PEORIA, Ill. - Two years ago yesterday, on January 16, 2009, the news came down. I stared out the window for a little while, got a piece of a song stuck in my head -- it's all beginning/to feel like it's ending -- and wondered how it hadn't made it on to my 160GB iPod. I downloaded the MP3 from Amazon for ninety-nine cents, put it on repeat, and did what I did every day: write.
The overall narrative arc of The Mid-Majority story, for people who've had more than a passing contact, is this: he started a website for the love and the hell of it, he got discovered, wrote for a big company for a few years, got fired for writing "The Sports Bubble," and then he kept going for a few more seasons. Any nuance therein has to go back to personal interpretation of those 1,489 words. Either I was an idiot and totally blew it, or it made me a tragic stick-it-to-The-Man hero. I never saw it either way. I think, ultimately, those chapters were about weakness and dependence, and standing in one's own way of seeing the big picture. If I have any regrets, it was that I wasn't wiser in 2005 when I agreed to that whole thing. That was stupid.
Growing up in America, most of us all dream that someday, a large entertainment conglomerate will come along and discover us, pluck us from obscurity, and offer us a national/global/universal platform to express ourselves artistically -- we provide the talent, they provide the audience. There are enough documented examples of this happening that such narcissism is possible.
The stories that washed-up survivors come back with are always bitter, full of pride and self-justification, devoid of any personal responsibility. The tragedy of exposure is that it'll drive you crazy, chew you up and spit you out. There's hardly ever room or space for analysis of the science of trading content for recognition and money: the time and energy required to maintain fame, the ultimate disposability of talent, and that despite any perceived advantage or leverage, the house always wins. When the Sports Bubble pops, there will be other entertainments to profit from. America needs its escapism, and it needs to dream that there's always a path to become part of it.
My opportunity was very low-grade, but it was a dream come true and I took it very seriously. So seriously that I became dependent on it. When budget cuts sliced my contributions in half, it was devastating. I was stuck out on the road. Most of what I wrote that day came out of Dear God/what have I done self-revulsion that I'd bought into such a system. The main point of it was that I needed help to finish the season -- one weak dependence to another. As far as the actual words, I'd been much more critical in this space of ESPN and its procedures during the months and years prior. This was just coincidental timing.
While I wish I'd never been dazzled into taking the bait in the first place, that TMM had grown independently and humbly, I wouldn't trade this arc in for anything. There have been a lot of lessons, and the format (80 percent basketball, 20 percent other things) has allowed me to pass them along. If just one aspiring basketball writer stops to consider the no-win obligations before taking signing over their pen, then this was worth it. And it already is, because The Form™ has already accepted several of those stories.
One of those lessons has been this: selling out is almost always bad math, but charity is cheap. I will always be grateful for the readership for bailing me out at that moment; I remember getting a lot of sympathetic notes that week. Many were attached to donations. But sympathy is a quick-burning, unsustainable fuel -- yes, you, Conan O'Brien -- and it should never be relied upon for the long haul. I never heard from most of those folks again. Actual value has to enter into the equation on both sides.
If you like what's done here, the information and the Robots and the game reports and the Chat Blocks and the occasional philosophical rants, you can directly support that. Season 7 memberships are still worth their weight (and they make great gifts), and you get five things. Or when you buy a copy of One Beautiful Season or get a snappy Bally Club card or buy a Basketball State membership, you get something potentially useful and a few of the non-overhead bucks from that goes to this effort. I get to travel more and write about it, and the site gets better as a result.
And that makes a lot more sense than anything that happened in early 2009, or whatever the hell happened six years ago that got me into the whole mess to begin with.
Norfolk State at Howard (MEAC) Burr Gymnasium - Washington, DC 9:00 EST
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 82nd birthday would have been Saturday. Today is a federal holiday, and you probably have it off (so you might be catching up with this post on Tuesday morning at work before reading the mega-sized Conference Shootaround and MMBOW post). It's all quite complicated, but so are American race relations... probably more so than ever now. But you probably heard plenty of platitudes, lip service and debates over "are things really better?" during the weekend, and I have none of those things to offer. We need the perspective of the man himself more than a day with his name on it, but that's not the way things went.
Two years ago on King weekend, as the donations rolled in (so many that PayPal temporarily suspended the TMM account for "suspicious activity"), I drove from Indianapolis to Washington via Columbus. I wanted to be there Tuesday morning when the first basketball player was inaugurated as President of the United States. And I was there, freezing in a blue sweatshirt at 3 a.m., staking out a spot on the Mall with thousands of hopeful, happy, temporary friends from all over the country (and world!). To further unite all of us and each of us, we were having nearly the same experience as the people at home: watching on a television screen.
The night before, I took the Metro to a basketball game. It was at Burr Gym on the campus of Howard University. South Carolina State was the visiting team. I've been to plenty of MEAC games, but this was like no other basketball game I'd ever been to. Out in the lobby, there was a merchandise stand full of giant t-shirts with bright, oversized graphics: the new President as the Terminator ("Chill the f___ out, I got this"), basketball jerseys with 44 on the back. I bought a blue long-sleeved shirt emblazoned with the pictures of Obama, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., for fifteen dollars.
Inside the arena: total bedlam. It was the King holiday (observed), and nobody had to illustrate, underscore or belabor the cultural significance of what this moment meant. The atmosphere was electric and exuberant. Nobody sat down for two hours. New hip-hop releases blared from the tinny loudspeakers, and lines of young men -- five, ten, 20, more -- arranged themselves on the sidelines and broke out into carefully-choreographed dances honed and perfected in dorm rooms. Sometimes, they didn't even wait for time outs to dance. The ladies all hollered and screamed the lyrics.
In the midst of all this, there was a regulation Division I basketball game. The home team won by nine. The celebration continued despite this, in spite of this, and after the game, few wanted to leave. They kept dancing, until they all danced out the doors together.
I was working on a six-source article about the spectacle of spectator sports at historically black colleges, their importance as campus community events, examining the gap between the grand festival of it all and the relative inferiority of the quality of HBCU sports product. It would run during Black History Month, because in that business, such a thing could never have been peggable anywhere outside of February. I remember standing in the dingy Burr locker room with head coach Gil Jackson an hour after that game. It was so quiet, and it was just me, him, and a discussion of a team that had beaten the President-Elect's brother in his Oregon State head coaching debut to open the season, lost 14 straight, and was starting to possibly come around and put together a win streak. I recall the number of times he said the word hope, and how ironic that turned out to be. "I hope we can keep this momentum going," he told me.
I was let go on Tuesday evening, and never had the chance to finish that piece. Howard lost seven of their last eight. Jackson lasted one more year and one more season with 20-plus losses. He was swept under the rug last March. Howard still has a bad basketball team. The Bison has the exact same record coming into this year's King holiday game (2-14) as they had on that crazy Inauguration Eve two seasons ago. But there's no singular talent like Eugene Myatt, who would often go off for 20-plus back then, mostly in losing causes. Kevin Nickelberry's first Bison team shoots 36 percent, and only two teams shoot worse. Norfolk State isn't much better. The Spartans (2-13, 1-3 MEAC) lost 11 in a row in non-conference, but have an inside-outside combo (6-foot-4 senior Rob Hampton and 6-foot-10 sophomore Kyle O'Quinn, combined 29 ppg and 13.5 rpg) that could serve them well as conference play continues.
But no matter how bad the actual game is, expect a great atmosphere -- it's the King holiday, and ESPNU is in town to televise matters. And if anybody wants to finish that article I started, let me know. You can borrow my notes, outdated as they are. Just make sure it gets published in any month but February.