INDIANAPOLIS, April 5 -- One hour after the end of the Closing Ceremony of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, I re-entered the United States via the Peace Bridge border crossing. I was shaking and crying. As I made my way down Interstate 5 in Washington State, I made an emotional pact with myself that I'd start living my life better. For two weeks, Canada had brought out the best of me, an innate compassion and empathy that America never seemed to allow. A few phone calls home had been clear warnings; I was heading back to a country where nearly everybody acts as a false center of the universe. I pledged to be different, turn the tide in some small way, and I would try my best to lead by example.
There were two days of return culture-clash, when our everyday decadence and indulgence appalled me to the point of sickness. But then, suddenly, I forgot about all those lofty and tearful promises. My heart hardened again, and I built my defenses back up. After three days back in the U.S.A., I was swearing too much, acting rude towards strangers, and being overly suspicious of people's motives. For two glorious weeks, though, I was able to play-act like a Canadian. Lying in wait, however, was the real me, barely beneath the surface. He was just itching to get back to its normal habitat.
My broken Olympic oath isn't some sort of unique experience, not by any means. I go through similar inter-reality friction whenever I return home from a trip to South America, and I'm pretty sure that any adventurer or vacationer knows what this is like, the hope against hope that just a little piece of the extraordinary will carry back over into everyday life. (Recall that moment in Lost in Translation
when Bill Murray's character is in his hotel room, on the phone with his aloof wife, telling her he wants to eat healthier when he returns home. "Like Japanese food.") We try to hold on to the different
as long as possible, but the same
is simply too powerful.
The same is who you are and where you come from. The same will always find you, no matter how far you run, however long you think you can last. The patterns that define you are inescapable and will outlast the temporarily different. Even through resolutions and diets, third weddings and fifth religious choices, the same is still deep inside. All of the persistent reminders of one's slow construction are there, embedded in deep memory, and we'll never be able to completely scrub them out... no matter how hard we try. The designs of our lives are indelible.
Inertia is a difficult concept to convey in narrative form. Movies and novels are far more effective in telling tales of transformation and change, since the beginning and the end are always so close together. To truly capture inertia requires a grander long-form sweep, the type that's found in our new century's cinema-quality pay-television series. Over a span of many years, 13 episodes at a time, those with sufficient attention spans can follow characters like Tony Soprano and Don Draper and Bill Henrickson. Viewers can see exactly how stuck in their ways they are.
This is not a message that most people necessarily seek out willingly, this sad idea that our souls are trapped in cages. We're more likely to gravitate towards "inspirational" or "uplifting" messages, instead of mnemonic symbols of our tendency to repeat bad patterns. We get plenty of reminders of this dynamic in real life. Two years ago, we thought we were coming together to change America; we had hope that it would stick. But many of us have reverted to our apathy and inaction.
But we all hold hidden stores of hope for change, even if we don't really have the power to bring it about. Cynicism cannot exist in a vacuum; it is the anger of the broken heart, a defense against the emptiness left by death of hope. Cynics are the ex-dreamers who have realized that change is not under our control, and that the distance between hope and change is an unmeasurable void. Change is what happens to us.
Our Game has always unfolded slowly from season to season, five months at a time. The narrative path of each of the 6,739 Division I basketball players who appeared in games during 2009-10 is similar; each is an ongoing story of hope for change. The job of a coach is to transform young men from imperfect freshmen into well-rounded seniors, to build up their minds and bodies into instruments that can best assist the greater whole. (Hopefully, these lessons will serve them well later, when everybody isn't wearing numbered and colored shirts.) College basketball journalism represents a chronicle of this process; every feature article ever written has either been about hopes met or unmet, or small changes towards a greater one. There are absolutely no exceptions to this.
This sport that we love is also a curious study in stasis. When coaches stop coaching, and when players stop playing, the default is failure and irrelevance. Our Game penalizes those that come up short more than it rewards those who work hard. There is an invisible force pushing downward; teams, players and coaches spend every day fighting and struggling up against it, recruiting and planning and practicing to the best of their abilities and resources. But those that pause or falter are punished severely and viciously. This strange force, whatever it is, wants you to lose.
One hour after the end of the National Championship game of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, I left Indianapolis, the capital city of Hoops Nation. I drove north towards Chicago on Interstate 65, back towards a flight that would take me back to my offseason home in Rhode Island. As I passed through Lafayette, a message buzzed in on my phone. This is what it said:
I'm trying to come up with words to say how I feel. So proud of my Dawgs. Yet... I hear all the neutral fans say how disappointed they were that we couldn't pull it out at the end. I imagine how the world would be if that half-court shot (or the one before it) had gone in. It would have been.... perfect. It's not now. And I don't know if it will ever be that close again. It was almost Hoosiers. It almost didn't end in a loss. They almost won this one for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here. But they didn't. Please tell me they can try again next year?
It always ends in a loss. But this moment, right now, is a new beginning. It is the renewal of hope that things will finally change.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶II. Here's Where The Story Ends
With Butler's loss and national runner-up status, thus ends the sixth season of The Mid-Majority. Whether it was the best of the six, or just another one in a strange and twisted line, that's not for me to decide. Your opinion might have a lot to do with when you first came on this ride, whether you have the perspective of the entire scope of site history, or if this is has been a strange new way to experience a college basketball season.
Back in November, I claimed that everything's different now
, but here at the end, it turns out that just about everything's the same. We're back to where we started, in a big obsolete airport hotel with no airport
. It's just me -- president, CEO, and head floor-sweeper -- along with my faithful stuffed basketball.
Season 6 certainly wasn't the perfect year we've aimed for since 2004. It's been the most eventful, and also the most experimental. There have been plenty of misses, busted plans, bad decisions and wrong turns, as well as sharp and decidedly negative reactions to certain attempts to change. We've had to correct course. But this is really the second true season, the first after four entangled in the Sports Bubble. The corporate money, the Mickey Mouse logo checks, are gone. Five years ago, I got my "big break" and wrote for the Worldwide Leader
, and what followed were four years worth of anger and wreckage and ill health. I never want to go back. And now that The Mid-Majority is its own independent entity again, it almost feels as though those years didn't happen at all.
As for me, I am fine, and I appreciate all of the ongoing concern. My health not as good as it should be -- my heart pounds too hard sometimes and stutters a bit, but it's nothing compared to the health hell I went through in 2008-09. Season 5 was full of uncertainty,
so much so that the future hinged on what amounted to a coin flip. Between my inner ear infections, my seizures and my divorce, I didn't know if I could continue doing this, especially on a zero-sum non-profit basis. But my crazy dream came true: you, the readers, came up with over $15,500 to keep this shoestring operation on the road for most of the site's sixth season. That we are all here together, at the very end, is thanks to all of you.
Thanks to everybody who joined the Bally Club and remain proud card-carrying members. Thanks to each person who bought the last of the 100 original Ballys
, and the limited edition Butler-themed FYNNAL FOR BALLZ
. Thanks to all of you who bought Sports Bubble Blues
, proceeds of which made up just under half of our Season 6 operating budget. Thanks, also, to all those who purchased the children's book Beth Cosgrave and I wrote, Bally's Dream
. (Extra-special thanks to all who sent in pictures of their kids enjoying it!)
The ride has been full of adventure, fun and wonder. It began on November 1 at 2 a.m. Eastern Standard, at the beginning of a repeated hour. We shared a moment via social media, as we all counted down to the start of another eight-day Essay Season
. There were many thousands of words -- after seven months away, there always are. We gave out Certificates of Investment
, spoke about sportz
, that teenage feeling
and the old ways
. Out on the road, there was hope
and hoops overload
. I visited strange and incredible places like Spartanburg
and New York
and saw the pink houses of Edwardsville
. We told Valley stories.
Along the way, I did work: I ran my record as a Division I assistant coach
to 2-0, I toiled as an assistant SID
and a stat crew spotter
, joined the Northeastern band
as a kazoo player, and helped clean
the Cathedral of College Basketball, the Palestra. And yes, I also spent a haunted night there
I didn't make it to 100 games this time around, but 85 instead. (It was an Olympic year, after all.) When I went off to Vancouver for the Winter Games, certified basketball genius John Gasaway
pinch-hit, and gave a mid-major NCAA Tournament team a free scouting report. And we turned over the floor to impassioned fans, who wrote wonderful My School
essays. I came back in time for Championship Fortnight
, the best two weeks on our calendar
, and the creation of the bracket
. I asked you not to fill it out
, and some of you didn't. We had an As-You-Go
Bracket Contest, an explosion of sub-Red Line creativity and resourcefulness. We attended the most honest game in college basketball with our friends
. We got five into the Sweet 16 (Northern Iowa
and Saint Mary's
. Only one of them survived that round, but Butler came home
to the capital city. So did we.
We finally did that Tom Petty tribute
that we've owed you for years. We interviewed longtime hero Tim Capstraw
, CBS' Seth Davis
the David Worlock
from the NCAA, and yes
, the Zooperstars guy.
There were roundtable symposiums about floor storming
(second annual, that) and the SMAC RAP hit of the decade
. Speaking of "Too Big Yo,"
we were proud to be the perchance conduit that kept the phenomenon alive.
We had fun, didn't we? The most fun in Mid-Majority history, thanks to the Twittertron
and regular chats
and the new Bally Club message board
, which featured fun games and Bally Pick Em. There was the first-ever ALL CAPS GAME
, and February 3 was National pixelvision
Day. I played Last Man
again, and almost won. (Zaninovich.)
We finally had a full set of 10 cartoons
, and a complete story arc that ended with Bally's ultimate Thumb Bowl victory over the evil Footbally.
What a year it's been.
Season 6 would have ended abruptly if it wasn't for our direct donors. I'd like to personally and specifically thank all those who generously donated amounts large and small just because they wanted to read the site. Alexander Power, Kenneth Bethune, David Mihm, Jarin Hawkins, Jeff Grubb, Travis Mason-Bushman, Kevin Prigge, Zach Brown, Frank Vitale, Nick Catrambone, Matthew Giraitis, Byron McKim, Raymond Truesdell, Jen Ahearn, Stephen Gentle, Jeff Pojanowski, Brian Mull, Alex Keil, Gary Moore, Marco Anskis, Chris Palmer, Todd Falkenberg, Michael Miller, Afi Ahmadi, Paul Hampson, Robert Vidal, Marty Mathieson, Andrew Stern, Adam Gibson, Garry Drake, Corey Schmidt, Mark Spenik, Darin Keener, Ty Patton, Erik Nell, Jeff Grubb, David Schmidt, Anthony Slosser, DeMont McNeil, Charles Cochrum, Michael Schafer, Tim Burke, Andrew Bolte, Devin Moeller, Matthew Restivo, Gary Price Jr., Timothy Gaige, John Willmott and Rhett Butler. This season would have been less satisfying if not for the specific and timely donations of several of our longtime supporters. Michael Brodsky donated frequent flier miles to get me to Houston for the South Regional. Kevin Heaslip did the same a week later, using miles to get me back to Indianapolis for the Final Four on two days' notice. Special thanks to Tom Burnett and the Southland Conference, who made sure that I was able to experience the Final Four firsthand. And, of course, thanks to the mysterious and alluring T.F., who sent me to Vancouver for the Olympics. I am very blessed and lucky to have friends like all of you.
We end Season 6 $725 in the black. Approximately $650 of that will go towards sending the champion of our As-You-Go Bracket Contest
, Garrett "Army Men" Wheeler, from Utah to Indianapolis for the Season 7 Symposium that will take place at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport from September 30 through October 2. In keeping with our zero-sum spirit, we're closing the books by adding the remaining $125 to 10 percent of the proceeds for Bally's Dream
and 100 percent of revenues from the Season 6 t-shirts (still available)
. Later this summer, when all the affiliate checks clear, we'll be presenting a check for $847 to the official charity of The Mid-Majority, Peru Children's Charity
. In Peru, 51 percent of the nation's wealth is distributed to the top 20 percent, and the average annual income nationwide is around $2,500 US, and I know from personal experience that this will help. Thank you, and you should be proud.
But what now? This is an experiment in online media and creative subsidy. We have no map to follow, no clear path to pursue. That's why we make so many mistakes, and they're all recorded here in the hopes that those after us can learn from them. The fundraising efforts were ultimately successful, but such a reliance on donations is unsustainable and dangerous. When the cash runs out, when generosity falls short, we could be stranded out on the road, just like we almost were in 2009 by ESPN.com.
Things have to change in the name of staying the same, and it's time to lay down the blueprints for the next six years of The Mid-Majority.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶III. Thermometer Mentality
A bulb thermometer uses colored alcohol, or sometimes mercury, to offer an approximation of your relationship to the air around you. Its straight, up-down simplicity allows the thermometer to act as an all-purpose metaphor for things that have nothing to do with its primary use. For instance, you can use the device to show how much money you need. Those thermometers only go in one direction: hotter and hotter.
All during November and December, I talked too much about all the bad things that were going to happen if we didn't raise enough money to make it through Season 6. A shutdown over New Year's, goodbye forever, guilt and shame everywhere. It was uncomfortable. I haven't made a single penny off this site, and fundraising has always been an exercise in covering operating expenses. But this felt like a shakedown. If it was too much, I'm sorry. I tried to be subtle.
This operation will always need the same thing every year: approximately $15,000 to cover travel expenses. That breaks down to around $750 per week, and just over half of that is lodging alone. There has to be a way to do that without interrupting the beautiful season
with commercial breaks.
The only way to do that is to throw out the thermometer altogether, all the old plans
, and fix the focus on the actual amount available... not an unmet budget number. We have to remove the word need
from the equation, and to make do with what we have on hand. We have Robots to give you basic information, and they're getting better and better, and will speak more and more English in the future. But from here on out, The Mid-Majority will be exactly as good as you want
it to be.
If we do not raise enough funds to travel, I'll simply stay home and watch games on pixelvision with you. At the beginning of every month, I will calibrate my schedule to the available funds, and purchase rental cars and plane tickets accordingly. My preference is that I stay out on the road and relay my adventures, but in a logic-driven supply-and-demand world, you don't always get what you want. So I rescind the right to complain, in perpetuity. TMM will age gracefully, and will not have its Game Over moment in a train station somewhere, penniless and without clean underwear. Instead, the natural progression will occur whereby I end up broken and old, abandoned by each and every one of my alienated readers, babbling incomprehensibly into a 15th-generation iPad. That, right there, will be the signal that it's time to go.
That, of course, doesn't mean we're not going to try like hell to raise as much money as possible. Beginning right here and now, there will be a new and more passive type of fundraising. We are switching to a "club" model, in which participants buy in on an annual basis and receive membership rewards throughout the course of that year. For our purposes, that year is a fiscal year, and the name of the first one is Season 7.
This is how we will operate from here on out.
Every summer, you will receive a book containing the essays, cartoons and various ephemera from the previous season. The compendium book of Season 6, One Beautiful Season, will be released in July. It will include several new pieces, all the things I was never able to finish. There will be the wide-ranging recap of Butler's season, a recap of the National Championship game, as well as a story of the CPIA's temporary renaissance when the Final Four came to town. It will be published by Flat Roof Press and will be just as beautifully designed as Sports Bubble Blues was, if not more so. In September, it will be separately available for $19.99 from finer online retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.).
In October, you'll receive the official t-shirt with the logo and slogan of the upcoming season. Our Season 6 colors were dried blood, gold and white, and our logo (designed by Roni Lagin) was a symbol of a revolution that already happened, and the challenges of living in a context after change. Season 7 will be slate blue, black and grey, and you'll be seeing a lot of our new "stars" motif after November 1. Every conference is a constellation, and some stars burn brighter than others.
In December, you'll get a special holiday surprise from Bally. These will be just like those classic Beatles fan club packages, but better.
You will also receive a complimentary Basketball State subscription for one calendar year, so you can actually click on all the links we put up on TMM every day. If you are an existing subscriber, your account will be extended by one calendar year.
Everyone who signs up gets a Bally Club card for that season, with a code that grants access to the message board and secret features. Just as with the Season 6 card, it will have a list of all of our teams on the back. Membership numbers will carry over. (If you don't want the full membership package, you can still sign up for the 2010-11 Bally Club for $7.)
Annual membership packages will be $100 each. New members over the course of the year will receive all items previously sent to existing members, and therefore will not receive a pro-rated price. You can sign up with the form below; please make sure you specify your t-shirt size.
Our margin on each package will be approximately $70, which will go to the travel budget. Not quite the 400 percent markup on a can of Coke, but we do what we can.
To achieve full travel status, we will need to sell 200 memberships per season. With a total daily readership of approximately 6,000, that amounts to one sale per every 50 readers. Two percent of the audience supporting the site, keeping it free for the other 98 percent. That, to me, is a much more logical and sound financial construct than that of the major television networks, who are counting on the idea that there will be enough sugar-water companies interested in buying up billions of dollars in sports ad space. Our new model is 100 percent bubble free, infinitely sustainable, and will guarantee Season 7, Season 8, Season 9 and on into the future. The depth and richness of the content is in your hands.
There will be those who want to offer more than $100; lucky for us, there always are. Instead of donations, I'd ask that you sponsor the memberships of college kids who can't afford the full price. If you personally know one, just fill out the membership form on their behalf. If you'd rather be a benefactor, simply order more than one membership and add any special instructions on the school, geographic region or major of student(s) you'd like to sponsor in the corresponding text box.
Anybody who wants to enter this new TMM Scholarship Program can send us a message through The Form�. Schollie memberships will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
In light of overwhelming response, and in the interest of fairness, we've set up this form for scholarship applicants. Just let us know where you go to school, what your major is, and a little about yourself. You might even get a new career mentor out of it! Please note that you must be in or entering college at the time you fill the form out (that is, June graduates and August matriculators welcome). We're just trying to make this as fair -- and fun -- as possible.
This is our final post until November 1, when Essay Season will begin again, and we will embark on our seventh trip through the wonderful world below the Red Line. In the interim, before you go away for the summer, please sign up for the official Season 7 mailing list. You'll receive updates on our Season 7 Symposium (Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport, September 30-October 2), the release and availability of One Beautiful Season, and periodic and non-intrusive news like the t-shirt design unveiling and an alert as to when your new Bally Club cards are on their way.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
IV. Gonzaga, Xavier, and New Friends
The Red Line is straight and heavy and immovable. It's our rule of law, the one we set up long ago, and changing it now would require re-calibrating the past. This, though, is a fact: teams in conferences with an average athletic budget of $20 million or greater, and an average men's basketball budget of over $2 million, dominate teams in leagues meeting neither or only one of those criteria. In 2008-09, those below the Red Line won 118 of 865 line-crossing games (13.6 percent). This season, it went up to 157 of 909 (17.3 percent). There was definite and marked improvement in 2009-10, but it's still far from even. The leagues with superior resources still dominate Our Game.
The Line doesn't change, but the amount of money that schools spend on sports does. Division I schools (except service academies) are required to file full reports with the Office of Postsecondary Education every year, and a static Red Line allows us to study the trends and shifts in college athletics. And these strange economic times are reflected in the most recent numbers.
None of these measurements are precise, of course, and the numbers are about as accurate as those on any tax return. We make our own subjective adjustments, too. Since we've started using the Red Line, we've removed Gonzaga from the calculations, both in budget averages and with the "Red Line Upsets" we track so meticulously in November, December and March. Gonzaga merits special consideration because its ability to completely transcend this mid-major discussion. In the late 1990's and early 2000's, the Zags rattled off a series of deep NCAA runs, and broke the Pacific Northwest recruiting market free from the area's Pac-10 teams. If you take Gonzaga out of the West Coast Conference's budget averages, the numbers don't move that much -- that the school is able to do so much more, with as much, is truly and endlessly remarkable.
Gonzaga earned the respect and support of ESPN (which puts most of the games on its channels all winter), and Nike (which puts its apparel in stores coast to coast) as well. The school leveraged that success into a beautiful glass and steel building, which I was finally able to visit this year. It's an established and powerful basketball brand name, with tens of thousands of fans all around the country -- many of whom have never set foot in Spokane. No other team in the WCC, or south of the Red Line, enjoys advantages like this. The Gonzaga Bulldog is, unquestionably, a different animal.
Though it's a humanoid mascot, the Xavier Musketeer is a breed apart as well. X spends a lot more on men's hoops than Gonzaga does ($4 million to $3m), but the secret is in the percentages. As we discussed during Sweet 16 week, a full 30 percent of the school's athletic budget goes to this single program -- private jets, high salaries, and red carpets for recruits. It's all paid off in annual appearances in the NCAA Tournament's second weekend, as well as with a trickle-down effect that's transformed other sports, like the Sweet 16 women's team.
Xavier has touched off a paper chase in the Atlantic 14 Conference, as other teams attempt to emulate its spending pattern, as well as, they hope, its success. While the leaguewide average athletic budget has dropped slightly over the past three years, men's basketball spending has increased from $2.4 million in 2007 to $2.7m last year. The biggest increases, for future reference, have been at Massachusetts and Saint Joseph's.
The Atlantic 14 was the only Red Line "straddler" two seasons ago -- that is to say, its schools spent more than $2 million on men's hoops on average, but average less than $20 million overall. In 2008, the Missouri Valley replicated the same split -- its basketball number rose from $1.9 million to $2.1m, and its average overalls remained under $13 million. But when the 2009 numbers came out in January, there were two more: the MAC's overall number rose from $19.9m to $20.6m, and the WAC's spending went from $19.9m to $20.7m. Both increases were due to American-Style Football; both conferences remain below the Red Line because their basketball spending remains low.
Actually, okay, make that five leagues. Conference USA, the tattered shreds of multiple conference fractures over the past two decades, is a power league that never really felt at home among the big boys. It's a football conference, for one thing, and for a generation there's been a single dominant program. The reason why Memphis has lorded over C-USA for so long is because of this very topic: money, and lots of it. The Tigers expend over $6 million per annum on men's basketball, and there are many combinations among the other 11 teams with which you could fit three hoops budgets inside that of Memphis.
And when you remove Memphis, as we've done with Gonzaga all along, something magical happens. The average men's basketball budget of Conference USA, for the first time in the TMM era, is below the Red Line. The overall average of the over 11 is still up at $26 million, but the economy has hit this strange string of schools hard. Without that single FedException, this league now straddles the line like the MVC, MAC and WAC.
Welcome to the club, Cusie. You finally made it.
All this talk of exceptions. Isn't this a slippery slope? What about Butler, or Creighton, or Dayton, or any of these other schools with long legacies and more button-busting pride than BracketBuster prerogative? None of this is arbitrary. Money is money, and these three schools (Gonzaga, Xavier or Memphis) spend it, accumulate it and leverage it differently than any other school in their conferences. No other schools down here have cracked those codes. And for Season 7, these are our three Red Line exceptions.
Please keep in mind that past Conference USA results will not be re-calibrated for Red Line Upset purposes. Everything remains in its proper context, time and place, and yesterday's results stand now as they were then. But we won't be handling Red Line exceptions the same way as we have in the past. Though we won't follow them through in March, we won't ignore Xavier like we have with Gonzaga in previous seasons. There won't be any C.U.-T.E. acronyms for Memphis (UMPFSE?). We won't play-pretend the Tigers don't exist.
Because even though none of the three won't show up in RLU alerts in Season 7, we'll be spending more time than ever talking about them. We'll even spend time in each place, to trace their histories and remove the mysteries of their rises to this confusing in-between status. There are blueprints for success here to study, and that discipline is lost when we spend time arguing about what each has become. An outsized program in an undersized conference shouldn't be cause for confusion; though Polaris still belongs to Ursa Minor, it is a North Star that guides us all through the night.
The central question of our 2010-11 journey will be this: how does an anonymous school become a household name? It's a positive accident of our chosen format, the five-month closed season, that we can make this attempt. The Mid-Majority is an ongoing asynchronous narrative that begins on November 1 and an endpoint in March (or, sometimes, April). So next time around, we will try to find slowly unfolding answers by zooming out to the big picture of the past -- decades and eras, not just games and seasons. How were these three able to transcend the tired old "mid-major" argument? Where, back in the hidden days of the old Big Sky, the defunct Metro and the ex-MCC were the roots of their rise? What did they do to become the subjects of countless "are they or aren't they" articles every year? In the end, what can we learn about brilliant basketball operations from Gonzaga, Xavier and Memphis?
And hopefully, these answers will help us get closer to our goal: the day when every one of the other 250 teams south of the Red Line can beat a team above it, on any given night. When there are no more guarantee games, when the distance between a No. 16 seed and a No. 1 seed can be measured in single possessions and not light years, that's when the mission is complete.
As for the rest of Conference USA, welcome. Don't be alarmed, we're not in the insult-flinging or label-slapping businesses. We're pretty friendly down here below the Red Line, and we have a lot of fun. There's a great community of folks who share your passion and pride. We love basketball for what it is, and always get behind the last team standing. We celebrate the resourcefulness required to do more with less -- even when there's more available for the other programs at your school, and especially when there was more available in the past. And we know we're catching up to you at a pivotal time. Nearly half of Conference USA's teams will have new coaches next year.
Some of you are old friends. We followed UTEP, SMU and Rice back in Season 1, when they were both members of the WAC. We lost some faithful readers and supporters when they jumped the Line, and we hope they're still out there. Welcome back to Central Florida, as well, which won the Atlantic Sun in our first year of operation. Marshall is a veteran of the MAC and SoCon. Tulsa, of course, was the southern linchpin of the Valley for so many years, often twirling that G'Hurricane deep into March. And East Carolina, of course, spent many years in the formative Colonial.
Welcome, too, to all the old Metro teams, Tulane and Southern Miss, and UAB from the old Great Midwest. To the University of Houston, which will give me yet another excuse to come to Texas. Yes, I'll come to your games and learn all about you, try to tell your stories as best I can. Together, we'll try to find some poetry in this strange string of lights.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
In the dead center of March, between Championship Fortnight and Dayton's Notorious P.I.G., I stopped in at our official headquarters in Indianapolis. It was a warm spring Selection Sunday afternoon, perhaps the last one exactly like it. Eight miles east, on the 15th floor of the downtown Westin, a committee was putting the final touches on the NCAA Tournament's bracket. The annual anticipation hovered over the city, but there was a little more than usual this time. Sports Bubble Stadium stood empty and ready for whichever of the 65 teams the Final Four would be.
The excitement and restlessness didn't quite extend all the way out to the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport. The lot was dotted with a few park-and-ride cars, most with blue Indiana plates. At 5:45 p.m. the high-ceilinged hotel echoed with the soft gurgle of the atrium fountain. The catering staff, all dressed in clean shirts and vets, cleared a series of round tables after a reception for the Giles family reunion, and they far outnumbered the guests in the lobby. As it's been so many times before, it was just me.
Time was short. I bypassed my room, and took the glass elevator up to the fifth floor lounge. I switched on the TV, fixed myself a bowl of Froot Loops, put my feet up on the wide couch and watched Greg Gumbel slowly unveil the bracket and pairings. I imagined all the possible combinations and permutations that would move as many small-conference teams as possible into the Round of 32, the Sweet 16, maybe even the Elite 8. I never dreamed for a second that any school would strike so deep into the bracket's heart, and be one of those last four teams standing. The thought that I might come back to Indianapolis never crossed my mind.
After the selection show, and the other selection show, and as much roundtable analysis as I could take, I headed back out to retrieve my bags. It was late. I went across the hall from the lounge to the elevator. I rode the glass carriage down to the lobby, looking out over the softly-lit atrium.
And there she was.
She was alone at the front desk, looking down, patiently picking through a shoebox-sized file of guest receipts. Her long auburn hair spilled across her shoulders; she paused briefly to brush it from her face, behind her ear. And then, perhaps feeling my gaze on her, she looked up. Her eyes and mine met for a second. As I descended in the elevator, she didn't turn back to her work. Her hand stopped moving, held still between two folders. I ignored the hot impulse to turn away myself, and the oxygen left my body. She smiled slightly, I think. Had she found me in her own mental file? I hadn't been there for two months.
The bank of elevators faces the front doors, away from the front desk. I had no good reason to, but I had to turn the corner.
"Hi," I said, the word coming out of an awkward exhale.
She smiled again, took a deep demonstrative breath. "Hi," she said, calibrating her voice pattern exactly to mine.
"I, um," Think. "I need four quarters. You know, for the laundry."
With a quick key press, she opened the register drawer. And I realized that I'd forgotten my wallet on an end table in the lounge, because it was uncomfortable in my back pocket. I tend to leave things around at the CPIA, because I treat the place like home. And it's safe; there's usually nobody else there.
"Um, I just realized I don't have a dollar," I said.
She didn't miss a beat, as if reciting from a memorized screenplay. "So you're really asking me for money."
"I... um..." Think. Step up, come on. But the pounding of my pulse was echoing in my head, disrupting and scattering my thought patterns. "I... oops."
"That's alright," she replied to whatever it was I had said. She pointed in the direction of The Landing restaurant. "The ATM's over there. I've heard a rumor that it's not broken today."
I forced out a cough of a laugh, but I was lost and beaten. I tried to grab hold of the moment. I leaned in, made a two-handed gesture, my fingers pointing like arrows towards her, trying to signal a shift in conversation. "Listen, I..."
But what was I going to say? What did I want her to listen to? That I'd had a teenage crush on her since the first time I checked into the CPIA, back in January of 2009? That I sometimes thought of her on long drives, 100 miles per 90 minutes, and that my chemistry would change and I'd press harder on the accelerator? I could tell her that I'd played that Christmas Eve in my head a thousand times, and that my fictional versions always ended with some type of kiss, one that I could never settle on the details of. But these aren't things you just say.
Besides, if she'd responded positively, what would we do? Where would it go? How soon would it end, and could I ever stay there again? The heart is concerned only with moments, and its curse is that it will never comprehend the big picture.
I could tell her why I felt this way. I could admit that she reminded me of my longtime girlfriend from college out in Oregon, clever and sassy and beautiful, who broke it off after two years to be alone again. But she dyed her long, straight hair red a week later, because she knew exactly how to tear my guts out. I always loved that she was smarter and quicker than I was, and that I could never catch up no matter how hard I tried. She made me want to get better. So 16 years later, I could just be clinical about it all, lay it all out there for what it really was, with no romance or magic whatsoever.
"I am in love with the idea of you," I could say. "I'd like to take that idea and impose it on your reality. Are you willing to let me do that?"
"Aw, nothing," I said, my hands dropping to my side and my shoulders slumping. "But I will need a new room key. I forgot my wallet in the lounge."
Her eyebrows had been at full-mast, waiting for what I was going to say. She opened her eyes wider, twisted her mouth into a question mark. A second later, she was back in control.
"The room key, that I can do," she said, narrowing her eyes and affecting a mock-serious tone. "Unfortunately, they don't pay us well enough that we can lend money out to guests."
"Thanks," I exhaled, smiling. "I'll go get that dollar."
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
VI. This Game Will Hurt You
Every action pushes against inaction, smashes inertia, advances the world in wondrous or wicked ways. There is a difference between good and evil, but both are driven by some kind of love. Whether it's a love for all of humankind or simply self, driven by altruism or greed, humility or fame, love is the common element of progress. If God is the sum of all actions, and if God is love, then each of these pushes and pulls are charged with some kind of divinity.
Love exists so change might occur.
I fell in love with college basketball a long time ago. But in 2004 I made the incautious and senseless decision to yield control over my life to it, to surrender my destiny to it on an annual basis. True love, the real kind, requires complete capitulation; when I began this experimental media project, I pledged to give myself over to Our Game for five months out of every year. From November to March, my physical location is dependent on when and where the games are being played, and I'll risk everything I have just to be there. The end of the season comes when the last small-conference school is gone from the NCAA Tournament.
This is the very end, the broken finish line of our sixth season. While many don't understand or care about what we do here, and a few actively root for its demise, The Mid-Majority has helped some to connect with this sport on a deeper and more beautiful level. The letters come through The Form� every day, and some stretch nearly as long as this Epilogue... paragraphs upon paragraphs! Some have even transformed passion into action. TMM has inspired people to let this great game of college basketball change their lives. But the site didn't start any fires. Every one of us who's surrendered to this sport over time, from peach baskets to possession stats, is a conduit between Our Game and the newly converted. We are each a bearer of that devotion, spreading it slowly from torch to torch.
At a fundamental level, over time, this sport does not change. Its caretakers are always interim, and there will be new and different ones later. The temporary guardians might move the 3-point line, or put the Final Four in a giant American-Style Football stadium, or expand the bracket to 96 teams. In the future, a half-court shot might be worth four points. Perhaps someday, disco lights will be installed in the court to increase entertainment value.
But none of these things could ever change the nature of Our Game. It is so beautiful, and so very, very cruel. This is, and will always be, a game for the young, and nobody ever stays that way. It punishes the aged and broken, forgets those who leave, and never has any time for those who fall short. This love of ours is a strange love, more complicated than human connection, because we are in love with a strange thing. Its only promise is that we will lose. Nothing we will ever do, no amount of love we give, will ever make Our Game love us in return. Sometimes, it feels as if it is a sadistic mistress trying to drive us away, constantly trying to find new ways to break our hearts. She has the power show us a glimpse of everything we've ever dreamed of, then snatch it all away... at the very last second.
Those of us who attempt to chronicle college basketball are dealt with in a particularly malevolent manner. Our perspectives will be irrelevant tomorrow, unremembered next year, and our very names will be erased from the rolls a generation from now. And we will always struggle to truly empathize with our subjects.
Shortly after I visited with Morehead State's Donnie Tyndall in late November, his Eagles went from 1-3 to first place in the Ohio Valley Conference with an 11-game win streak that lasted from before Christmas to January 31. The conference champions held even with Murray State at the top of the league, and the two best teams squared off in the March 6 title game on national television.
Morehead State and Murray State played exactly even for 30 minutes on a neutral court in Nashville, with an NCAA Tournament bid in the balance. But the Eagle shooters suddenly went cold from the field; key players whose efforts would be necessary for the final stretch took on too many fouls. The Racers engineered an effortless 11-2 run, a string of clean steals and showy dunks, and broke the game open. In the game broadcast, the camera focused on Coach Tyndall, looking on as the reality sunk in: it always ends in a loss, and this was his.
Murray State would go on to the Big Dance as a No. 13 seed, where they shocked Vanderbilt on a last second shot. And if it wasn't for a busted play on the Racers' last possession in the second round against Butler, history would tell a very different tale.
Morehead did play on, albeit in one of college basketball's sad ghost brackets. After beating Colorado State on the road during the first round of the CBI, two time zones away from their Kentucky home, the Eagles went on to Boston University. There, MSU's season ended for good, in overtime. The day after Saint Mary's eliminated Villanova in the real Tournament, I took the train up from Rhode Island to see that game. I wanted to see Coach Tyndall.
"Coach, while I was watching that game on television, I couldn't stop thinking about that quote," I told him as we stood on the Case Gym court after the game. "The thing that Isaiah Thomas told you at that conference."
"'This game will hurt you,'" he replied. "There isn't a day that goes by when I don't go back to what Isaiah said. I have it written down."
"I could see it in your face," I said. ""I'm just a writer, so I'll never have a moment like the last 10 minutes of that Murray State game. I can't imagine how that feels."
"Kyle, this is something not many people would understand," Coach Tyndall said, putting his hand on my forearm. "But you will, because you went through it too. It felt like when I got divorced last summer."
He paused, gathered himself in order to maintain composure. "When we lost that game in Nashville, it was like I was going through my divorce all over again. I couldn't get out of my own head. Instead of replaying conversations over and over, I was replaying game tape. It was like, fuck. If I'd just done this thing differently, or if that thing had gone the other way, or if the other thing hadn't happened... maybe it would be have turned out differently."
I gently pressed for clarification. "What did it feel like you were being divorced from? Was it your team, or was it 2009-10?"
"The season," he responded quickly, nodding. "The season. We're still a young team... except for Maze [Stallworth] and a couple others... most of these guys are coming back. God... there were just so many things about this year, it was like we were so close. We won 15 of 17, but would have won 17 in a row if we hadn't lost two of those games by a point each. Last possession, both times. We were one win away from having the best season, record-wise, in school history. Then we were 10 minutes away from going back to the NCAA Tournament. We came up just short."
Butler can certainly relate to that feeling.
Those second chances seem far away now. The summer is long. Some will come to their senses and leave Our Game altogether, angry and frustrated and discouraged. But when the fall comes, many will lose their senses anew, and they'll come back; they'll find that this game is too much a part of who they are, and they'll return for another beautiful season. Those of us who keep going, keep doing and keep traveling are fools in the throes of unrequited passion. There are thousands of us, everywhere, content to find and share the company of other perpetually jilted lovers, inspired and pushed forward by those fleeting and fading glimpses of beauty.
We do because we love, and we do in spite of that love. We are married to a cruel game that doesn't love us back, but we go ahead and love anyway. And we couldn't change if we wanted to.
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