PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- This was going to be the day. Conditions could not have been more perfect. The Bryant Bulldogs, 0-21 on the season, had the struggling Monmouth Hawks right where they wanted them -- on the ropes. The newest member of the Northeast Conference sprung out to a 15-5 lead on the four-time league champions, a screaming cadre of fans behind them, and kept the visitors at bay with timely 3-pointers and breakaway layups. But after 32 minutes, everything collapsed.
In a single minute, a two-point lead became a three-point deficit, and everybody in the building knew it was over. The homestanding Bulldogs were panicking, forcing up wild shots for the rest of the afternoon, and the buzzer split both ears and hearts. Monmouth 50, Bryant 46
. A 22nd loss in a row to start the season.
I've been fascinated by bad basketball for a long time, and I've seen my share over the past six years. Teams never look terrible in snapshot
-- players on the 0-29 NJIT team two years ago were mostly taller than me and wore nice clean uniforms -- and it usually takes 40 minutes of game action to really see bad unfold. The difference between a horrible 340 RPI team and a mediocre 250 RPI team is usually around 10 points-for per game and a 12-2 run the other way; the degrees of separation are generally quite subtle.
But walking out of the Chace Athletic Center on Saturday, I was keenly aware that I'd witnessed something different. The Bryant Bulldogs suck. I mean, they actually, truly suck
. There's no way around it, and I knew couldn't describe this team any other way. It was a sharp, hard mental reaction; those four huge letters were the only thing on my mindscreen. As I drove along the inner loop that encircles the city of Providence, on my way to see another bad team -- the 1-14 Pennsylvania Quakers of the Ivy League -- I tried to figure out why. I attempted to unravel the true nature of suck, which is something you can do against the background of Division I basketball.
Does Penn suck? There's a legacy decades long, with Final Fours and deep NCAA runs. The Quakers have rafters full of banners at the Palestra
. The head coach who led the team to most of the recent ones left for a more prestigious job (which he's definitely not sucking at
), but the new hire from the Ivy's minor leagues ran the program into the ground. There's something that sucks in this timeline, and it's been removed
Now, the goal of the 2009-10 version of Penn basketball is to survive the season with enough players to play games, and possibly to split the series with Princeton for pride's sake. Penn is like you and me -- just trying to make it through the day.
That doesn't suck. The humble struggle for survival against odds triggers compassion, does it not? At the very least, it's so ordinary that it doesn't inspire any reaction or response at all. But when a lofty goal is introduced, a higher purpose, everything changes.
Whelliston's General Theory of Suck includes a protagonist, a high target, and a face-flattening performance failure in between the two. When a head coach comes in at media day and pronounces that his team is going to run the league and go all the way to the Sweet 16, then ends up 4-12, that's suckage in action. And it's funny, too. Schadenfreude
is delight in the misfortune
of others, because we are wired to laugh at people and entities that reach for the stars ("look at meeee!") and end up seeing them.
But those who generally point and laugh are usually the ones without any ambition themselves, and they have every right to do what they do. Pointing out suck, however, creates a general chilling effect on others (as well as themselves), which only serves to stifle attempts at creativity and grandeur. That doesn't move the world forward at all, or help rid the universe of suck. It's like masturbation in public, which is just gross.
Suck requires failure in context. The UFL
sucks as an American-Style Football league. Ishtar
sucked as an epic comedy film. Mac and Me
sucked as a mainstream kidz sci-fi movie. Rocky
was horrible, but it didn't suck. Suck is never subjective. When I first heard "Poker Face"
by Lady Gaga, I thought, "Wow, that song really sucks.
" Then I realized that it really didn't. It was very effective at achieving its initially stated goal, which was to be a pop tune that sells millions of downloads and ringtones. It's annoying and bland and manufactured, and I don't like it, but it's already done its job -- it has everybody's attention and money.
Some may believe that I'm simply getting suck mixed up with fail
. I think they're synonyms. I also believe that in five years, nobody will be saying "fail" anymore, because it only works on the Internet. Try saying it out loud; it only makes you sound snooty and wimpy. That's why you have to dangle "epic" off the beginning of it, because hard consonants are required to really cut things down... and I am not fucking kidding about that. "Suck" has lasted an entire generation, and it will continue to fill an important linguistic cubbyhole. In some corners of Hoops Nation, it's even in the National Anthem
Suck is the little engine that couldn't. Suck is "I can handle that," and then... suck. Suck is the world-changing idea that collapses under its own pretense. I saw a lot of suck in the late Nineties as a software developer, when shady entrepreneurs were first trying to figure out how to take people's money through the web. Suck is if I tried to do something like, say, TV play-by-play. I don't have the training, the voice, or the ability to say intelligent things without pondering first. That would be hilariously funny to a lot of people on a lot of couches.
Bryant ran the Northeast-10 Conference for decades -- the banners at their gym are reminders of multiple Sweet 16 seasons and hundreds of wins at the D-II level. In 2007, the century-and-a-half-old school decided to take on the burden of Division I athletics. For an institution that was on the brink of total collapse 20 years ago, with giant deficits and empty dormitories and dusty classrooms, it was probably more of a point of pride than anything else. The administration hired local Tim O'Shea, who'd had some success out at Ohio, as their first D-I head coach.
Perhaps there's a fourth dimension to all of this sucking business too -- namely, time -- and Bryant will be good someday. NJIT is 7-13 this season, including 0-2 in the Great West Conference. The Highlanders are just another among the hundreds of mediocre teams, instead of a sucky program singin' the blues
. And good for them.
But the Bulldogs aren't getting good, not anytime soon. Since moving to the top flight, Bryant's men's basketball team is all of 8-43. It's barely even watchable ball, as evidenced by the sprinklings of a crowd inside a building that used to sell out for Merrimack and Saint Anselm. The style the Bulldogs play is "shoot 3's, ask questions later." I know how nice the school and campus are, and I have friends who are alumni there, but the basketball team sucks. It claims to be a Division I basketball program, and it's not. It's a punchline.
Later that night, I watched Penn scrap and claw -- mostly in vain -- against Brown. The news came in that Alcorn State of the SWAC also became 0-22, after losing at Southern University 84-75
. The SWAC went Division I in the late, expansion-crazy Seventies; most of the people who made those decisions are retired or dead now. And Alcorn has a legacy that gets hidden under more dust every year -- Davey Whitney's teams were big and muscular in the Eighties, and actually won three NCAA games. That history might disappear forever if the three HBCU's in the state of Mississippi are merged.
So you can't make fun of that. Alcorn State is simply a bad basketball team with severely limited ambition. I've seen them play, and it's barely even basketball -- more like five guys in matching yellow and purple shirts. Maybe The Braves would make a better doo-wop group than a hoop squad. Who knows.
And then it was down to the wire. Penn was down 54-53, driving the length of the floor with just a few ticks left. Zack Rosen, ghost hunter
, ran up the court and passed the ball to Zack Gordon, who put up a bad shot. The ball tumbled into the hands of Dan Monckton, who laid it up just as fast as he could. The red lamp behind the backboard bathed his hands in a soft pinkish glow as he released it. Kevin Quirk, a referee standing 40 feet away, hesitated for two seconds, and then made a demonstrative two-fingered dipping gesture to indicate that the shot was good. Penn won their second game of the year, and wisely ran off the floor before anybody could excavate the tapes from the scouting cameras.
Mr. Quirk is a fine gent, I'm sure, and there's something he does for a living. It's not call Division I basketball games, because he's only worked six of them this year
-- that won't feed a family. Still, he fancies himself a capable official, because he showed up for the game and put on a striped shirt. But I've done the work, I've fashioned my own independent theoretical research, and I know suck when I see it.