At first blush, I thought I would be in for a rather enjoyable experience when I took my seat at the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau, Mo. The fans around me streamed in slowly during the preceding women's game, chatting happily with others as they made their way to their seats. As the men's teams warmed up, the seats filled with warm and festive greetings, wishes for happy new years and talk of holiday plans come to pass playing as a better soundtrack than the music from the loudspeakers. In most smaller cities, basketball games can serve as a social gathering as well as a sporting event, and nestled along the hills overlooking the Mississippi River, Cape Girardeau is no exception.
But as the teams were taking their last few warm-up shots, the first omen came from two rows behind me, as two fans who had just met started discussing the upcoming contest.
"Yeah, number two is no good," a gruff voice said. "Can't shoot worth a lick, can only make layups. Three pointers? Heck, even free throws, forget about it. I don't know why he's out there."
It took me a second to realize he was talking about Southeast Missouri's Marcus Brister, a senior who averaged 15.3 points in his first three games of the 2011-12 campaign, then scored a total of 26 points in his next eight games, posting zeroes in two of those eight. And, credit where it's due, this guy was right about free throws. Brister is shooting 52%. As for why he was "out there," my guess is coach Dickey Nutt needed a decent passer (3.0 assists/game) to get the ball into Tyler Stone and make good on SEMO's size advantage over Jacksonville State.
Why is it we fans have such a love/hate relationship with our teams? Do we want them to succeed because we want what's best for these players who have committed their time to playing a game for our benefit?
Southeast jumped out to a quick 11-0 lead, but just as quickly squandered it. Jacksonville State took a 16-15 lead with a Brian Williams jumper from the right elbow, and the two teams battled within six of each other for the rest of the first half.
Sometimes I suspect our motives belie noble reasons such as wanting success for those who represent us. I confess to it as much as anyone else. Fans place our identities with the teams we follow, like the infamous phrase "We won the game." Of course there's always someone nearby to counter this phrase with the obligatory "You didn't win anything," which always grates me, but only because it's correct. I have won nothing. I am 0-0 all time in NCAA Division I games, with 0 points.
Southeast's second half began with an alley-oop from Brister to Moore, confirming my assumption as to Brister's purpose. But then Brister, who could "only make layups," did just that. A nice baseline drive, a layup with the and-one off a steal followed immediately by another hoop-and-harm gave Brister eight straight points and prompted a 20-0 Redhawk run.
The man behind me offered little in the way of explaining Brister's scoring run. "I told you he could make layups." That was it.
With a comfortable lead, Nutt turned to his bench and placed his older son, Logan, into the game to spell Brister. His younger son, Lucas, also plays for Southeast Missouri and had made a three on a key possession late in the first half. As Logan made his way onto the court, the groans from the stands behind me grew. "Oh, now why is he going in?"
I don't know if there's strong distaste for nepotism among people from this area, but there was zero margin for error for the elder Nutt brother. Yes, he was mismatched on defense, and yes, he did dribble into a trap and turn the ball over. But the screams of "Get him outta there!" escalated quickly. Coach Nutt soon removed his son in favor of Brister.
Why the anger toward a young man playing a game? Certainly the vast majority of us, placed in the same situation even at our physical peak, could do not much better than Logan Nutt. We want better, but are ill-prepared to offer it ourselves.
I am acquainted with, really more a friend-of-a-friend type, a former walk-on player for a D-I team. One year, he joined us for my basketball clique's annual watching of the NCAA tournament at a local sports bar. We really enjoyed his insights, a fresh angle we had never heard before. But when it came time for his former team to play, he left to watch the game at home. I asked my friend about it, and his response was simple: "He can't watch his friends play with fans around. Too obnoxious. The uninformed criticism, it bothers him."
I thought about that for a while that day. I still do sometimes. I'm not saying it was an epiphany, but the seed of thought took hold. What I saw, or heard rather, on this night in Cape Girardeau -- such harsh criticism at times from the home crowd to the home team -- only served to reinforce it.
What do we know? What do we know about the sport we are watching that gives us the right to critique like this? To come down on a young man or woman with such vitriol for a mistake made?
I'm not asking for unconditional forgiveness, and I'm not wanting anyone to take a holier-than-thou attitude. Just remember, these are athletes, they have worked hard, and some reasonable expectation of aptitude is necessary. But it's that same hard work that should keep the critique at bay.
I know I'll still do it, though. I'm not above it; few fans are. I can only hope to temper it by knowing these young men do represent us, do it to the best of their ability, and we can still take great enjoyment from it.
at SOUTHEAST MISSOURI 74, JACKSONVILLE STATE 56 01/02/2012
JACKSONVILLE STATE 5-11 (0-3) -- B. Williams 8-18 2-3 19; D. Rackley 3-7 0-0 8; S. Hall 3-9 2-3 8; R. Boggs 1-2 2-3 4; T. Gaines 2-9 4-4 9; M. Leggett 0-5 4-5 4; R. Mafra 0-1 0-2 0; G. White 1-3 0-0 2; N. Cook 0-1 0-0 0; D. Waiters 1-3 0-0 2; F. Bougher 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 19-60 14-20 56. SOUTHEAST MISSOURI 7-7 (2-0) -- M. Smith 4-8 0-0 11; T. Stone 10-16 4-5 24; L. Powell 1-2 4-4 6; N. Niemczyk 2-8 0-0 6; M. Brister 5-7 4-6 14; L. Nutt 1-1 4-4 7; C. Wilford 1-4 0-0 3; M. Porter 1-3 0-0 2; Z. House 0-0 0-0 0; L. Nutt 0-0 0-0 0; N. Johnson 0-0 1-2 1; W. Jones 0-0 0-0 0; T. Wilkerson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-50 17-21 74.
Three-point goals: JXST 4-19 (S. Hall 0-2; F. Bougher 0-2; B. Williams 1-4; D. Waiters 0-1; G. White 0-2; D. Rackley 2-5; T. Gaines 1-3), SEMO 7-18 (L. Nutt 1-1; M. Smith 3-7; N. Niemczyk 2-7; C. Wilford 1-3); Rebounds: JXST 26 (S. Hall 6), SEMO 32 (M. Brister 8); Assists: JXST 3 (B. Williams 2), SEMO 17 (M. Smith 6); Total Fouls -- JXST 19, SEMO 21; Fouled Out: JXST-None; SEMO-None.