Let's grab some Casey's pizza, a guaco, and a tall glass of horchata (not BLAPP) and settle in for one last great season. Thanks to Kyle and the TMM community for changing the way I watch college basketball (and having a lot of fun in the process). - Mike Pettinato
It's hard to build a community from anonymous people on the Internet, but The Mid-Majority has done that with creativity, humor, technology and love. - John Lee
Thank goodness for people who can combine great storytelling and the most wonderful obsession ever: college basketball. Thanks for the ride. - Christian Skogen
HOUSTON, April 5 -- When Adam Walsh was in his twenties, he climbed up the coaching ladder through the juco and small-college ranks as an assistant. All throughout, he had the following bullet point at the top of his résumé, under Career Goals: To be a Division I head coach before the age of 30. Despite never having led a program at any level, his audacious dream almost came true. Last May, after three seasons as an assistant at Centenary College of Louisiana, head coach Greg Gary left abruptly, and Walsh was left in charge. The new bench boss asked the administration if there was anything they could do to rush the paperwork. But Walsh ended up officially assuming the position at 30 years, four days.
Centenary was a job nobody wanted. The school had announced a downward repositioning to Division III, effective summer 2011, and the Gentlemen had to play a lame-duck D-I season in the Summit League. Gary left instead of having that on his résumé. Due to NCAA rules, any player could transfer immediately. The most talented players did. They spread out across the Division I countryside to places like UC Irvine, Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama. At the start of the 2010-11 season, Walsh's team was down to 10 scholarship players and had to pad the roster with walk-ons.
Coach Walsh harbored modest hopes and treaded lightly. "I had to be really careful," he told me. "Because of the rules, any player could have left at any time. So I couldn't yell and be a prick. I tried to keep the atmosphere loose, and I was never as hard on them as I wanted to be. We went to NBA games as a group, and we all went out to the movies a lot. As far as our initial approach to the season went, I split it into small parts. I figured that even if we didn't win any conference games until February, we could win five of our last seven and still make the conference tournament as a No. 8 seed. [Eight of the 10 Summit teams make the playoffs.] And that's the way the league played out. Five would have got us in."
That's not how Centenary's season played out, though. In Walsh's first game as a Division I head coach, the Gents lost to Memphis by 64 points. They were Black Lined at their own geodesic Gold Dome by Arkansas-Monticello, a Division II school, 82-70. By the time the calendar turned from November to December, the Gents were 0-8.
There was one team in the Summit League that appeared slightly less hapless than Centenary: Western Illinois. The Leathernecks, perpetually in the lower quarter of the conference and constantly fighting to make the playoffs, had recently lost to Morgan State of the MEAC by 19 points during Thanksgiving week. When Centenary showed up there on December 4 for an early league tilt, WIU was coming off a wide loss against Oral Roberts. At that point, the Centenary players still had some measure of confidence.
"One of my players told me before that game, 'Coach, what are you going to do when we finally win tonight? Go out and get a nice steak?'" Walsh recalled. "I told him, 'For me, this is just another game. I know and believe that I'm going to win someday. I want you guys to go out there and earn this win for you, the team, for Centenary.'"
They didn't earn a win that night. Centenary shot 29 percent from the floor, mounted a small run at the end, but still ended up losing by six. And the L's kept mounting: 15 by New Year's Day, 19 on Martin Luther King weekend. Coach Walsh was prescient indeed -- his team didn't win any games before February, none whatsoever. On January 29 at the home of the defending and eventual conference champion Oakland Golden Grizzlies, the Gents lost 100-70 to fell to 0-23 (0-11 Summit). The Gentlemen were being outscored in games by an average of 81-59.
"We were capable of playing well in short spurts, or for a half, but we could never put 40 minutes together," said Walsh. "Basketball is a game of runs, making and responding to them. Teams would get a few unanswered baskets against us, and we always had trouble responding to that."
Centenary played a total of 30 scheduled games in the 2010-11 season, lost their first 28, and were eliminated from Summit League postseason play by early February. Two more losses, and they'd achieve history. An 0-30 record would surpass the Division I futility record set by the 0-29 New Jersey Tech Highlanders three seasons earlier.
But the Gents' penultimate game of the season, the second-to-last of the school's Division I era, came in Shreveport against Western Illinois. By that time, the Leathernecks were 7-20 and 2-14 in the conference. Ken Pomeroy's prediction machine forecast a 40 percent chance of a Centenary breakthrough win. And the way the Summit League schedule was drawn up, they had nine days to prepare for the game.
"I didn't usually do this, but we focused directly on Western Illinois all week, really studied their stuff," Walsh said. "We knew that Matt Lander, their senior two-guard, took a quarter of their shots and got ball screens set for him on nearly every possession. So we worked on really attacking those screens, setting up a hedge so he couldn't slip into the paint and do damage to us that way. We had the best week of practice of the year. The guys worked so hard, I was so proud of their effort. All they wanted to do was win this one game."
Gameday arrived. A total of 465 spectators trickled into the 3,000-seat Gold Dome. Before tipoff, as the coaches were shaking hands with the officials, local official Mike Thibodeaux took Walsh aside. "Coach, I feel like you have a good shot at this," the referee said.
"I hope so," Walsh remembers replying.
With no help from the officials whatsoever, Centenary scored the first 12 points of the game. Thirteen minutes in, the lead was 23-9. By halftime, the Leathernecks cut the Gent advantage to eight with a flurry of forced turnovers and a 15-5 scoring run. But this game, Walsh's team did not buckle or fold.
"The last ten minutes took forever," the coach remembered. "I thought I was trapped in a game that was never going to end."
Western Illinois used constant hack-fouling to try and get the ball back, and kept the clock stopped for as long and as often as they could. But the home team kept hitting free throws and kept the lead in double digits. Finally, there was no more time left to kill. The Centenary Gentlemen were 1-28, and had reclaimed their season. And Matt Lander ended up with 10 points on 3-for-19 shooting, 1-for-10 from three.
"Once our guys got into the locker room, they went nuts," Walsh said. "It's certainly not the way I wanted to get my first career head coaching win. But I was really pleased and surprised about how much that win meant to so many. I was getting all these e-mails and texts from a lot of people I didn't know. I shared them with the team. And the messages of support from you and your readers meant a lot to me. I even heard that a newspaper up in Illinois had set up a regular Centenary Watch, and the next morning it read, 'They won!'"
The last game of the season was a 21-point home loss against IUPUI. Then, the Gentlemen officially began life as a Division III member of the American Southwest Conference. But their head coach wasn't about to jump ship.
"I rely heavily on my faith, and I accepted Christ into my life last April," he said. "I truly believe there's a reason why I'm at Centenary right now, but I don't know exactly what that is. I'm still only 30, and I don't have a wife or kids yet. But when I do, I want to make sure I have plenty of time for my family and keep them as my number one priority. I've seen how much pressure coaches at this level are under, and I've seen what that does to families. So maybe Division I isn't the right place for me."
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
II. Cruel Sunrise
The game will hurt you. That's will hurt you, not might or could. If it ends in a loss, it's because Our Game itself doesn't end. Basketball doesn't stop for you, me or anyone else, and there are no exemptions or exceptions to this basic rule. Basketball is timeless, and it will end up outlasting us all. Seasons commence in the autumn, close in the spring, and new ones begin again once summer is finished. The calendar takes away eligibility and ability, and every championship must be defended.
Seven years ago, it ended in a win for Tony Ingle. It was a final victory that few recognized as important, but it was a certified championship nonetheless. In his fourth season at Kennesaw State University, he led the Owls to a 34-4 record and the 2004 Division II national title. In 2005-06, the school became a provisional D-I member and ended up with a surprisingly even record of 10-10 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. In 2010, once the school was eligible for the local and national postseason, KSU promptly pulled an upset of Lipscomb in the league tourney, the first 8-over-1 in any D-I league in five years. Then, once this most recent season began, the Owls beat Georgia Tech by 17 points at home.
A few days after the news came down, I called him up. He was driving. "Hey Kyle, guess what!" he shouted into the phone in his deep-fried Georgia accent. "I got canned!"
We laughed, and settled into our normal pattern of inside jokes and one-liners. He told me that his family was taking the turn of events as well as they could, and that he had some projects to keep him busy over the summer. The book we wrote together might still be turned into a movie, he reminded me, with a working title of "Sunrise." That's a reference to the end of his playing career, a gruesome and twisting leg break he sustained during the national junior college basketball tournament in Hutchinson. The next morning, gazing out of an airplane window into the first rays of a Kansas dawn, his leg propped up in a heavy cast, Tony Ingle vowed that he'd win the National Championship as a head coach. He overcame high odds to win a D-II title, but his ultimate dream was still very far away on the horizon line.
He turned somber and serious. "I did the best I could do," he told me. "I loved those kids like family. I wanted so bad to help them be better ballplayers and men. I want you to be honest with me, Kyle. I'm 58 years old. Do you think anybody out there is ever going to take a chance on an old guy like me? Who's going to hire me now?
"Do you think I'm ever going to get another shot at a National Championship?"
If Our Game loved you back, it would hold you there in your greatest moments, stop time, embrace you and keep you young and ageless and happy. But it will never love you back, not like you want it to. It conspires with the clock to wear you down with constant struggle, to keep you hooked with temporary rewards. That sun keeps rising, over and over, each and every day.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Donnie Tyndall, the current head coach at Morehead State, is a man 18 years younger than Tony Ingle. He introduced me to that phrase, which would become a key linchpin of this site's core philopsophy: the game will hurt you. It was passed down to him by Isiah Thomas at a basketball conference once. "I've done this, done that, played on Olympic teams, been MVP of the All-Star Game," the future Florida International head coach told him that day. "But you know what... no matter who you are, the game will hurt you."
The Eagles' 2010-11 season ended in a loss. Their final defeat came in Denver, a 17-point pullaway blowout in the NCAA Round of 32 at the hands of Richmond. But 52 hours earlier, with 4.2 seconds left in regulation and Morehead State down by two points, senior guard Demonte Harper pulled up at the top of the key. He drained a three-point superhoop over a stutter-stepping Peyton Siva.
No. 14 Morehead State 62, No. 3 Louisville 61. It was, without question or debate, the greatest win in program history. And it was pure payback, too. In 2009, after MSU won the Play-In Game at Dayton, a top-seeded Cardinals team destroyed the Eagles by 20 points. Harper, then a sophomore, managed just two points on 1-for-9 shooting that night; two years later, he would wield the dagger. "This is as tough a loss as I've had in coaching, and I've been coaching a long time," a frustrated Louisville head coach Rick Pitino told the media afterwards. "After tonight, maybe too long."
As day broke on Final Four Sunday in Houston, I met up with Coach Tyndall at the coaches' hotel for an early breakfast. "When the bracket came out, my first thought was, 'UL? Again?'" he said, slapping his forehead. "But I guess it ended up being a perfect draw."
During those two days at the Pepsi Center, Coach Tyndall experienced the highest high and lowest low, the summit and then the end. "It happens so fast at the NCAA Tournament," he told me. "After we beat Louisville, I had my oldest daughter Taylor on the bench with me, like I always do, and she was crying happy tears. I could tell she was so proud of her dad, and I saved the biggest hug for her. But like always, it goes back to the game will hurt you. We just didn't play as well as we could have against Richmond. We just didn't do our best. And there was Taylor at the end of that game, crying because it was over."
Coach Tyndall takes losses home with him so often, he now has joint custody of his two daughters. But he decided to treat elimination differently this time. "I gathered our team together, and I thanked them. I stayed 100 percent positive. Then I went and spoke to the fans who'd made the trip out to Denver with us, and I thanked them for all of their support. Later on, I took my family and friends to a restaurant. I told them, 'We're here to celebrate Louisville, not mourn Richmond. We're going to be happy about our accomplishments, all the 25 games we won... especially that 25th. Not the 10 losses, especially not the one that just happened.'"
Within a week of beating Rick Pitino, MSU signed Donnie Tyndall to a contract extension. He received a steep raise that makes him the highest-paid head coach in the Ohio Valley Conference. Once Taylor and Grace grow up and get into Harvard or Yale, they won't need to take out any student loans... in large part because of what their dad did on Saint Patrick's Day in 2011.
"It's so crazy," he said. "When I played at Morehead State in the early 1990s, Rick Pitino was at his peak at Kentucky. He single-handedly raised that program from the dead. In my senior year, he took the Big Blue to the Final Four. He was the most popular man in the state back then! I got to know him a little later when I started coaching, and he once said to me, 'Donnie, don't mess up happiness.' He told me that his one regret in life was leaving Kentucky. Can you imagine that? Here's a man who had everything, and to this day he admits that he made a mistake by taking all that extra money from the Celtics."
In March 2011, with his stock at an all-time high, Tyndall stayed at his alma mater, despite more lucrative offers elsewhere.
"My dream is to win a National Championship. I know I have a better chance to do that somewhere else. But would I be happy? Will a couple of hundred thousand dollars make me a better person at this point in my life? I doubt it. Like Rick said, 'don't mess up happiness.' On the other hand, I know what a cruel business this is. Jim Les just got fired from his alma mater. He made the Sweet 16 five years ago. Mark Gottfried got fired at his alma mater after 11 years because he stopped winning enough games. All I know is that wherever I am, for as long as I'm doing this, I have to keep winning games. Hopefully, when I'm too old to do this anymore, I can retire on my own terms instead of ending up out on my ass."
We got up to go, and Donnie Tyndall and I shook hands before leaving the hotel restaurant. Outside, the sun was ascending through a hazy sky. "Kyle, it's another Final Four, and I still have a job," he said. "So I'm a real happy guy."
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
III. The Limit
Every year, all Division I seasons end within five short weeks of each other. Centenary was eliminated on February 26. Hundreds of other lights went out at the conference tourneys in early March. Some seasons continued in the ghost brackets of the NIT, CBI and CIT. Twenty-six from among the Other 25 were admitted into the NCAA Tournament; until April 4, they fell one by one.
Most teams in the Other 25 are products of self-fulfilling prophecies. Their ceilings are predetermined in November: bad shooting, poor rebounding, thin bench, low skill, no determination, lack of desire. For the better teams, limits are imposed by superior others in single-game eliminations. In March and April, external forces define the boundaries for them.
But each and every coach ends up here, at the Final Four. It's an annual trip they always make. The season ends in a loss, and the final curtain comes when it does, but this is one last encore before the summertime. While the paying visitors and ticket-holders have their fun at nearby Bracket Town, the guardians of the game mill about in the hotel lobby where the NABC Convention is held. Those like Donnie Tyndall, with good jobs and recent accomplishments, hold court. Others swap stories and strategies. Upwardly mobile assistants work the room with their agents, hoping to land first opportunities or second chances as head coaches.
There in that lobby, you can always tell who's just been fired. They're the ones who aren't wearing a school logo polo shirt, who are doing the most brotherly backslapping and happy handshaking. They're buying drinks for anyone who needs one. They know that the periphery of Our Game is a cold place, and none of them want to lose their grip on it, and end up as a hanger-on and a hustler. None of them want to have to print up their own business cards or build their own website, or offer consulting services and run small-time summer camps. They'll do anything just to stay in the game, because none of them want to end up as Basketball Guys.
I've been thinking a lot about limits this season, but walking through the Hilton Americas in Houston this weekend made me face them myself. Everywhere I went in the lobby, I saw coaches I hadn't seen for years. We would stop and chat. Quite a few of them recognized me from the old big media days.
"So who are you with now?" one asked.
"I have my own website that I run," I replied. "The Mid-Majority. Heard of it? No? I've actually been doing that since before I worked with them, going on seven years now. I also have my stat website called Basketball State."
"But who do you write for?" another asked.
"I still have a monthly column at Basketball Times, and I do some work for Basketball Prospectus now. Yeah, it's new. Ever heard of Nate Silver? The guy who... well, never mind. Mostly, I guess, I write for my readers. They're very good to me, and they support my travels."
I was getting a lot of sympathetic glances and elbow touches. Good for you, Kyle. I'm glad you're hanging in there. At every turn, I was put on the spot, accounting for myself and what I do, explaining why I'm not working for an outlet they'd ever heard of. Finally, after hearing myself talk enough, I understood what was going on.
I've become a hanger-on and a hustler too. I'm a Basketball Guy, just like the ones I always make fun of.
The number of people who take on college basketball as a year-round passion is very low. far outnumbered by the millions who drop in for March Madness on their way to baseball season. I'd estimate that there are only a few thousand of us, and most become bloggers eventually get media credentials.
The number of college hoops junkies who don't follow recruiting, the NBA futures market, or buy into the soap opera star power of superstar coaches is only a small percentage of a percentage. Those who see Division I as a sort of class struggle, who are fascinated with the history of how it got to be this way and how to even the playing field, is a niche of a niche.
And over seven years, we've located and identified each of those people. They are you.
Complicating matters is the constant churn rate. When a team in a league like the Horizon or Colonial or Big West is doing well, traffic from that school inevitably increases. This site acts as a magnet, a Big Picture that puts those wins in context. But once the warm word-baths disappear and others are lauded instead, those fans are gone too. There might be angry resentment and bitterness for a while, but they all leave eventually. Very few accept the idea that all mid-major teams have something in common, all of us and each of us. Even fewer enjoy 1990s alt-rock and literary references, or like to balance geeky stats with old poetry, or can keep up with the dizzying array of in-jokes.
It doesn't matter how "well" I write; doing it my way and refusing to compromise has created a hard ceiling. The audience never expands beyond a certain point: several thousand. The idiosyncratic independence of TMM rubs enough people the wrong way that we will never find the support of a brand sponsor, and we turn former friends into enemies every season.
No matter how the finances are set up -- donations, memberships, scholarships, or anything else -- the site will never raise more than $15,000 for five months of travel. It hasn't happened in seven years, and it won't happen in Year Eight. And even though I've been there for George Mason 2006, Davidson 2008, and Butler 2010 and 2011, nobody has ever paid me enough money to travel with a decent degree of comfort. I've never grossed a penny off this site, much less a decent living.
So the market has spoken. This has gone as far as it can go.
I've spent the last calendar year writing over half a million words about Our Game. Many are in this 592-page book. Now, I will be taking a one-year sabbatical from writing about men's Division I college basketball.
I have been granted a leave of absence by both of my regular journalistic outlets. The Mid-Majority will continue through 2011-12, but the bulk of Season 8 will comprised of statistics and information served by Robots -- much like the 360 subsite is set up now. The only two posts I will write here will be the Prologue and Epilogue. In between, any humanity will be in your hands. I've talked about the end of the 100 Game travel schedules as far back as December, as well as the crowdsourced 800 Game Project, which will involve your own experiences of the games you attend. I will take on a more curatorial role, editing and posting your reports in the mornings.
If the 800 Game Project is completed (or comes remotely close to that number), and if the community stays strong and vibrant as it is now, there will be a reason to continue on for a ninth year. If there isn't one, Epilogue the Eighth will serve as the benediction that this is not, and so the site will gracefully expire due to natural causes. If there happens to be a Mid-Majority in 2012-13, it will have to represent a re-imagining of what this site is, and it will be different that any iteration that has come before. But I haven't had any of those ideas yet, and the community will have a key role in defining that future.
I'm going to miss this. Of course I will. I'm going to miss the games, and meeting up with distant friends, and the sports information directors, and making jokes in Chat Block and on Twitter. I won't miss fundraising, and I won't miss traveling on a shoestring budget. I won't miss debates over where the Red Line should be, or overzealous sportz fans.I won't miss a lot of the people in the sportswriting industry, tiny men with tiny axes.
This is not a decision I made recently. At the beginning of this, seven seasons ago, there was a three-digit sense of purpose to The Mid-Majority: 100. In Season 2, it became a dream job. In Season 5, there was divorce and sickness and chaos, and I lost the plot. I had no idea why I was doing this anymore. But over the past year, from the end of Season 6 to now, it's finally started to make perfect sense.
The circle can close now, and this story is now complete.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
I met Sarah on press row at Hinkle Fieldhouse. It was January 14, 2010, and Butler was playing Cleveland State at home. Sarah was covering the game for the Butler Collegian. She didn't know who the weird guy was, in the suit and sneakers with the stuffed basketball, at least not until a reader came by and told her what The Mid-Majority was.
If not for four amazing team performances to months later -- UTEP, Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State -- we would have never met again. If Butler hadn't made a run to the Final Four, and if the games had not have been held in Indianapolis, she would have been just another of the thousands of people who crosses my path every season for a few fleeting moments. Without Gordon Hayward's tipped pass in the Round of 32, or Xavier's final sacrifice, she'd have been lost to me.
I don't believe in any sort of predetermined "fate." My answer for anything like that is "God is the sum of all actions." It was a complicated series of efforts and decisions, reactions and counter-reactions by others that brought me and Sarah together. The week before the Final Four, Sarah and her roommates painted a bedsheet to make a Butler "Dawgs Is Hot/Too Big Yo" banner. On the left side, a wooden cutout of Bally holding an American flag. The banner became a small campus-area tourist attraction during the Bulldogs' run to the Final Four. Once I heard that they were having trouble keeping it attached to their rented house, I dropped by and left a roll of duct tape on the doorstep.
That Final Four weekend, there was a clandestine "Air Gordon" t-shirt sale in that house's driveway, Dawgs with a "W", and a cupcake party. Random Butler Student Y and I fell in love.
Over seven months later, in late November, once she'd graduated and moved away from Butler and up to the big city, we both stopped being stupid and afraid. We finally admitted it to each other, and we vowed to try and make things work.
This season, in my opinion, was far greater than the previous six, for so many reasons. It wasn't the Perfect Season I've always chased. There were two separate states of existence for me: in Chicago, and not in Chicago. I was so happy when I was there, and so miserable when I was not. On more than one occasion, I wanted to leave this all behind, and quit basketball to be with Sarah. I constantly regretted all the time and effort I was putting into this, because it was time and effort that I could have been offering to her and us.
In March, as in every March, the hundreds of teams on our side of the Red Line were whittled to a set of champions and invitees. I followed the NCAA Tournament bracket from Dayton to Cleveland to Chicago, from San Antonio to New Orleans and back. And the sum of actions meant Season 7 kept going, all the way to the Final Four again. Finally, at the end, there was only one of our teams left, and it was the same team that made it to the end of Season 6, eight pixels away from the National Championship -- the Butler Bulldogs.
"I can't believe we're getting a second chance," she told me Sunday over the phone after her alma mater's team beat VCU. She was so happy, because she loves her Dawgs. "We have to make the most of this."
I can't believe that I did either. And I know.
Like Donnie Tyndall, love has ended in a loss for me before. I've chosen Our Game over a partner too, and I can't do that again. I'll be spending the next year unhinging all of my old East Coast ties, so I can begin a new life in the Midwest with Sarah. This time I'm not going to mess with happiness.
There are plenty of reasons why it won't or can't work between us. But isn't it love, and the absence of apathy or fear, that always keeps us coming back? Doesn't each new season give us new hope that the game won't hurt us, not this time? With the benefit of experience and hindsight, it's going to be okay. It doesn't have to end in a loss, we tell ourselves, and we go into any new endeavor hoping in our hearts it won't. I believe that we will win.
On the night before Butler's national semifinal against Michigan State, Sarah and I sat on the hood of her roommate Amy's car. She told me that she loved living in the city, but that she missed the place where she grew up in central Illinois. There was less light pollution out there, she said, fewer car dealerships and streetlights. Out there, you could see the stars at night.
The hours and words went by, and Friday turned into gameday. "Look," she said, pointing up. The sky was pitch-black, dotted with a thousand tiny lights.
"I think that's a good omen, Sarah," I replied.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
V. Gymnasium Doors
I wrote about my father in this site's first post. He's been sick lately, so I've been thinking about him a lot. My father taught me that one doesn't need to master basketball, or to make it to the NBA, in order to love Our Game. When I was 12, he took me to the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. There, he explained to me how James Naismith invented Basket Ball at the local YMCA, 90 years earlier. My father showed me the famous picture of the first peach basket, nailed to the first ten-foot balcony, in that photograph taken in 1891.
"This was supposed to be something for kids to do during the New England winters so they wouldn't get fat," my father told me. "It certainly wasn't an excuse to sell canvas Converse high-tops."
Indeed, basketball has only been an industry for a percentage of its life. As a cultural touchstone for lifestyle and branding, an even shorter time period. In 1982, when my father first took me to Springfield, the Hall of Fame was still housed in a flat-roof building that looked a lot like an industrial warehouse. The great players were enshrined in an upstairs hallway, and it certainly wasn't the glittering roadside dome that exists nowadays. Back then, the NBA was still in the early days of the new Bird-Magic era, and the college game they left behind was still growing rapidly. There were 48 teams on the NCAA Tournament bracket, and the idea of holding a Final Four in a football stadium was still very new.
It's still such a young sport, this Basket Ball. There was no professional version until the 1920s, when teams like the Rens and Celtics and Globetrotters started criss-crossed the country storming barns for a few bucks. Half a century elapsed between the 1-0 first game and the birth of a cohesive pro circuit with a recognizable national title. By that point, universities had already been contesting National Championships for decades. The college and high school versions developed first, because they grew out of the sport's original purpose.
Naismith combined the best elements of existing games to create the perfect sport. Basketball challenges every piece and part of a young athlete, and rewards athletic prowess and cerebral skill. Our Game teaches lessons about thinking on one's own, as well as lessons about the importance of following directions. It gives back to both the strong and the smart, and punishes the lack of discipline and effort. It was originally conceived as a way to help students remain young in body and grow greater in mind. The basketball court was supposed to be a classroom.
But school ends. People grow up and graduate.
This season, I've approached at that picture of the first basketball court differently. I still daydream about what it must have been like to play in those first-ever games, carrying that soccer ball and shooting at the funny fruit basket with the bottom still attached. But now, instead, I look at the doors underneath the hoop. At the lower and simpler end of Division I, those doors are still there. In the Northeast Conference or Big South or SWAC, you can still find basketball gyms housed in multi-purpose facilities, with natatoriums and classrooms and cafeterias across the hallways.
It seems so odd and ridiculous for those doors to be there, right under the basket. But they stand for something. They say, You are free to go. The more gigantic this sport becomes, the further away from Naismith's 13 Original Rules we get, those doors become harder to locate. It becomes more difficult to find your way out. On Saturday night at Reliant Stadium, I timed myself walking from courtside to outside. I left my seat on row M2 of the media seating area and walked at my normal pace past the court, across the floor, down through the corridors, into the tunnel systems, and backwards through the security checkpoints. It took me over seven minutes to see the sky.
We are supposed to leave. Trapped inside the arena, we become older and increasingly bitter, and less able to communicate with people outside. If we stay too long, we get caught in the endless cycle of temporary wins and inevitable losses, season after season, each exerting a toll on body and mind. Basketball was never supposed to weaken us. Naismith wasn't setting us up to fail. We're supposed to learn the lessons, take what we can from the game, and then go.It shouldn't end in a loss, it should end when we say it should.
Mike Sutton was able to retire on his own terms, if not against his will. He's 55 years old now, and would have had another decade left in coaching if his body hadn't let him down. In 2005, he was struck with Guillain-Barr Syndrome, and barely lived through it. He made his way back to the Tennessee Tech bench with the help of his faithful wife Karen, his loyal assistant Steve Payne, and a motorized wheelchair. But this season, he missed two weekend trips during the Ohio Valley Conference race, due to GBS-related complications. After the season ended in a loss -- a title game defeat at the hands of those Morehead State Eagles -- he was able to exit gracefully. The administration allowed Sutton to pass the mantle to Payne, the man who always filled in when he was sick.
Tony Ingle was fired, and never was afforded the dignity of a goodbye letter. Someday, Donnie Tyndall and Adam Walsh might get the opportunity to pen their own exit speeches. But in 2011, Coach Sutton was able to announce his own retirement, his own way.
"I guess I just became a consultant, analyst, workout guru, recruiting service expert, scholarship consultant and overall genius (coaches are much smarter when they give advice rather than make decisions)," the letter read in part. Underneath, it was signed, Mike Sutton, Tennessee Tech Head Men's Basketball Coach. And then, in big bold uppercase letters: RETIRED.
I called Coach Sutton to congratulate him on his 33-year career. His path wound through VCU and Tulsa, before he broke the Red Line as an assistant at Georgia, and then on to Kentucky. Sutton has a 1998 National Championship ring because Tubby Smith, the man who replaced later-regretful Rick Pitino, hired him to the staff. I was prepared to talk about grandchildren and golf, but all Sutton wanted to talk about was basketball. He was going a mile a minute, for half an hour, about tempo-free stats, ideas for new pages on Basketball State, the coaching carousel, John Calipari, the book "Scorecasting," and how many games the TTU Golden Eagles are going to win the 2011-12 OVC regular season title by. I couldn't keep up.
I'm convinced that Coach Sutton is going to be the happiest Basketball Guy in the country."I still love basketball so much," he said. "I'll never retire from that, not until I die. But I'm running from two people now: the surgeon and the funeral director. If I can keep hiding from those guys, you know I'm going to be there cheering my team. There's a lot of difference between the bench and the row of seats right behind it, you know, Kyle. Those four feet is the difference between idiot and genius."
I still love the game too. I'll never want to stop celebrating what's pure and great about it, and put that into words. That's why I want to come back. But there's something I have to do first.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Hammond, Louisiana is hot and humid, even in the late autumn. Even on November 16, 2009, half an hour before the start of Game 3 of Season 6, which was a non-conference tilt between homestanding Southeastern Louisiana and Florida Atlantic from the Sun Belt. I was sitting alone on press row getting some reading done, when I was interrupted by a thin arm and an outstretched hand.
I looked up. It was a beautiful and strong young woman, wearing a white basketball uniform decked with green and yellow trim. Her hair was pulled back in a knot, her face glistening with sweat.
"Thanks for watching," she said, smiling.
I shook her hand. Behind her, the rest of a team that had just trounced NAIA school William Carey by 41 points. I shook their hands as well, and then those of the coaches, before they went on to greet the scoreboard operator and official scorer.
I hadn't watched. Hardly anybody had. Folks were just beginning to stream into the arena for a 7 p.m. start, and the women's game had run late. I'd been sitting there since halftime, with the game unfolding in front of me as I buried my nose in the night's game notes. It certainly wasn't the first time that had happened. But this gesture was so overwhelmingly touching that I was distracted for most of the first half of the men's game. I finally understood what John Wooden once said about "the best pure basketball." They play for themselves and each other, I wrote in my notebook. And they're grateful for anyone else who happens to come along.
Later on that season, while cleaning the Palestra under the supervision of Dan Harrell, I vacuumed the empty women's locker room. The Penn women were 1-14 at the time, in the midst of a season that had long since been lost. On the walls of the locker room were yellow sheets of paper, upon which the Quaker players had written notes of encouragement to each other. "I will be a source of strength to my teammates in times of struggle," was one. "I will never quit on you," said another. Over and over. This was the kind of team I wanted to be on, and the scene moved me.
I've felt like such a hypocrite for my ignorance. This is the poetic pure game I always say I'm looking for, played by players who will someday walk out of those gymnasium doors as better and stronger people. I want to try to better understand what drives them to play, even though those gymnasiums are often empty.
So next year, I pledge to watch -- all of it, not just the Other 24. During my year away from The Mid-Majority, I'm going to learn as much as I can about the other side. I have to figure out how to watch too, and learn how to properly study and respect. I readily admit that this will take some time, and that my learning curve is steep. But I'll be starting over and becoming a first-year student again, which is exciting to me. If the 800 Game Project fails, if this community falls apart and becomes irrelevant, I know I'll have something to devote all my sophomore studies to in 2012-13.
I do have a head start on this project. After two years of fits and starts (mostly due to a lack of clean statistics), there will finally be a women's version of Basketball State this summer. Access will be included in the regular annual price. With the new sister site, deep tempo-free analysis will finally be extended to women's hoops. Basketball Prospectus has graciously allowed me to keep my nametag during my sabbatical, so I'll pop in from time to time over there to contribute statistical flyovers. Otherwise, in a concerted effort to keep from looking like an uninformed blowhard, and as a courtesy to the true experts, I won't be writing much on a subject I know little about. Just like the phantom "Season 0" in 2003-04, when I bought tickets to 83 games, this research will all be done from the stands, and in silence.
In general, I won't be in touch very much, beyond my curatorial capacity. I'll be just as bad about e-mail as I am now, and I won't have much of a reason to tweet. I trust that you realize that studying the other side of Our Game will take up any free time or effort.
But if you happen to be at a women's game at Loyola, UIC, Chicago State or maybe even Butler, pleasestop by the bleachers and say hello. Stop and visit for a while.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
VI. It Ends
On Monday morning, I found myself eating breakfast in the Hilton again, even though I wasn't staying there. As I sat in the sprawling lobby caf, the hostess assigned George Mason head coach Jim Larranaga to the table beside me. He was minding his own business, ordered his herb tea, and read the Houston Chronicle through his thin spectacles. I stood up from my table, and made the short walk over.
"You probably don't remember me," I said, extending my arm. "It's been a while. But I'm Kyle Whelliston."
"I remember you," he exclaimed, shaking my hand with a bony grip. "The writer! Pull up a chair. So who are you working for nowadays?"
"I... well, it's kind of complicated, Coach," I replied. "But I'm here because of Butler."
"Brad Stevens." He drew the words out slowly and reverently, his eyes squinting a bit. "Let me tell you something, Kyle. Brad Stevens is nothing less than the next John Wooden. Think about it. Smart young coach from Indiana, took a small local college all the way to the championship game. Then Coach Wooden got a thirst to test himself at a higher level. At some point, Coach Stevens is going to have that same urge. But he's never going to leave for the sake of leaving. He's only going to leave if it's the absolute right situation. He's guided not by a hunger for money, but by strong bedrock principles that he lives his life by."
Coach Larranaga counted the tenets off on his own left hand. "Humility, passion, unity, servanthood, thankfulness. Those are the five non-negotiable building blocks of success, Kyle... not only on the basketball court, but in any aspect of life or business. A lot of coaches aren't interested in all that, though. They're distracted by other things. But not Brad Stevens."
Fourteen hours later, Brad Stevens was standing outside the loser's locker room at Reliant Stadium, calmly and politely answering pointed questions from reporters. The season had ended in a loss, on the last possible night of the season, just like it had the year before. But the second title game elimination -- Connecticut 53, Butler 41 -- could not have been measured in pixels, but in miles instead. On the other side of the doorway, the Bulldog underclassmen wept in front of their lockers. But their coach had less to say about missed shots than he did about philosophy.
"It's a bitter pill to swallow, the way it ended, but we have nothing to hang our heads about," Stevens said in an even, cool, measured tone. "These guys truly care. It's not talk. When they say they're a team, they're a team... if there's anything they are, they're accountable. All who played in the game feel like they somehow let us down, but that's ridiculous. If a team is going to go 12-for-64 from the field and lose that game, and go out the way that they did, these guys have the character to handle it. I'm really proud of them, and it's hard to put into words what they've done."
One word, certainly, was accountability. Over the years, Stevens added his own sixth pillar to the Way -- an extra finger, or perhaps another brick in the success pyramid of his own construction.
"Disappointment's an interesting thing," he continued. "A lot of people want that title of champion, National Champion. It's disappointing when you lose your last game, because you care so much and you feel so accountable. This will take some time to heal, because it's so fresh right now. This is disappointing... but we'll live."
The first thing I did once the final buzzer sounded was run towards the tunnels, past the UConn section. Red, white and blue confetti, limp cascading streams and paper stars, were showering down over me. I ran past students who were mugging for photographs with fake newspaper front pages. Somebody ripped open a box of National Championship t-shirts emblazoned with "No. 1," throwing them out into the crowd. Back in the quiet hallways, where the phone reception wasn't completely saturated, I called Sarah. She was crying so hard, it sounded like her lungs were hanging inside out.
"This isn't the way it was supposed to end," she blurted out between heavy sobs. "It's not fair, Kyle, it's just not fair. I'm so sorry. I'm so, so, so sorry. This was supposed to be the perfect ending. I feel so ashamed and embarrassed. They couldn't have played any worse. Why did this happen this way? Why?"
By this time, I was crying too, and having trouble getting the words out. "You weren't on that court, Sarah," I managed. "There was nothing you or I could do to affect the outcome of that game. I wanted this as badly as you did, but there was nothing either of us could do."
"I told myself over and over that I wouldn't throw myself into it this year, that I wouldn't get hurt like that again, but I did, I did," she said, exploding in tears again. "God, Kyle, I wish you were here with me right now."