Rich man step on my poor head,
When you get back you better butter my bread.
Well, do you know it's like I said,
You better head back to Tennessee, Jed.
ANTIOCH, TENNESSEE - Nobody knows who the first person was who led a piece of journalism with a musical quotation. The question isn't even worth researching. Despite the risk involved, it can be a nice way to lubricate a reader's attention span for the long haul ahead, even if only a percentage of the audience knows the song well enough to hear it in their heads. For most, however, it's just a tuneless clatter of italics.
The Red State Basketball Goodwill Tour 2005 began in the still of the early morning hours of Valentine's Day, as the family Civic crept away from the sleeping city of Philadelphia at 4:15 a.m. and hurtled down Interstate 95. Your humble narrator was operating on two hours of sleep, because the Dribblings don't write themselves. The drive to Chattanooga, Tennesee - 763 miles in length - was an eleven-hour blur. If it wasn't for Hayley the iPod's wise and excellent random shuffling, which included a lot of early-Eighties Elvis Costello and selections from old Grateful Dead shows (see above), I might be lodged in a mile marker sign somewhere outside Roanoke.
A slim majority of nearly 400 Mid-Majority readers selected the "Dark Red" route through the deeper south instead of the "Light Red" track that stuck closer to the middle. The good thing about Light Red was that the driving would have been evenly distributed, and the winning Dark Red has the killer drives at the beginning and end - with leisurely 100 and 200-mile daily jaunts. I have an obligation to you, and that includes not juking and jiving my way into an more convenient itinerary if the mood strikes, so off I went before dawn's crack. And so as the Wawas faded into Wilcos, as the Hummers and SUV's replaced by F150's and Silverados, I stayed awake with the help of a lot of coffee. A lot
of coffee.When I went to a self-serve Dunkin' Donuts in southern Virginia, that was the first moment I knew I was far from home. Northeasterners know all about the sacred invisible barrier that separates customer and donut, and only the cheerful tan-shirted lad or lass is qualified to walk between the two worlds. They will pull a wax sheet from the box, lift your chosen treat up off the rack, and bring it to you. They are the true custodians of the DD coffee pot, and you are just lucky for the opportunity to sip its hot, wet nectar. So when I picked up a bear-claw with my own two fingers and placed it in the bag myself, I felt an overwhelming need to go directly to Confession. And I'm not even Catholic.I arrived in Chattanooga at 4:30 pm Eastern Time, and the streets are empty for the most part. President's Day, right?
The first thing I noticed were lawn signs for an upcoming mayoral election. A popular sign read "Ann Coulter for Mayor - The Time Is Now," and you can't get more red-state than the author of How To Talk To A Liberal... If You Must. Could Chairman Ann be trying to solidify her resumé with some public office duty? To find out, I go into a local establishment and order a lite beer.
"Nawww," the bartender says while cleaning a glass. "It's another chick with the same name."
"Oh," I reply. "What if the other Ann Coulter, the famous one, was running? Would you vote for her?"
He thinks about it for a second. "Only if she'd stop doing all those tee-vee shows and stick around long enough for us to get a good look at 'er," he opines. "She's a hot one."Basketball romantics who swoon in delight at the grassroots nature of the 100 Games Project - "And he always pays his way in!" - will probably be horrified to know that yes, occasionally I do get media credentials to the games. True purists, however, will surely be delighted to know that I do it primarily to save money. Lest you forget, this is not being bankrolled by some major sports outlet. (Perhaps at the end of the RSBGT, I'll let you know how much the week ends up costing... you will be shocked.)
It's a difficult balance, having one foot on either side. The amount of access I have to the games generally determines the basketball-related quality of the resulting piece - The farther away from the court I sit, the more likely the contest will be recapped with a cartoon. Most of the sports information directors I've dealt with (at least the ones who return my calls and letters) have been very kind, accommodating and helpful. But I always get the feeling that they're treating me nicely out of the kindness of their sympathetic hearts, just as they might for that cute 12-year old kid in his Sunday suit. You know, the one holding the pencil and composition book, who's covering the game for his Xeroxed sunday-school newsletter.
Everyone seems to have questions - about The Project, about my credentials, about my excuse for living - and it's fumbling to explain what I'm doing that's the tough part. I don't represent a newspaper (school or otherwise), nor a television station, nor a radio network. Yes, I write for a website. Yes, I'm trying to go to 100 games. Yes, I'm one of those "bloggers." No, I'm not a complete charlatan. I sometimes wish that they'd treat me like the other media.
Because basketball needs beat poets as much as it needs beat writers - perhaps even more so. But when John Feinstein did his book, the Patriot League schools rearranged their existences, and treated him as would a Games-hopeful city treat a visiting International Olympic Committee member. That's not what I'm looking for. The love I receive from my beautiful Official Wife™ is more than enough for me, and I don't need my ego stroked or my efforts validated. I have no interest in being the center of attention, receiving royal lavishments, or sneaking in the door with a free ticket. I'm there to do a job, even if it's a non-paying one. Who should understand that better than residents of the Volunteer State?
(And for any bloggers who are planning to leverage their growing audiences into spots on press row, I strongly and sternly recommend that you approach credentialship in the same unassuming fashion. I'm talking to you, Cohen.)
Last night in the press room, a quick and easy shorthand flashes into my sleep-deprived mind. When the words leave my lips, however, I quickly realize that I've made a horrible mistake. "I'm a little less of a sportswriter and more of a travel writer."
"So you go around, just trying to capture the sights and sounds," a Mocs beat scribe says, offering a circular hand gesture and fixing me with a sympathetic expression.
Yeah, right, sorta. How many points is a basket worth again?
I want to thank the sports information offices at Chattanooga, Evansville, Western Kentucky and Charleston for being so accomodating and hosting me during the RSBGT. While it will invariably result in better gasme recaps, we will revisit this strategy at the end of this trip and consider whether it will be repeated during conference tournament week.Because when it comes down to it, I'd rather be talking to the people than defending my honor. After the Chattanooga-UNCG game, I seek out a middle-aged lady who'd been screaming Tennessee-tinged invective all game. She's a bundle of energy in her yellow UTC sweatshirt.
"How do you keep your voice up like that?" I ask admiringly. "You're real good."
"Honey, I went to school for this," she says proudly in a thick drawl, softly slapping my forearm. "I was a voice major at Tech."
When I leave the McKenzie Arena, Chattanooga is shrouded in the thickest fog I have ever experienced. Driving down the highways at speeds above 25 is impossible, you can't see the white lines or the exit signs. This is when the fatigue finally catches up and swallows me - I just make out the medium blue of a rest area sign in the distance. I pull up into its parking lot, pull my jacket over my chest, and sleep for eight solid and restful hours.
When I wake up, the fog has lifted and it's a cold, breezy Tuesday. The birds are chirping and the trees are swollen with dew. It's just like camping in a metal tent.