CHICAGO, October 30 -- About a year ago, George Mason head coach Jim Larranaga called. "Thanks for writing that nice article about our 2006 team," went the voicemail. Five months later, on the morning of the National Championship game, over breakfast in the lobby of the downtown Hilton in Houston, I took the opportunity to thank him for thanking me. "I really appreciated that you even took the time to read that," I said. "For a Division I head coach to pick up the phone about someone's blog post, that isn't something that happens very often, much less every day."
I explained to him that I'd tried to write five essays, about each of the five pillars of former Wisconsin-Green Bay coach Dick Bennett's coaching and life philosophy. In 1995, this wasn't called "The Way," back when Bennett shared a quiet summer weekend with Larranaga and Barry Collier in Wisconsin, but Collier ended up naming it the "Butler Way" back at his own school. Humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness: this handful of fundamentals turned out to be quite the recipe, one that somehow turned mid-majors into giant-killers. At Butler, The Way was potent enough to make the Bulldogs National Championship runners-up... twice. For Larranaga's part, he started winning at Bowling Green, moved back East to George Mason, and he got a Final Four appearance out of it too.
I'd used George Mason 2006 to illustrate Bennett's third precept: unity
. "That's really neat, Kyle," Larranaga said between sips of herbal tea. "I didn't get a chance to read the others. Send me those links when you get a chance."
By the time I got around to it, his George Mason e-mail address didn't work anymore.
On April 22, Jim Larranaga left for the University of Miami of the Atlantic Coast Conference. When I heard about this, I was at O'Hare Airport waiting for a flight back to Rhode Island after visiting Sarah, my girlfriend at the time. It was a long flight.
The news stung deeply. I thought about calling once I landed, about doing the whole "say it ain't so, Jim" thing. But that would have only made me another speed-dialing media vulture, as if the world needed more of those. Besides, I knew I didn't have any right to feel betrayed. If Larranaga had played Judas, it had only been against a narrow construct that I'd been responsible for purveying -- the brilliant fantasy that those with fewer resources share a common struggle, that being happy with less is some kind of selfless virtue, and that "jumping the Red Line" is a euphemism for greed.
But what hurt the most was that here on the site, we'd used six of Jim Larranaga's very own words as a rallying cry. So much so that the six-letter acronym AOUEOU had become recognizable hashtag shorthand within our little community of scrappy basketball underdogs.
The words came from a George Mason practice back in March of 2006
, as the Patriots stood two games from the Final Four and four away from a National Championship. "We've made it this far... There's no reason we can't go even farther. But it's up to all of us, and it's up to each of us." He gestured with both hands as if measuring with a scale. "All of us, each of us. When there is no difference between those two, anything is possible for this team. When we get selfish, when we don't play together, when we don't pick each other up -- and we know this very well -- we all fail together."
As the plane touched down in Providence, I thought about the words Larranaga used, but I couldn't get past that gesture, the way that he weighed both sides of the equation with his hands. There's a comma, a separating wedge between "all of us" and "each of us," and true balance between the two is fragile and fleeting. No matter what, one of those two sides is always going to tip the scale in the end. * * * *
Everyone is disappointing, the more you know someone.
Despite the best efforts of some, there is no true cohesive "all of us." Human history and politics and sciences and arts, as we know and perceive them, would not be possible without the difficult relationship between Self and Other. Each division and spectrum point smashes the whole into smaller and tinier contextual fragments: blacks and whites, communists and libertarians, men and women, the X percent and the Y percent, creators and consumers, adherents of all the One True Gods, and so on. Individualism results from a careful process of elimination.
Empathy and understanding only go so far. You and I are cursed with an unshakable perspective that defines our each-ness; inside and outside are divided by a line of scrimmage defined by the epidermis. And is there anything more problematic than those on the other side, those other Selves?
My father, who's been married and divorced three times, always says that the ultimate goal of life is to find other people you can stand to be around for more than a couple of days at a time. That's always made more sense to me than 42,
unless Douglas Adams was talking about a set and exact number of hours.
Give someone enough time, and they'll let you down. No matter what, those who you like, love and look up to will fall short of your expectations, fail your narrow tests. It's only natural, since failure is programmed into the DNA of each of us. It always ends in a loss.
Our Game is one great big annual crucible of dissatisfaction. That basketball coach your school just signed to a multi-year contract will eventually be fired for losing too much, or he'll go somewhere better for winning too much. Shaka Smart will someday leave VCU, just like Anthony Grant did before him. At some point, Brad Stevens will have a losing season at Butler, or wherever he finally ends up, and you can bet there will be plenty of internet writers who'll have an opinion about that.
I'm not the only person who felt disappointed when Jim Larranaga left George Mason. But I can't blame him; I've done plenty of disappointing myself. Over the last seven years, I've had the opportunity to dissatisfy more people than most folks ever get to.
The Mid-Majority could very well be subtitled A Minor Journal of Human Disappointment
. (Then again, that probably goes for at least 95 percent of all non-fiction writing.) Disappointment with various others has been a recurring theme since Day One, but I pause now to honor the tens of thousands of former TMM readers who will never see these words. I let them down because of something I wrote, or I used this space far too much for matters other than college basketball, or I was a dick for not returning an earnest 1,500-word e-mail. Plenty of people have stopped reading, or unfollowed, or defriended, or whatever other new ways technology has enabled us to communicate basic unfulfillment.
This is obviously a structural problem, albeit a common one. Any community of "all of us," of any size, based around the organizational efforts of a single person, will eventually fail. Being human, each of us is eminently unreliable. * * * *
Death has the final word over narcissism: you can't be the center of the universe if you don't exist.
The self-defeating nature of narcissism is that the center of the universe is a lonely place to be, and it's precisely our anxiety over being alone that drives us to be narcissists. It's a vicious cycle: loneliness, anxiety, narcissistic compensation, more loneliness, and so on.
Release comes in surrendering to our neediness: in recognizing that we are not necessary beings but contingent, fragile, mortal beings. In surrender we make ourselves available to others; we open ourselves into the vulnerability that makes intimacy possible. More and more, life ceases to be centered on me, and the grip of loneliness relaxes. Ultimately, relationships are what we have.
I've lost track of the the number of Mid-Majority seasons that have begun with a description of the most common scene I've experienced over the last seven winters:
It's late at night. I'm sitting in a rented vehicle alongside an American interstate highway. I'm somewhere between one college campus and another, between two of the 702 Division I basketball games I've attended since the beginning of this. I always made it a point to write about the experiences in between the games, mostly because I was chronicling a journey of 100,000 miles that readers underwrote. So I even included the mundane, lonely parts.
It doesn't get much lonelier than sitting alone in an enclosed, locked, metal container in the middle of American Nowhere. It's a feeling that encourages a perspective of the universe as viewed through the spectral prism of one's navel. It helps reinforce the ridiculous illusion of the Self as a singular, special, unique entity on a planet of billions, a "me" adrift amongst an invisible "them."
None of the colleges I visited offered classes in Loneliness Studies, and none ever advertised a Bachelor's or Master's degree in that or any related discipline. But there's no understating the power of loneliness as an unstoppable primal force. Our efforts to escape it explain just about everything we do. To stop running from loneliness is to face skull-crushing existential self-absorption, to confront the little-g god inside.
We're not really getting too far off-topic here; loneliness is an important motivating force of sports fandom. Devotion to athletes and teams tends to be more about discussion than pure observation, especially these days. Twitter is full of cries for attention from strangers, whether over nationally-televised baseball games or obscure soccer teams. Comparative sports expertise often boils down to a contest about who has less constructive things to do with their time, or who's superior at neglecting their spouses and families. Loneliness is a central driver of the sports-guy experience, even if Bill Simmons keeps conveniently forgetting to discuss this.
Why else would someone go on the internet and write 1800 posts and 1.5 million words about mid-major college basketball?
In late September, I found myself on another roadside, late at night, in the parking lot of a convenience plaza on the westbound Ohio Turnpike. This time, I was sitting in a U-Haul truck, with most of my earthly possessions loaded in the back. I recognized that familiar Mid-Majority feeling from a thousand times before, shuddered, and got back out on the road as immediately as I could. There was nobody waiting up for me, nobody I had to text the minute I got there, but I wanted to get the journey finished as soon as possible. I just wanted to see the skyline as the sun rose. I wanted to reach Chicago.
My true love now is my city. It's unlike the Eastern metropolises where I grew up. New York and Boston and Philadelphia happen to you
; history and culture are fixed in stone there, to the point of grey looming oppression. These places resist their residents' impact, and will remain the same once each either leaves or dies. In Chicago, history is a very fluid thing. My neighborhood has changed hands from immigrant Jews to Polish Catholics to Germans to Mexicans to aging hipsters like me, all in the last 100 years. Waves of immigrants settled here, then moved outwards from the center, because there's plenty of room for everyone. Chicagoland is technically unbounded to the west, and it could theoretically grow until it annexes Davenport, Madison and Saint Louis.
For generations, Chicago has been a choice. While a few lack the resources to pack up and leave town for good, nobody is being held here against their will. Much of the city's South Side is populated by men and women whose ancestors escaped slavery a century and a half ago. Most new residents, like me, came here for possibilities not available in smaller places, and embraced the opportunity to be a small part of a greater working whole. I think about the four six-pointed stars on the city flag
, and how they each represent four moments in time when locals came together, each of them and all of them, in the name of mutual benefit and progress.
For every Chicago year, there has been a Chicago winter. The one I spent here as a guest showed me that people here generally tend to approach lake-effect snow with a genial, communal attitude. If we all agree to get through this together, there are ample rewards on the other side: green grass, baseball, and patio dining. As you may have heard, the food here is pretty good.
My city is endless. Some days, I'll ride the train and get off at a random stop, just to walk around and discover a new neighborhood. Everywhere I go, people smile and say hello, instead of playing Travis Bickle at the first sign of eye contact. This is something I could do for the rest of my life.
Last week, I met a friend for coffee. He reads the site, so he asked me how the sabbatical was going. "OK, so after the 800 Games Project, you're going on the road again for Season 9, right? Is it going to be for women's basketball next time?"
"Wait, are you serious?" I responded. "You really think I'm going to go back to spending five months out of the year sleeping in cars and hotels, getting sick all the time and slicing years off my life? Believe me, this is the end of that. I'm home now.
"I'm supposed to go back east for a wedding next month. I'm having nightmares about it. In the dream, I try to get on the plane back to O'Hare and they won't let me board for some reason or another. So yeah, no way I'm going out on the road again. I don't even want to leave town for four days."
where this story ends
. * * * *
I really don't know what else to add at this point. I don't have any idea what this site will be like one year from now, just like I had no idea what this site would end up as today, from the vantage point of one calendar year ago. November 1 used to be my wedding anniversary, and in my new life it's a date that has more to do with Chicago Transit Authority train platforms
than anything else.
There honestly isn't much of a reason for me to write here anymore. That's your job now -- you're out there, scattered across Hoops Nation, going to games. So this is your site. When this season is over, you all will tell me how you want to proceed. Whatever needs to be funded will be funded, because the community will step up; we sold out all of our 170 available Season 8 Memberships, 20 more than Season 7, and we haven't even started the year yet.
As long as enough people think that it's important to chronicle the efforts and struggles of smaller Division I schools, especially in an age of increasing consolidation of power in the richer reaches, The Mid-Majority will exist. If the site dies someday, it dies. But I will never shut TMM down for any selfish and personal reasons, and that's a hard promise.
I'll be okay. Going forward, my role here will be more as a technology provider and customer service representative. In time, the daily editing and curating duties will be distributed as well, and the community will become increasingly self-sustaining. I'll still be deeply involved in Our Game, but not as a single independent internet writer among a squabbling army of increasing thousands. Trust me: my name will pop up in places you'll never expect.
For now, I challenge all of you to go to eight hundred games, and I call on each of you to attend as many as you can. Write about them, and do it interestingly. Chronicle this 2011-12 season as best you can, together. There will need to be many of you; eight hundred is more games than I went to in seven years. The only words of advice I can give you is that it's all in the follow-through... as excited as you may be now about this 800 Games Project, its success will hinge on your continued motivation. It's a long way to March.
There will never be a perfect season. But for allegorical purposes, I hereby plant in your mind the idea and image of a perfect city -- populated by imperfect individuals with unlimited capacity for disappointment and loneliness, all held together by a group of simple principles. All residents, there by choice, contribute what they can and for their own reasons. Each forward effort makes the place more beautiful.
My own city is as far from perfect as any; we have plenty of our own problems. But 140 years ago last month, the whole place burned down
, and the second star on our flag represents the rebuilding efforts. Back then, locals pledged to remake Chicago into a better city than it had been before, and each of them adopted a simple two-word motto to motivate themselves to do what needed to be done.
I encourage each of you to take it up as well. It's an easy motto to remember; it's one-third of a sentence we repeated a lot in recent seasons. It's there, hidden at the top of every page, to remind you that all of you can make this site better than it's ever been, but that it's up to each of you.
Erect, commanding, like a goddess born, With strength and beauty glowing in her face And all her stately form attired in grace, Tomorrow: guidelines for the 800 Games Project.
She stands beside her lake to greet the morn.
Behind her, rustling leaves of yellow corn
That whisper richest comfort to the race;
And 'neath her gaze, the waters' purple space
A thousand flashing sails with light adorn.
Still in her sight shine visions of the fair--
Immortal Art illuming human ill,
And far-eyed Science blessing with her care;
While through her soul, in purpose to fulfill
And reach her highest hope beyond compare,
Throbs deep and strong the strenuous cry: "I will."