast and true weight. Without the inclusion of the two chapters on the Stikine Ice Cap, Into The Wild
is a third-hand, third-rate version of Catcher
-- a point proven, perhaps, by the massive story exaggerations contained in the movie script.
The author never had to announce it in so many words, but he was detailing exactly why he felt so compelled to give this particular ghost a new life and a new voice, why he cared enough to spend three years and hundreds of pages writing this biography. Without a chronicler, nobody would give a crap about Chris McCandless. Without Jon Krakauer to tell the story, this great adventure of Alexander Supertramp is worthless -- like so many million other great adventures. Without Jon Krakauer, Chris McCandless is a human dead end, an uncelebrated thrill-seeker who brought back no lessons for anyone else.
A dead end, just like I would have been if I hadn't twisted out of the way awkwardly that day on the flat blue leather seat, if that knife had found its intended mark. My life might have ended meaninglessly, with no curious biographer to document it. Roads, after all, make poor receptacles for dreams too.II. The Care Deficit
There is no vacuum as powerful as the absence of attention. Attendance and popularity and audience size are often described by cumulative numbers, but can be more truly measured by those with something better to do. The size and scope of just about everything, the only metric that really matters, is the overwhelming majority of the population that doesn't care.
In any relationship -- business, personal or otherwise -- the rules are set by the entity that cares less. The most beautiful words in the language may be "I love you," but there are none quite as powerful as "I don't care." "Who cares?" brings down the weight of the entire uncaring world, and it forces defense. The lack of caring surrounds and engulfs, isolates absolutely. Loneliness is a country of caring, population one. There are far too many of those in the world, and life's absurdity is best illustrated by the idea that one other person, one among billions, can validate one's existence.
Fifteen years after I hitchhiked across the country and back, I went to 83 college basketball games in a single winter. It's the lost season of The Mid-Majority, the one that may have well never happened at all. I told people that summer what I'd done, and I would always tell the story about how I drove overnight from Richmond to Dayton, through a snowstorm in the West Virginia mountains, so I could see both the CAA title game and the A-10 first round. Out of context, this made no sense. They cared as much as the bar patrons in Kito's did about Jon Krakauer's Devils Thumb climb.
With an idea I'd hatched in the stands of the Palestra, spurred on by inspiration from a wonderful author
, I tried to make the next journey mean something. I chronicled my quest to attend 100 games, and wove in stories of my struggle as well as those of the teams, players and coaches I was observing. I had the power to tell the story of my own adventure, in real time, and that approach made all the difference. The success of the 100 Games Project
is the foundation of all that's happened since; The Mid-Majority has changed my life, and I've made great friends that I would never have met if I'd kept this all to myself.
But sitting on press row nowadays, I still encounter the care deficit in a very real way. At nearly every game I go to, in places like Ogden and Baton Rouge and San Luis Obispo, the absence of fans and TV cameras and reporters is palpable -- I can feel the outer borders of Unfriend and Unfollow pushing inwards, oozing past the gymnasium walls and across sections of empty plastic seats. When I'm there alone, the only credentialed journalist at the game, I often wonder why I'm making the effort at all.
Then I remember those who do care, the people who want to push back against those encroaching walls too. This season, my friends stepped up and helped me out of an incredibly difficult dilemma. When I lost my big-media meal ticket, many of you paid my way for the rest of the season, and helped underwrite the thousands of miles of travel it's taken to get from January 20 to this moment -- all in the name of keeping this voice intact. I want to take a moment now and thank them all specifically, and in one place.
The last two months of Season 5 would not have been possible or plausible without the generosity of Max Kosub, Neal Walther, Katie Bickford, Rick Kulacki Jr, Michael Miller, Darin Martinez, Brendon Mulvihill, Justin Kundrat, Ethan Erickson, Ben Case, Michael Kremer, Bradley Swanson, Christopher Dobbertean, J.W. Scott, Thomas McCoy, Daniel H Fuertges, Matthew Mauro, Jason Planck, Joshua Weinhold, Hillel Soifer, Shawn Connolly, Matthew Hamparian, Andrew Stem, Pierce Greenberg, Scott Halnon, John Berlyn, David Elliott, Garrett Wheeler, Elizabeth Gallagher, Robert Hoy, David Bykowski, Eric Vilhelmsen, Richard Brunet, Robert Simkins, Robert Canedo, David Brown, Jarrett Carter, Joe DeBord, Ben Schneider, Colin FitzGerald, Josh Greenbaum, Charles Cochrum, Sarah Tipka, Greg Gardella, Timothy Bieniosek, Matt Konrad, Zach Brown, Anthony Montana, Kenneth Bethune, Mike Etheridge, Kevin Prigge, Vinny Polito, Kyle Jen, Jeff Phillips, Darren Hein, Erik Nell, Paymon Hashemi, Robert Bower, Robert Frueh, Alexander M Chaiken, Jeff Pojanowski, Jeremy Velasco, Ty Patton, Steve Timble, Mark Hanoian, Michael Litos, Christian Hoffman, Shane Smith, David Beaudoin, Lawrence Powers, Eric Angevine, Matt Anderson, James Richards, Michael Brodsky, Kevin Kremer, Frank Vitale, Dan Bowman, Jon Ralston, James Hosier, Alex Keil, Jacob Nix, Raymond Truesdell, Ronald DiPaola, Steven Stroud, Alex White, Todd Jensen, Jeffrey Fitzwater, Stephen Gentle, Christopher Sammon, Louis Izzo, Matt Sonnenberg, Mark Riley, David Newcome, Jeffrey Valler, Daniel Bradley, Katharine Gold, Thomas Feely, Kirk Becker, Patricia Dubyoski, DeMont McNeil, Devin Moeller, Jennifer Ahearn, Rhett Butler, Jeff Grubb, Gregory Layton, Kraig Williams, Miles Janssen, Keith Powers, Bruce Sparks and Jonathan Tannenwald.
(This is an incomplete list; it does not include PayPal business accounts, anonymous donations and those for whom an appearance on this list would cause known workplace issues. If you were left out of the roster or would like to be removed, please let us know.
I also get a lot of letters through this website -- they come every day, and there have been thousands of them. I don't have time to answer many, and I always regret that. But I read and appreciate each one, and each has a profound effect. If you've sent in an encouraging note or expression of gratitude, or offered a long and detailed description of what this site has meant to you, thank you. Many have come at times when I thought about giving up, and they've helped me through many a dark night.
I've said this several times throughout Season 5, but I've relied on the kindness of my audience more so than at any point in this site's history. You have no idea how much, but you soon will.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶III. Full Disclosure
This season began with a declaration of the challenges
that the college basketball teams in Division I's middle class would face in 2008-09, and the past five months were dedicated to finding the common elements among those that rose to those challenges. The few that were able to excel beyond expectations usually did so because of full adherence to selfless systems upon which they could rely when adversity inevitably came.
Back in November when I wrote that and hit the road, heading south for North Carolina, I was full of hope that for the following five months, adversity would be kept at an absolute minimum. This was supposed to be the year that made sense, when the finances and logistics and planning all came together to create the perfect season.
It didn't turn out that way, not at all. Here is what happened instead.
In late January, on the I was relieved of my duties as a weekly columnist at a major sports website for writing this essay called "The Sports Bubble"
on this site. It detailed budget cuts at a subsidiary of one of the largest publicly-traded companies in America, one with millions of shareholders
, and was based on information sent to me in a series of e-mails, which I have kept. Had I been an employee and not a private contractor, a cat with a single life among many with nine, I would have been within my rights to pursue a case for wrongful termination. As it was, the man who made the final decision was perfectly within his power to do so, and I accepted that.
Two weeks after I was fired, my wife of four years and I made an amicable decision to seek a divorce. She has made many appearances on this site in the past as The Official Wife of the Mid-Majority™, and is currently serving in Iraq as a Navy Seabee. She's been deployed since last May and spent the entire summer of 2007 in training out in Illinois and California. When I get home this weekend, one of my first tasks is the sad duty of packing up all her belongings and moving them into a mini-storage unit.
Because I haven't mentioned her in quite some time, I've fielded plenty of speculation about this. This had nothing to do with basketball, or too much time on the road, or ESPN's decision, or the military-industrial complex. After two years of separation, people simply don't know each other any more, and sometimes the attempt to reconnect just doesn't seem worth it. There is a comforting homily crafted to fit this particular circumstance, but it's nothing more than a convenient greeting-card lie for incurable romantics. Absence makes the heart grow colder.
The true signal that the marriage was over came over Christmas, a time when I was dealing with other news that was crushing my spirit. Thomas Rubick, one of my true heroes, my primary graphic design professor out in Oregon a decade ago and a man I call "Sensei," returned my holiday card with the news that he had been diagnosed with grade 4 brain cancer. He had taken a year of medical leave after a tumor appeared over the summer, one which he had beaten with blasts of chemo and radiation... a clean MRI in October had put everyone's dears to rest.
But as of December 17, it was back, and many times nastier. There is, of course, no grade 5.
Thomas Rubick is a brilliant painter and illustrator
, an artist who plies his craft for love and for whomever around him cares enough to appreciate his work. He taught me to always make the effort to see myself through the eyes of others, to be careful not to be a narcissistic jerk. Each day now, every time I open my e-mail inbox, I'm afraid that there will be the message from a stranger that says he's gone. Whatever happens, I will honor my Sensei by never referring to him in the past tense, the basic academic respect afforded for departed creators whose work transcends the mundane. "What is Rubick trying to say with this work?"
I offered to scrap my scheduled New Year's trip to Utah and be by his side out in Oregon, but he wasn't in a position to take visitors -- and most likely never will be again. I spent most of my time in Logan locked in my hotel room, crying until all I could manage was screaming dry heaves into a pillow. When the first warning about the ESPN budget cuts came, I drafted a resignation letter I never sent. I bought a plane ticket home that I never used. I didn't want to travel around the country and write about basketball anymore.
I was also fighting my own health problems, though considerably less terminal. Last April, I woke up from an afternoon nap and noticed that my hearing was different. Music sounded strange, all the notes were distorted, flat and muddy. In the weeks that followed, I kept hearing a sound of an oncoming tractor-trailer, but there was none around. The whooshing noise would last for hours and sometimes days, and I couldn't hear what people were saying over the din. I couldn't talk on the phone.
I tried to treat this -- which I learned was the mystery disease tinnitus
-- with internet information and a series of homeopathic remedies. That seemed to keep it at bay over the summer. But in November, after I left for the season, the Mack trucks were back and would not be silenced. There were screaming headaches and vertigo, and sometimes colors of things would change and separate. Worse still, the onset of these episodes came without warning and was accompanied by panic attacks and heart palpitations, as my entire system struggled to catch up with a suddenly shifting reality.
A doctor later told me I should probably not travel, and I brushed off the advice as the lazy mumbles of an uncaring HMO-quality hack who had diagnosed me based on nothing more than a conversation. The imbalances and the hearing problems continued, but I ignored any danger. I'd pull over to the side of the road when I felt things "get weird." I'd always allow extra time to write a story, I'd postpone or cancel a chat if I had to, and alter the timestamp of a post if "Good Morning Hoops Nation" turned out to be mid-afternoon. If I couldn't hear an interview subject, I'd smile and nod and then listen to the tape later when my head was back in order. I'd find out later that some people had asked me questions more complicated than those that required yes or no answers, and I'd feel really embarrassed. You know what they always say, nobody likes an occasionally deaf sportswriter.
But basketball taught me the key lesson that was necessary to overcome all of this. When life has you down 30 points with 18 minutes remaining, you keep playing as hard as you can
. The most dishonorable thing of all is to quit, to slump your shoulders and give up trying. There is always something to play for, even if it's just the pride of making it to the end of the game with your head up.
And here we are, 0:00.00 on the clock, the last echos of the final buzzer still faintly audible, that eerie red glow illuminating the backboards. And it feels good to have made it to the end.
I've spilled too many words this season not to provide the full picture of what happened -- and as many of you are invested personally (and financially) in this, you deserve the truth. I also tell you this now, and not back then, because it would have distracted from the running narrative. I wanted you to care about this for the right reasons, not sympathetic ones.[UPDATE: Thomas Rubick passed away on July 19. He wrote his own obituary beforehand.]✶ ✶ ✶ ✶IV. Ownership
I want to interrupt for a minute and talk to you about ownership.
I live in a rented house, drive rented cars, reserve seats on airplanes for short times, rent hotel rooms for single nights. The tools
and implements and clothes I carry are temporary, I'll only have use of them until they wear out and become useless (or somebody steals them). My job had an expiration date, which I had no control over, and yours does too if you have a boss. The brain and heart and body that are bringing you this long essay are on loan from God.
Take a moment, look around you, think about what is really yours. Chances are that the house you "own" doesn't really belong to you -- too many people have found that out the hard way over the past year, and I hope you're not one of the unfortunate foreclosed-upon. Even if you hold the deed, property can always be snatched away by way of eminent domain. Those items that you surround yourself with, make your time on Earth more tolerable, are yours only for a short time.
You own your feelings, but they're not worth very much on their own. As Chris McCandless wrote in his journal before he died, "Happiness is nothing unless shared." Love is worth precious little if it's not received, and families can be sadly impermanent. You own your faith, but it's worthless in a vacuum, without the similar and shared faith of others to illuminate it. The value of care is increased exponentially when others around you care about the same thing.
When I was hired at ESPN in the summer of 2005, I was asked if I would be willing to make "The Mid-Majority" the title of my column, perhaps even close this site down? I refused. Throughout my nearly four years there, I kept posting on this site every day. Having a place where I was free to create and draw and sing kept me from grousing about the constantly looming censorship, or the cut paragraphs, or editing that more often than not drummed the passion and life out of my writing. I always had TMM, and as a result I always kept my sanity.
Whenever I get an e-mail from somebody who wants me to join their "blog network," or paste the site over with gambling or ticket ads, I become angry and territorial. I tell them in no uncertain terms to fuck off. The Mid-Majority belongs to me, I own it. It is my intellectual property, and nobody is going to take a piece of it for their own selfish uses. If you own something, truly own
something, you know this feeling well. You are just as possessive as I am.
Ask anyone who creates and does
, especially those who use their talents for commercial purposes, and they'll probably use the same types of terms: freedom, ownership, sanity, territory. Thomas Rubick is a painter who gets paid for teaching. Jon Krakauer is a mountain climber who gets paid for writing magazine columns. I was a blogger and cartoonist and web developer who was paid for writing basketball feature stories.
I've spent many unpaid hours each day making sure there was quality work presented in this space, simply because The Mid-Majority is the only thing I truly own. Since I've started, I've lost just about everything else. I haven't cleared a penny from my work here, and the audience isn't nearly as big as it was at the other place --but I've poured five years of my life into this, and it's become my true home. Describing something ethereal and non-geographical in those terms may sound odd, but this really is where I live five months out of the year. And there's no mortgage on it, so it's all mine.
And right now, at this moment, I own something that a lot of people care deeply about. That's why I can't leave, not just yet.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶V. Season 6
Last spring, when Davidson head coach Bob McKillop was charming the corduroy pants off the American sportswriting establishment on his team's path to the Elite Eight, he spoke often about striving for the perfect moment, the beautiful game, the quest for capacity's limit. Even if that pinnacle isn't reached, he said, the struggle to reach that peak is clearly superior to settling for mediocrity. For his team, this year ended up far from the summit -- as has been painfully documented in excruciating detail here, Davidson just didn't have the horses this time.
Every year at the end, there are always regrets here, we always fall short of our own lofty expectations. The writing, though, especially over the past two months, is the most passionate and focused and alive that I've done here -- of that I'm very proud. But, as always, there can always be more cartoons. It was the most difficult season yet, and too many things kept it from being a quest for perfection.
But the biggest folly was to expect a perfect season, and more folly still to rely on it. My idea for a book
completely collapsed because I chose to follow three star-crossed teams that would have ended up producing the most depressing sports book ever. I want to apologize once again to the players, coaches, staff and fans of Southern Illinois, Miami (Oh.) and Northwestern State. I have hours of interviews that I don't have a ready use for, and there are a few angry people because of expectations I'd fostered. Unfortunately, none of those three squads made it past the quarterfinals in their respective conference tourneys.
That, however, is the past. How does one go about creating a perfect season?
One way is to go forward into the past. This is my original book concept
, the one from back in May that came before things got complicated, the recipe was handled by too many cooks, and my publisher went out of business. It went something like this:
There are 343 universities and colleges that compete for the NCAA Division I men's basketball championship every year, but nearly two-thirds of those schools languish in the shadows of the well-moneyed and constantly televised power conferences. For the past five years, I've travelled from coast to coast covering "mid-major" conferences like the Big South, Big Sky and Big West, leagues that are only as "big time" as their exceedingly hopeful titles.
I plan to chronicle my 2009-10 season on the road, as I travel to and between over 100 Division I games. Along the way, we'll stop by hallowed halls like Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse and Penn's Palestra. We'll meet head coaches on the rise, as well as on career declines and rebounds. We'll visit with student section superfans and explore their odd rituals, and reveal heated local rivalries often overlooked by the national media. Invariably, a previously unknown school will leap into the limelight as a surprise nationally-ranked instant powerhouse. We'll discover players who go from unknowns to legends in a single episode of March Madness. And as winter turns to spring, small towns across America will become transformed, as tiny local colleges achieve berths in America's ultimate college sports showcase, the NCAA Tournament.
The real texture to this story of mid-major basketball, however, is provided by its inherent struggle. There will also be trips to run-down, dimly-lit 1,000-seat gymnasiums with empty seats, failed recruiting trips. There will be November "guarantee games," in which power-conference teams exchange five-figure checks for certain beatings, and long 700-mile team bus rides through the night. Players who excel in smaller leagues often have their weaknesses cruelly exposed against higher competition. All of these programs are defined by their relative lack of finances, and struggle to achieve or maintain excellence at the highest level. It's a world where big success becomes bittersweet --larger programs routinely lure away winning coaches with multi-million dollar contracts, reducing the role of mid-major schools to simple stepping stones.
The chronicle will be narrated in an even-handed, philosophical style that's been honed and perfected over three years as a national college basketball reporter. Travelogue-style elements will be woven into the story as I criss-cross the country for five months, driving tens of thousands of miles in pursuit of small college basketball's pulse. In book form, the 2009-10 mid-major college basketball season promises to be a patchwork of hope, faith, expectation, disappointment, pride and heartbreak -- it may end for each team with inevitable elimination, but it's always an interesting journey.
That's what this book should have been, and what this site should be: a 100 Games Project
with insider access. I'm going to take this chance to do it right. If I stopped now, I'd always regret quitting without achieving that perfect season.
But here's the twist: it will be a work in progress as Season 6 goes on, unspooled chapter by chapter as I travel the country, and it will be posted right here on this very site. You all will be my proofreaders: if there are any mistakes, you'll be able to correct me in real-time. At the end of the season, when this is finished, it will be professionally edited, reordered for narrative flow, and all the locker-room secrets that couldn't be leaked during the season (due to competition reasons and such) will be added. Then it will be published. The book is the blog, and the blog is the book.
I will be a character in this, but not the stifling narrator who seeks to make appearances on every page. Like Krakauer, I'll mostly stay in the background, illuminating the proceedings with personal experience. There will be long roads and bad food and truck stops.
We are also moving the capital of Hoops Nation to Indianapolis. It's been a great five-year run, Dayton, and we still think you have the best fans in college basketball. This has nothing to do with what happened Sunday
, I promise. But Indianapolis is home of the Official Hotel and Western HQ
(where this and this
were written and this
was drawn), and of course, Sports Bubble Stadium
. Not to mention the defending No. 1 team in our TS-22 ratings
. It's a rotating capital, other places will get their chance.
All virtual fun aside, the question remains: how are we going to pay for all of this?✶ ✶ ✶ ✶VI. The Whole To-Do of What to Do for Money*
I want to share a letter I received after shortly the donation drive. It's from someone who felt slighted because I didn't have time to send a personal note in return, a feeling that was exacerbated when I posted a scathing critique of the play of his alma mater's basketball team. He took all of this very personally.
I send you some money because I actually felt bad for you and your situation.
You slag [school redacted], you don't return an email nor say thanks for a donation.
I think you suck and I want my money back.
That I couldn't personally thank everyone who donated and wrote in was regrettable. So, too, was the play of this gentleman's favorite team at the end of the season -- its destiny was to lose in the biggest seed-upset in that conference's tourney history. But far more regrettable was the open nature of my request for funds, though at the time and under the circumstances this was the only course of action. The ESPN situation forced my hand.
Trust me, begging is not my preferred way of doing things. It goes against the spirit of the teams that are covered here, the ones that fight for every inch and yard. And, as illustrated above, asking for money over the internet provides no way to filter out those folks who think they're buying positive coverage of their teams, or to stop people from giving for the wrong reasons. Sympathy is a wrong reason. Sympathy is no substitute for real caring.
Most of the $15,000 required to make Season 6 happen will come from partnerships with conferences and their related entities, those with whom The Mid-Majority shares a mutual benefit. It will not be funded by the Sports Bubble or large corporations or mega-things that want my "numbers." The primary goal is to ensure that Season 6 will have as few mid-season surprises as possible.
And some of this operating budget, hopefully up to 25 percent, will be funded by readers. Not by donation drive or bailout or panhandling, but by a method with which there is a clear and present reward. Each contribution will be a real transaction, a purchase, not grants for which return expectations are fluid and gaseous. You have something that I need, and I have something that you want... so let's do business.
If you'd like to be a part of making Season 6 happen, please click on the button below this paragraph or click this link
. All I ask is that you include a short reason why you're doing this in the "Special Instructions" box (just so I know you've thought this through). If you give $100, you will get a Bally
You heard right, no typos there. There are only 28 in existence now, and has been the most ferociously fought-over item since Tickle Me Elmo v1.0, but it's time to flood the market. Do it however you need to do it, pool your money in the dorm, break your piggybank and your brother's too.
The rules are simple: No limit, first-come first-serve, allow one to 10 weeks for delivery (there's hand-sewing involved), and PayPal only (sorry... paper checks are messy). Furthermore, for every $100 you contribute, you will receive one Bally. That means you can fill your kid's room with them if you're rich enough. You hear me, Kyle Korver? Jason Thompson? George Hill?
We fully understand that not everybody has that kind of cash, we're just trying to raise the barrier to entry a little and maintain Bally's rarity, specialness and awesomeness. Some already have an eternally smiling orange friend, and some are just tapped out from the last time we threw PayPal links around.
So there's another option. Thanks to a fantastic idea from No. 1 Bally fan Rod in Asheville, I'm going to compile all the essays from Season 5 (and anything that wasn't time-sensitive yesterday's-news) into a self-published book, which will have a nice cover and nice clean pages thanks to advances in DIY internet publishing. Preorders (to be shipped later this spring) will be $20.Look at me, I'm a published author! Okay, it's not going to have an ISBN or be in the Library of Congress or anything, but I'll sign it if you think that's important. All this is not to say that anything I wrote this year was special enough to read a second time or pay actual money for, or that it is anywhere near as good as next year's chronicle is going to be -- but you might like this stuff better if it's on paper and in chronological order. With bonus material. And edited, with all the mad-dash bloggy typos corrected.
I know there won't be a reason to come back here until November 1, and that's why I'm mentioning this now. You'll forget, I will too, because that's what happens with college basketball when April comes. The summer is on its way now, can you feel it? It's the end, for real this time.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
VII. It Always Ends in a Loss
It always ends in a loss. The only unanswered question at the beginning is where and when it will come. It might arrive with squeaky shoes against silence, in front of thousands of empty seats at a neutral-site league quarterfinal that few care enough to attend. It could happen at the brink of glory in a packed and hot arena, as a conference championship slips through the fingers of a team destined to play out its string as phantoms in an ghosts' exhibition tournament. It can come at the NCAA Tournament, before CBS cameras and a million strangers. The loss will come, you can always count on that.
What I've asked you to do in the last five years has required a leap of faith on your part, and it likely hasn't been an easy one. I've asked you to find meaning in college basketball beyond what you can readily see, beyond brand names and hyphenated labels, the tedious "carousel" and imagined soap-opera personality conflicts between coaches. I've invited you to forsake polls, "bracketology" and disposable underdogs. I've put forward the idea that small-college teams should be judged less on their wins and losses, and more on the valiance of their struggle. In short, I've implored you to care about inevitable failures; most sportswriting celebrates perfect champions, and harshly judges those who fall short. I do not fit in with that world, and never really did.
There will always be more of them than there are of us. The size of our relatively tiny Hoops Nation will always be defined by borders drawn around us by those who don't care, and we will always be surrounded by sheer apathy. But if you've read this far, I've somehow convinced you that you should care, and I don't take the trust between us lightly.
For the time being, though, I have some personal matters to take care of, and I have to find some good medicine to make my head work right again. I have a wonderful African adventure that will change my worldview, and a book to write about a great and wonderful man. In seven months, when these new green leaves outside your window have aged and fallen, when the wind blows cold and the dry trees creak, I will be back with you again.
It always ends with a loss. But there's a caveat, an exception, an asterisk with some fine print so small you need a microscope to read it. College basketball is not like life, thankfully so, because that loss is never terminal. Though it's ruled by the greedy and corrupt, Our Game is not like many other sports, there is no strike or lockout or disruption to fear. There is always another season, just as beautiful as the last, and it's waiting for us on the other side of summer. It seems so far away now, with all these recent losses so fresh and painful, but it will come in time. Our Game always offers another chance... if you dare to take it.
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