LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- On the evening of February 15, 2011, the Siegel Center at Virginia Commonwealth University was packed to capacity, but the home fans were solemn and silent. The visiting team from George Mason had jumped out to a 34-19 halftime lead. The Patriot guards had rained down three-pointers on a dumbfounded VCU defense for 20 minutes in what was an important battle for first place in the Colonial Athletic Association.
The two clusters of green-clad traveling fans were ecstatic. "This is our house!" they chanted as the second half wound towards an inevitable buzzer, and the worst home loss (20 points
) since the Rams opened the building. When they tired of that standard chestnut, they started chanting for walk-ons. Then they created a new version of the Ram Band's signature song, which they serenaded the VCU faithful with as they filed out of the Siegel Center during the eight-minute media timeout. "We all want to go to wa-ar with the Ra-ams,"
the Mason fans sang derisively. "They suck, they suck, they know they suck."
One fan who didn't leave was Chris "Pavarotti" Crowley, the former team manager who now attends most games in his ram-horn helmet and fires the crowd up with his dry-erase signboard. To the end, he broadcast positive messages. "BELIEVE." And then, "THE COMEBACK STARTS NOW."
I'd always known about Pav as a message board legend at CAA Zone, but we'd never exchanged words until he spoke to me with his signboard. On February 25, 2009, as the Rams played at James Madison's Convocation Center, he lifted his signboard from the visiting fan section. "WHELLISTON> VITALE, KATZ, BILAS, LUNARDI." I got up from my seat on press row, walked over, and wrapped my pale, skinny arms around his great frame in a giant hug. He was a bit taken aback, but he had no idea what that meant to me.
Two years later, in the press room, the vultures circled. All the reasons why the 2010-11 VCU Rams would never amount to much were hashed over -- they were useless in halfcourt sets, couldn't stop the three, lost badly whenever they didn't force turnovers. When the glum home contingent arrived to face the music at the dais, senior guard Brandon Rozzell was wearing a sweatshirt bearing an NIT logo, left over from the team's participation in the Season Tip-Off. On this night, it sent the wrong message.
The Rams, who had started the CAA season 10-1, were 12-4 and reeling. "As a program, we're going to spend every waking minute finding ways to improve on the areas we need to heading into this final stretch," head coach Shaka Smart said wearily. He looked like he had spent plenty of sleepless nights already.
Back in the arena bowl, Pav was still there, despondent in the band pit. In frustration, he had snapped his signboard in half, which read, "YOU STILL WON'T BEAT US IN MARCH." "I feel so bad right now," he said. "This sucks so much. All I have to hold on to is the knowledge that we've never lost to Mason at the tourney. We're 4-0 against them. Hey, by the way, want a piece?"
The impact breaking the signboard over his knee had snapped it in half, but the two corners where he had grabbed it had cracked as well. I took a corner, smiled sadly, and safely stored it in the inner pocket of my blazer.
And it turned out that Pav's belief was rewarded. Mason didn't
beat them in March. * * *
Butler University's men's basketball team, the 2010-11 version, may go down in history as the most misunderstood and generally disrespected NCAA Tournament runner-up in the modern era. Most of the Bulldogs' games were only available online via the Horizon League Network. Nobody could figure out how to cover them, either
. The national media ended up obsessing over Kyrie Irving's toe a lot more than Matt Howard's new three-point stroke. Butler couldn't win for losing, and likely would have lost for winning too.
When Brad Stevens' team lost a conference road game by 24 points on Jan. 3, putting the Bulldogs at 2-1 in the Horizon League, true analysis was at a premium. It was easier to discard them, call them fraudulent
, and openly discuss the potential for a 2011 NCAA Tournament shutout the year after a run to the National Championship game. Conventional wisdom was a one-note samba: without Gordon Hayward, who'd gone to the NBA two years early after bringing Butler eight pixels away
from heaven, Butler would never scale such heights again..
And that night in Milwaukee's U.S. Cellular Arena was this team's low point. Shelvin Mack, presumably Butler's next NBA export, shot 1-for-7 and was held to three points. The Butler defense collapsed, allowing 1.28 points per possession and 63 percent two-point shooting in a 76-52 blowout loss
"No brain surgery here," Stevens told the press after the game. "We got pounded tonight."
I went to Hinkle Fieldhouse four nights later to see Butler play Cleveland State. At the time, Gary Waters' Vikings were threatening to run away with the regular season title. They'd won their first 12 non-conference games, and were 15-1 (4-0 Horizon). The game date was Friday, January 7, but it had the feel of an eliminator, and a potential torch-passing. Cleveland State would assume full psychological control of the conference with a win, and a sixth Butler loss would severely limit Butler's options. With the slip-ups accumulating, they'd likely have to win the conference tournament to return to the Dance.
Hinkle was only filled to two-thirds capacity that night, and those who had assembled were nervous and quiet before tipoff. But that changed immediately once play began. Butler raced out to an 8-2 lead, extended to 26-7, and were up 42-23 at halftime. When the Bulldogs are at their best, Stevens identifies the opposing team's weakness, and the player (or players) best suited to exploit it step up and lead. On this night, the Vikings' Achilles was their size and lack of depth thereof. Senior star Howard and 6-11 sophomore project Andrew Smith tag-teamed for a combined 39 points and 16 rebounds. Butler won going away, 79-56
After the buzzer, a Butler fan recognized Bally in the media corner and came over to shake my hand. "Bulldogs ever do or die
," he told me. "And we're not dead yet." * * *
Right before the Southeast Regional final in New Orleans, I was reading the game notes when I heard a great bellow from the endline stands. "Mid-Majority!"
came the cry. "Mid-Majority!"
I looked up, and it was the beaming face of Indiana boy Mark Slessinger
, 11-year assistant coach at Northwestern State. We worked together on the bench
once, and he helped me learn the true value of an Extra Value Meal. Since I wasn't able to come down to Southland country during the regular season, I hadn't seen him in almost a year. On Saturday, he drove down from Natchitoches to see Butler and Florida play for a spot in the Final Four, walked straight up to the ticket window, and bought an $85 ticket.
"How you doin'?" he yelled out as he gave me a big hug. "Lookin' good, baby! Love the bowtie."
We didn't have much time to catch up, with tipoff fast approaching. But I called him on Monday evening from the road as I began the trip back to Providence to return the rental car
"I've been thinking a lot about low points lately," I said. "Butler and VCU both went through some tough times during the season, and I've been remembering those all weekend. Seeing you on Sunday reminded me that you were there for my own lowest moment, two seasons ago."
"I remember that," Mark said.
It was the early morning of February 7, 2009. I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, I had just flown in from Providence to spend a week in the Southland Conference, Sun Belt and SWAC. An e-mail came in from a long .mil address, segmented with dots and dashes, and a header that vaguely identified the source location as a Navy base in remote Iraq. When were you going to get around to telling me that you were fired by ESPN?
It had been almost three weeks, and I hadn't told my wife. I didn't want to bother you with that, you have enough going on,
I wrote back. Besides, the readers all chipped in so that I could finish the season. I'm in Arkansas right now, heading for Louisiana. I'm going to keep doing this, no matter what it takes.
And it was then when the die was cast, fate was sealed, and my priorities were laid bare. I'd chosen Our Game over her, and there was no going back. I really didn't want to discuss this,
she wrote several exchanges later. But you're absolutely correct that postponing what very well may be the inevitable is doing a disservice to us both. I think we can both agree that our marriage has never been incredibly healthy, and although I didn't want it to end this way, I think it's time we both move on. I really really didn't want to do this over email, but here it is.I'll file for divorce as soon as I get back to Rhode Island,
I typed back. I can draft up no-fault paperwork if that's amenable.
An hour later, I was on the road to Natchitoches. I ended up getting to the game late, because I had to pull over to the shoulder. An earthquake split my head open and my eyes stopped working together, showing me two flat side-by-side images of the road ahead. I opened the door and vomited blood out of the driver's side. Another seizure. And then I recovered, and then I kept driving.
When I finally arrived at Prather Coliseum, the homestanding Demons were already down double digits, missing shot after shot, against Texas-Arlington in a rematch of the previous year's Southland title game. After the break, it got worse -- they went 1-for-8 to start the second half, and only made 23 percent of their attempts the rest of the way. It was one of the worst home losses in program history, a 19-point beatdown
that gave Northwestern State a 1-7 conference record. (As Coach Sless would say two years later, "I guess that was a low point for us too.")
In Louisiana, if doesn't matter if you win or lose, you eat big. Mark and his wife Toni took me out to a crawfish restaurant in town with a picnic-bench patio on the water, and there were at least 25 people there at our table. I tried to hold it together as long as I could, but I finally pulled Mark aside. "I'm getting divorced," I told him.
"We'll take you home," he replied.
At the Slessinger house, I collapsed in tears. "I know what'll cheer you up," Mark said. "Let's go get some king cake
Mardi Gras was still two weeks away, but the traditional multicolored pre-Lent treat was already showing up in stores. We drove out to a local Wal-Mart, and Coach Sless bought a king cake and a cheap New Orleans Hornets ballcap for me to wear. The plastic Jesus was packaged separately due to choking lawsuit concerns, so Toni hid it in the cake when we got back to the house. It was still a surprise to bite down on it on the second bite.
"Agggh," I said as I nearly broke a tooth on it. "Holy s___, that hurts."
Mark laughed. "All hail King Whelliston!" he proclaimed. "See, things are getting better already." * * *
Another call from the road. My friend Steve
, who's been a reader-supporter and friend since the very beginning, back to Season 1 and the original 100 Games Project, dialed me up on Monday night as he waited for a homebound CTA train.
"OK, so we have VCU and Butler in the Final Four," he said. "We are guaranteed to have a team from our side of the Line
in the National Championship game with a real chance to win, for the second year in a row
. So I've been thinking, what if this is as good as it gets? For all of us true Mid-Majority believers, all of us middle-aged dudes, what if this is the top of the mountain? What happens next? Where do we go from here?"
The valley of the shadow is not very far away. We have all been there, and quite recently. This place, where we are now, was unbelievable and unfathomable just short months and years ago.
So this can't possibly be the peak. I believe that this mountain extends all the way to the sky, through the fog that obscures its summit, and so we will keep climbing. Farther and farther, until we can reach out and feel the stars within our grasp.