PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- I remember when I was a baseball-obsessed preteen. I followed the standings and leaders in the newspaper every day, collected Topps and Donruss and Fleer baseball cards, and tuned in Armed Forces Radio games on a shortwave I bought for ten dollars at a yard sale. The world of baseball was so much different than my own. I was anchored to one small place, circling in my tight little orbit between school and home, but there were these 26 magical places out there with names like "Seattle" and "New York (N)" and "Texas." They came alive for three hours at a time, mostly at night. These were disjointed locations, with nothing between them but constellation lines.
When I was finally old enough to travel by myself, I took to the road to find these places. By 1991, when I was 19 years old, I had visited every single Major League Baseball stadium, completed the circuit, alone. I put all my ticket stubs in a frame, in alphabetical order by league. I've been mounting that frame on my wall wherever I've lived, ever since. Whenever a stadium's been replaced by a newer one, I've made my way there, then replaced the ticket in my shadowbox.
It's a series of colorful little slips of cardboard, just as abstract as a standings table, and it isn't very impressive at face value. But when I take time to look at it (instead of obliviously walking by on my way to the kitchen), I can see what's between those stubs. There are miles and miles or road, long trips on trains and buses and in cars and trucks, people I've crossed paths with, and games I'll never forget. There are thousands of stories there, and hundreds that have not been told.
It was that first mission, two decades ago, that dug the foundation for what this is now. I wanted something bigger, something more complicated. Division I college basketball, the public part of it, is like Major League Baseball times ten. It is hundreds of arenas sprinkled across America, each one unique, but each with common standard elements: the same flag and national anthem, the same rules, the same ball, the same baskets. This quest is deep and endless, and it could last a lifetime if one didn't choose to stop.
The spaces between are almost never witnessed. Television, and all the new media that have come after, hop and jump between these places in split seconds, and there's no way or reason to appreciate the geography that separates them. For the last six-plus years, I've always tried to show the lines as well as the dots, and sometimes the connectors have overwhelmed the cogs. Detractors have always faulted the enterprise for being too "meta" or more concerned with what's outside arenas than what's in them. But much of what this is is just me talking to a theoretical version of my 16-year-old, daydreaming self. I wish I could show him what an adventure this can be.
In 2004-05, Season 1 of The Mid-Majority, I set out to document a journey to one hundred college basketball games. I made it.
And so that's what I became known for: travel, and lots of it. There were completed 100 Games Projects in Seasons 3, 4 and 5 -- at that point, it meant slightly more to me than it did to the people who would send in one-line congratulatory notes. I saw a lot of basketball, and I wrote about it, and I even got a little bit paid for it. Sure, the money went to paying for travel, but it was all worth it. So worth it. Enough so that I prioritized it far above my marriage. At the same time, however, basketball rapidly aged me. The game always finds a way to hurt you; it's cruel like that.
I only got to 85 games during Season 6, because I went to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and got really sick afterwards. It was a Beautiful Season, but it didn't feel complete. When you set a standard for yourself, and you don't rise to it, there's at least a little bit of emptiness inside.
And so I'm always constantly, obsessively doing the math in my head. On a long, four-digit drive from Kentucky to Rhode Island on Sunday, a blur of states and exits and stops for gas, I tossed the numbers around. I'm at 30 right now, I thought. I'll get at least 20 in March during the conference tournaments, because I always do, and the First Four plus a first and second round weekend will give me 10 more. So over the next 10 weeks, I have to find 40 games. Even if we don't reach the membership goal and I have to slow down for a while, I can do this.
This was never a contract between us, you and I, but 100 games are what I feel obligated to give you. Especially to those of you who have contributed that many American dollars to the cause. And it is the final 100 Games Project, because it has to be. It's not because I'm getting old or can't do this anymore, because I always find a way to. I simply have more reason to be in one place than I ever have before, even back when I was married. So at the very least, this is the last one that I'll do alone. This is very different than the Final End Of The Mid-Majority, a moment that has come close to happening several times now. Looking back, ending it has been the smarter option, the road not taken. Sanity has always meant not taking a road at all.
There will be a Season 8. There will be a logo and color scheme for it, and a newly redesigned site, and Essay Season will begin on November 1, 2011. I don't know what form all this will take yet, though, but the new site functions like pixelvision and 360 will become more important. We will have memberships with Basketball State subscriptions and t-shirts and such, and they might cost less than they do now, or they might cost just as much -- there might be fewer and farther-spaced trips that will last days instead of weeks.
And yes, there will be another book next summer. I know what it will be now. It will be a collection of stories and photographs, seven years in the making, about college basketball arenas and the roads between them. Each of the Other conferences will be represented. It will be funny, and sad, and there will be players, coaches, bands, cheerleaders, mascots, Basketball Guys, and everyone else we've come across. It will be sportswriting in spite of sportswriting. But it won't be 600 pages long.
Red Line Upsets
Maine 74, at Penn State 64 -- Half my family graduated from Penn State, but none of them care about basketball. Which puts them squarely in the middle of that demographic joy-zone, I guess. So they wouldn't really have anything to say when presented with smac like this. The Black Bears pulled ahead early and stayed ahead late, as 4,174 Happy Valley residents with nothing better to do on a Tuesday night looked on. Six-foot-eight Canadian export Murphy Burnatowski, who has sliced together some nice shooting nights in his sophomore year, tied a career high with 20 points on 6-for-8 shooting.
@midmajority Need a ruling: is pointing out that Wake sucks the same as saying Presby's win isn't an upset?
- @JohnWillmott (via Twitter)
Oh no, not at all. Think of it this way: saying that Presbyterian's win isn't an upset is a subjective observation and a bad joke. "Wake Forest sucks" can be proven via scientific method. Two totally different things. Three seasons ago, The Blue Hose were barnstorming for cash to pay for a locker room, and now they've have had the week of the program's life with RLU's over Auburn and Wake. And they got paid both times. MERRY F-ING CHRISTMAS! Idaho 69, at Oregon 65 -- The third of Tuesday's Red Liners came late at night, in Eugene. It followed one of the more satisfying RLU patterns there are: after a tight first half, the Vandals edged ahead and stayed up by a basket or two while the home team struggled and squirmed to retake the lead. The Ducks never did. Brandon Wiley, a 6-foot-6 Californian who had a very promising freshman season before being cut down with a back injury last year, was the hero with 14 points, six rebounds and five blocks -- his best game since coming back.
Game! Of! The! Night!
Boise State at Portland Chiles Center - Portland, OR 10:00 EST
Off goes the invisible G!O!T!N! camera crew to the Pacific Northwest, where an interesting battle between two high-flying teams awaits. Boise State -- which, according to the national media, doesn't have a football team anymore because it lost a game -- is a symbol of everything that's wrong with the WAC right now. First of all, the Broncos are leaving, and on an in-season basis, they've failed to take advantage of some opportunities that may have shone some light on the embattled basketball league. After winning six straight to open 2010-11, a losing streak of four followed. Two of those were a couple of one-possession losses that could have been valuable RLU's against future Mountain West fun-friends: a 75-72 loss at UNLV, and then an 86-84 drop at Utah. ARRRGH! So as it is, Boise has the fifth-worst strength of schedule in the nation and an RPI of 244. They're sixth in Division I in opponent turnover percentage (26 percent) and they force 18.6 per game, so that's something.
Portland has the unfortunate distinction of being the third team in a supposed two-team West Coast Conference, behind Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. But the Pilots are 9-3 against a top-100 schedule, and can shoot the freaking lights out with the superhoop (43.6 percent). They score very efficiently (1.08 points per possession) and don't foul (15.3 per game), so that could help carve them out a game or two in the Zag/SMC battles to come. For now, Portland and Boise haven't played since a few in-season home-and-homes back in the early 2000's; the last meeting was on Decemebr 28, 2003 and the Pilots won 77-72.