Guided By Voices "Dayton Ohio 19 Something and 5"Isn't it great to exist
At this point in time?
DAYTON, Ohio -- Schoolteacher-turned-rocker Robert Pollard, leader of the legendarily little-known and long-departed indie band Guided by Voices
, has written thousands of songs -- literally
. Only a handful of them are about his hometown. He made sure he called the last one "Huffman Prairie Flying Field,"
in honor of the strip of land where his fellow Daytonians, the Wright Brothers, perfected their flying contraption a century earlier.
Throughout its history, Dayton has been the home of plenty of mad geniuses. Charles Kettering
invented the automobile starter and Freon here. Paul Iams
basically created the modern pet food industry out of his garage. Then a guy named Michael Nawrocki
woke up one day and said, "What if I took vegetables, put faces on them, and made them all evangelical Christians?"
Dayton was also the capital of Hoops Nation from 2006 through 2009.
On Monday, the shortest day of the year, I headed east from the current capital of Indianapolis and made sure I arrived in Dayton before it got dark. I took a detour off the interstate and drove slowly down strawberry Philadelphia Drive -- just to say I've done it. It's the kind of road you find out here in any small Midwestern city, where small cornfields, tree groves and open lots melt gently into the asphalt and concrete of Dayton's lower-middle west side, with short one-level houses and flat lawns everywhere.
On days that are longer and warmer and hazier, there might be children in the sprinkler and the smell of fried foods, just like Mr. Pollard sang about once. But it's not likely that's happening in 20 Something and 9. The lawns of Philadelphia Drive was dotted with realty signs, "for sale" and "for rent." During an evening rush hour, there were empty driveways and dark windows.
Like the Randy Newman song
it half-parodies, "Dayton Ohio 19 Something and 5" was written well after its title's time stamp, in 2000. It uses the present tense to describe past events, a literary device that indicates nostalgic longing for a distant, simpler, better time. He's right, it is
kind of a sad song a little bit.
My fondest memories of Dayton are firmly planted in a single building just off Interstate 75, along Edwin Moses Boulevard. I remember the Atlantic 12 tourney in 2004 at the University of Dayton Arena, parking in a nearby neighborhood and running past Wellcome Stadium to make tip... just to avoid paying for parking.
I recall all the Play-In Games, sitting along in the media room until midnight, trying to make sure my stories were just right, making SID Doug Hauschild wait around. (Sorry, Doug.) I think about the long downward ramp that leads from the media entrance to the arena, how the noise and the heat increase with every step. I remember coming to a Dayton Flyers game in February 2006; they were playing Saint Louis and suffering through an abysmal season. Every seat in the arena was filled, and those 13,156 fans cheered as loudly for that 3-7 team just as loudly as they would if they were 7-3.
And I remember what happened a month later. George Mason came into Dayton as a No. 11 seed, a controversial at-large selection from the Colonial Athletic Association. At the media day on Thursday, everybody wanted to talk about what Billy Packer said on TV about them, and had questions about that one guy who punched the Hofstra player in the nuts
during the CAA tourney. But on Friday night, after the Patriots shocked No. 6 seed Michigan State
, everyone switched away from the side stories and back to the team's stellar play.
Two days later, as George Mason fought to kill off No. 3 seed North Carolina in a tense, taut Round of 32 game, I remember sitting on press row as Michael Wilbon blurted out sportz-hype nuggets to anyone who would listen. ("Two Final Four teams, including the National Champions. Would this be the greatest weekend for a low seed... in history?
") I looked the other way, scanning the crowd.
There were the UNC fans in their sickly-pale Tar Heel blue, completely overpowered by the roaring din of a speckled, dotted mass made up of green... and just about every other color. Dayton had adopted the Patriots, and helped lift them to victory
that afternoon. George Mason was on to the Sweet 16, and I swear to this day that they wouldn't have made it without the city behind it. The team should have sent a Final Four ring to City Hall afterwards.
(And I swear to this day that ESPN.com wouldn't have brought me back for a second year if George Mason hadn't made it two steps further in Washington, verifying the importance of the "mid-major thing." When I talk to Jim Larranaga, and it's been too long, I always tell him that I owe him my career. It's not a joke.)
And no other city could properly adopt the sad mutated toe of the NCAA Tournament as its own, the P.I.G.. No other city would bring over 10,000 basketball fans to watch an eliminator between the NEC and the SWAC. The city loves basketball for basketball's sake. You don't need to hype it up or sell it, they will be there. Dayton will show up.
On Monday night, here in late 2009, every seat in the UD Arena was full again to see the hometown Dayton Flyers play a game most fans would consider meaningless -- a winter-break tilt against Appalachian State, a team destined for Southern Conference mediocrity. But the crowd cheered as if the visiting Mountaineers, in their imposing black uniforms, were the favored team. The arena exploded with joy at each UD hoop, and exploded in anger at every official's call that went the other way. Even as the Flyers pulled away late, there was only a trickle of outbound traffic as the final minutes ticked away.
Then, after the game, a couple thousand people stuck around for the postgame radio coach-talk show, broadcast over the public address speakers. When Brian Gregory bounded out of the locker room, down the long ramp and towards the court, there was a burst of sustained applause for the winning coach, a mini-standing ovation. For a coach's show.
"What is with
these people?" I said out loud, to nobody in particular.
I made it back to headquarters in Indianapolis -- a 110-mile trek -- and drove right back again on Tuesday night. The Nutter Center is east of the city in Fairborn, close to Huffman Prairie, and is the home of Wright State, which made it to the NCAA Tournament in 2007 out of the Horizon League.
The arena resembles a large airport hangar from the inside, its walls covered with giant banners. Everybody feels small when entering the Nutter, and the arena is capable of swallowing up even the largest turnouts. The Raiders drew reasonably well for its holiday week matchup against Arkansas-Little Rock of the Sun Belt, but the absence of the break-bound students kept the crowd down somewhat.
I was seated next to John Ross, who started the Wright State basketball program in the late 1960's, and who coached there for the team's first six seasons of existence. As the Raiders jumped out to a 21-1 lead and proceeded to decimate the visiting black-clads (not nearly as imposing as App State), it was hard to focus on the game. All evening long, a long line of people muscled me aside to get some time with Coach Ross, all paying their respects. On this night, I was merely an extra in Basketball Godfather
"What is with
these people?" I mumbled under my breath.
This is the South Park Tavern, where Daytonians get together every March, review the rosters and stats of the Play-In Game participant teams, and pick their favorites. The SPT is where those "DAYTON FANS SAY: GO #64
SEED" and "GO #65
SEED" signs come from, the ones that have been so prominently featured in ESPN's P.I.G. telecasts over the years. On the other side, there's a hopeful message of encouragement for the victors as they prepare for the battle with the overall top seed, the No. 1 of No. 1's, three days later. In 2009, the message read "BURY LOUISVILLE," with instructions to hold it up only when the game was decided.
It's an experience I chronicled for ESPN.com three seasons ago
. During the game, I sat with SPT owner Bill Daniels, a man who was inspired by John Feinstein's The Last Amateurs
and the fighting spirit of the teams that came to Dayton for the first few editions of the P.I.G., schools like Northwestern State, Winthrop, UNC Asheville and Texas Southern.
"This is where March Madness starts," he told me. "No other place can say that. If the other towns knew that we had an NCAA Tournament game with 8-dollar tickets, where you could afford to take your kids and have a great time, they'd be green with envy. Every year, we get to host two teams full of players who love basketball and just play their hearts out."
Before I left Dayton on Tuesday night, I drove from the Nutter Center along US 35, then into the grid of old streets, into the dimly-lit South Park neighborhood. There are so few streetlights there that you can hardly see your shoes as you're walking on the sidewalks. But in the stillness of the western Ohio night, there it was -- that tiny sign promising handcrafted pizza.
It was dark inside as well, lit by low-watt light bulbs, neon beer signs and Christmas lights. There was an empty stage on one end, some signed hockey jerseys on the walls. There was no hint of basketball legacy, save for the California-Kansas game flickering on the TV over the bar, a game that nobody was watching. The inhabitants skewed mid-30's, an aging hipster crowd (one guy was wearing an old GBV t-shirt) chattering easily over pizza pies and pitchers. The conversations spilled out across tables; everyone knew each other. Bill wasn't around.
I did what I could to blend in, in my pinstripe suit. I pulled up to the bar, and bought a beer -- my first in almost 11 months. I asked to see a menu, and it was practically thrown in my face. Ten minutes later, after I'd choked down the cold brew, a female bartender took my order without making eye contact. Thirty minutes later, my salad and calzone arrived. Shortly thereafter, I asked for the check. Without looking at me, she went and poured another beer.
"No," I said, shaking my head demonstratively from side to side. "I wanted a check."
She looked at me. It was a look of pure sneering disgust, the kind I remember from fast-failing relationships. "I thought you said you wanted another one."
You can choose to be offended by poor service, take it personally. You can cavil about the clear onomatopoeiatic differences between "check" and "another one." Or you can smile, tip 25 percent, and later try to understand it. I was out of context, in the right place and three months removed from the right time. I was somewhere I didn't belong.
As I drove back to Indianapolis in the dead of night, back towards my warm bed at the CPIA, I thought about Dayton and its identity as a place. I wondered what any of my recent experiences there had to do with each other. I tried to figure out how a place that cheered on the efforts of outsiders so passionately could also be allergic to others from elsewhere.
People are leaving*
. Dayton's population since 19 Something and 5 has steadily declined
. At each census since 1970, the city has lost people since the previous one. From a high of 262,000 in 1960, the current estimated population is around 155,000.Forbes
magazine recently called Dayton one of America's emptiest cities
. The majority of the students at UD and Wright will take what they've learned to other places. The players on the teams they cheer for will go away too. And while the Rust Belt manufacturing and hard industries continue to die away, there is no knowledge economy that can spring up in their place. The Gem City is crushed on all four sides by Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Columbus, metropolitan areas with pro teams and international airports.
For smart people who don't or can't leave a fading city, isolation drills might lead to bitterness, or a mistrust of outsiders. Pent-up energy could be released in other ways, like bursts of mad genius. It might unleash a thousand rock and roll songs. It might congeal in the community, and form a defiant aesthetic that permeates the area.
Three years ago, I asked Bill Daniels why Dayton loves college basketball so much.
He just shrugged. "It's really all we've got," he said.
In a lot of the towns and small cities I go to that are basketball-mad, I'll get a similar response to that question, but in those cases it's a literal answer. There really is nothing to do in many Hoops Nation outposts during winter nights, except go to basketball games. But now, I better comprehend the significance of what Bill said.
Underdog politics are more complicated than many make them out to be. Not everything fits into the stock David-Goliath template, a small thing against a large and powerful oppressor. When Dayton embraces its Flyers or its Raiders, or the MEAC champions or George Mason, it does so from a deep, soul-level understanding of what it means to be small. Because yesterday it was bigger than it is today, and it will be smaller tomorrow.
Everybody in Dayton knows it. Each of them, from the lifelong Flyer season ticket-holder in Section 105, to the frustrated and overeducated hipster, to the remaining homeowners on Philadelphia Drive, is aware of what's happening. They know there's nothing they can do about it, except to be caught in the tragedy of being in love with a place that's shrinking every day. And, perhaps, to channel that exasperation into a sports metaphor in fixed context, and cheer on the underdogs with ravenous passion that's unmatched anywhere else.
When you recognize that things that are small can become smaller, can fall away and dissipate, that engenders urgency. To the two as-yet-unnamed small schools from small conferences that will come to Dayton on March 13, 2010 for yet another Play-In Game, both possessing a rare opportunity to play beyond its size, a city awaits your inspiration.