"You gotta play hurt," as Den Jenkins semi-famously titled his book two decades ago. Of course, Jenkins wrote it as fiction and largely lampooned sports journalism, but I digress.
At about 6 p.m. on Monday evening, I was hurting. My head felt like it weighed 100 pounds, I couldn't breathe out of my nose, I'd had a long day at school, and had just finished coaching my JV basketball team that would open its season in two days.
There was Christmas shopping to be done, papers to correct, food to buy, and I knew the alarm was going to ring at 5:45 again Tuesday morning. A fairly dense fog had rolled into southern Connecticut, and the games I'd promised myself I'd watch on the DVR sounded infinitely better than the Yale-Sacred Heart game I had signed up to cover for this site.
Could there possibly be a Division I game that means less this season? With only eight teams in the Ivy League, Yale doesn't open its conference season for more than a month. Sacred Heart (only the second most prominent team few people know anything about in its own hometown of Fairfield) was playing its third game in five days, the previous two being NEC games, in which the normally bottom-dwelling Pioneers nearly pulled off a road double to open conference play, beating Quinnipiac and taking favored Central Connecticut to overtime before falling.
Those were games that counted. This game? It was likely to be little noted nor long remembered.
But, in my moment of weakness, I remembered that we're not getting to 800 games by bailing out when times get tough, and "I will" meant "I will", so I summoned my inner Cameron from Ferris Bueller Day's Off and said, "I'll go. I'll go. I'll go."
Thirty minutes later, I was walking up the hill to the Pitt Center, which is described as "state-of-the-art" on the Sacred Heart website. I'm sure the adjacent fitness center (which I'm assuming all the sweaty students adorning headphones who would randomly saunter in for a glance at the game came from) is wonderful, but let's just say the gym leaves a lot to be desired.
At tip-off, the "Heart Attack," the SHU student section, numbered about 20 and the din of the fans on the roof was the only other sound beside the whistles and squeaking of sneakers. Again, as I had basically an entire section to myself, I asked, "Why am I here?"
Yale coach James Jones was surely thinking the same thing as the Pioneers raced to an early 20-7 lead over the disinterested Bulldogs, expected to be one of the prime challengers (if there is one) to Harvard in the Ivy.
The normally docile Jones was as angry as I've ever seen him, and as team finally sprung to life, so did the Pitt Center.
And so did I.
As Yale battled back, and Sacred Heart impressively answered, I began to remember why I love going to live games.
The guy sitting in front of me with the Pittsburgh Penguins parka from the early 1990s desperately trying to keep tab of the action with a home-made scoresheet. There's one of those in every gym, isn't there? I wonder how many games he's seen?
The fourth-ranked (or so the PA announcer said) Sacred Heart dance team, who I'm sure will get screwed over in the BCS like all mid-majors.
The little girl sitting in front of me who was asked to take part in the "dress in the uniform and then make a layup" challenge, in which she smoked the competition (which consisted of an older boy) only to get a smattering of boos when the student section figured out she was decked out head to toe in Yale clothing.
The guy that sat two rows behind me that I was sure was Boston University coach Joe Jones. Joe coached against his brother James at Columbia, went to Boston College as an assistant, then was hired by BU before this season. I was keen to ask Joe about the Red Line Upset over his former team last weekend, but was it really him or an imposter? After careful deliberation, I decided he was too short and that Boston was too far away (a three-hour drive).
Of course, first and foremost, there was the basketball. When push comes to shove, the game is the thing, and it doesn't matter to most of you reading this whether it's Duke-North Carolina, Syracuse-UConn, or Sacred Heart-Yale in front of 641 people.
Push did literally come to shove, as there were four technicals handed out, one at the very end of the first half to an out-of-character James Jones, who nearly got himself ejected by staring down the officials all the way to the halftime locker room.
"I thought my guy, Matt Townsend, drew a charge," Jones explained to the New Haven Register afterward. "And I thought he added insult to injury by calling a technical on me. I'm pretty mild-mannered, most often ... I was just yelling out, 'That call was awful.' I got to him late in the game, and he said he thought it was excessive. I said, 'I'd appreciate a warning, or just tell me to sit down or something.' I've been around for a little bit, I thought I've earned a little respect. But maybe it charged our guys up, who knows?"
Yale is not known for its intensity, but it erased a nine-point halftime deficit in less than four minutes, scoring 17 of the game's first 19 points in the second half, led by some inspired play by senior Reggie Wilhite (23 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists). As it did in the first half, though, Sacred Heart recovered and the game was within one possession for most of the final five minutes.
Justin Swidowski, an undersized big man, scored six straight points - and pointed at the student section with each hoop - to give the Pioneers a 71-70 lead with two minutes remaining, but Yale got the lead back at the foul line. With the score 73-71 and 9.4 seconds left, the Bulldogs missed a free throw, Sacred Heart coach Dave Bike (in his 34th season at the helm, most of them when the Pioneers were playing Division II ball) chose not to take a time out, and he got a great look from junior Shane Gibson - coincidentally on the cover of the poster game program I purchased - to win the game with a three-pointer.
The crowd rose to its feet. The teams rose to their feet. The dance team, the guy with the Penguins parka, the little girl, and the Joe Jones-lookalike did the same.
Time slowed like it was Jimmy Chitwood launching the shot, the ball fluttered through the air, and ..... clang. The ball caromed off the back of the rim, the buzzer sounded, and Yale had held on, 73-71.
This was real life, after all.
The fog wasn't any better on the Merritt Parkway, I still had a terrible cold, and the North Carolina-Kentucky clash from the weekend still goes unwatched, but I smiled all the way home.
Most people wouldn't understand that smile. But I'm guessing you might.
YALE 73, at SACRED HEART 71 12/05/2011
YALE 6-2 (0-0) -- R. Willhite 8-15 7-9 23; G. Mangano 6-10 9-11 21; A. Morgan 2-6 2-2 7; J. Kreisberg 2-6 4-4 8; M. Grace 1-5 6-7 8; I. Salafia 2-5 0-0 5; M. Townsend 0-1 0-0 0; S. Martin 0-2 1-2 1; B. Sherrod 0-1 0-2 0; R. Anderson 0-1 0-0 0; J. Pritchard 0-0 0-0 0; G. Kelley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-52 29-37 73. SACRED HEART 5-5 (1-1) -- S. Gibson 6-12 2-2 14; J. Swidowski 6-11 3-4 15; C. Evans 5-7 5-8 16; P. Gaetano 2-4 1-2 5; L. Montes 1-5 2-2 4; S. Dulaire 1-1 7-10 9; E. Kelley 2-5 0-0 6; F. Akinpetide 0-3 0-0 0; N. Greenbacker 0-2 0-0 0; S. Glowiak 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 24-53 20-28 71.
Three-point goals: YALE 2-16 (G. Mangano 0-2; R. Willhite 0-3; M. Grace 0-2; S. Martin 0-2; A. Morgan 1-4; I. Salafia 1-3), SH 3-14 (S. Gibson 0-3; N. Greenbacker 0-1; E. Kelley 2-4; J. Swidowski 0-1; S. Glowiak 0-1; L. Montes 0-2; C. Evans 1-1; P. Gaetano 0-1); Rebounds: YALE 32 (R. Willhite 7), SH 30 (J. Swidowski 6); Assists: YALE 10 (R. Willhite 5), SH 15 (C. Evans 5); Total Fouls -- YALE 23, SH 26; Fouled Out: YALE-None; SH-E. Kelley.