For many of us, particularly married thirty-somethings with no kids, the holidays mean travel. For me, that meant Waterloo, Iowa, for Christmas, and St. Petersburg, Fla., for New Year's Eve. As an added bonus to seeing family and friends, #800GP gave me another reason to be excited about getting out of the Washington, D.C. area: games in strange places! Unfortunately, Northern Iowa was not in town while I was in Waterloo, and there weren't any games in the Tampa-St. Pete area that I was hot to see. That left the Drake-Indiana State game in Des Moines on the night before we left Iowa. We decided to make it a family affair, as it fell on my father-in-law's birthday.
We were psyched to see this game, as she attended Drake, and I thoroughly enjoyed their tournament run in 2008. I'd seen the campus a handful of times, but hadn't had a chance to experience a gameday atmosphere there. This season I've only attended games in the District, and all have been sparsely attended, and the atmospheres have varied significantly. Given that this game would be during semester break, and in a much smaller city, I was expecting to come away unimpressed, and then allow Drake to redeem itself when I inevitably attend their signature event, Drake Relays, sometime in the future.
When the new-to-her campus barbecue hangout Jethro's was packed to the gills two hours before gametime, my wife predicted that the game would be well-attended, because the people of Des Moines actually love Drake basketball, and there's very little else to do in the winter besides Drake games and politics. As an outsider, I noted that the barbecue smelled good, and that people might be there to watch the bowl game being showed on Jethro's innumerable televisions. We grabbed a sandwich a few blocks away (where, as if to confirm the Iowa politics stereotype, we ran into State Attorney General Tom Miller), and headed to the game.
The will-call line had begun to snake almost to the street when we arrived at the Knapp Center, and my wife's prediction that it wouldn't be a sleepy winter break crowd was more than confirmed. The Knapp Center's two seating levels were both close to being full, and we noticed a pregame buzz of anticipation that I hadn't experienced at games in D.C. The crowd was made up of a pleasant mix of what appeared to be young alumni, families, and seniors. My wife was right: Our Game might be the only non-political show in town.
Despite the atmosphere, the action did not start auspiciously. More than a handful of the home partisans booed Drake coach Mark Phelps when he was introduced -- they can't all be Keno Davis, it seems. Among the dissatisfied were the middle-aged women seated directly behind us. Even worse, Drake's pep band, the Bulldog Brass, did not cover themselves in glory with their rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. We couldn't help but wonder if perhaps these people dressed in Drake hockey sweaters were not actually the Drake pep band but instead might be the Dowling Catholic High's band (they were manning the concessions). Though even being a high school band would not in any way excuse their performance. I won't say that it let Roseanne Barr off the hook, but it was bad, and almost inexcusably so. There were screeches, silences, and dissonance.
After the tip, things picked up considerably. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 10-2 lead. Then got a stop, and quickly made it 12-2. Then 14-2. Then 16-2. When the lead got to 18-2, the fans behind us belted, "More points, we're gonna need 'em!" What seemed like an entitled whine from fans who thought every season should be 2008 turned into the sage observations of season-ticket holders. As I watched the well-coached Sycamores run patiently through their offensive sets, it was impossible not to notice the contrast with Drake's offense. For most of the game, Drake's offensive philosophy appeared to be: Dribble Some! Pass, I Guess! Ill-Advised Threes and Drives for All! One wonders what a Phelps practice looks like. By halftime, the Sycamores had chipped away at the Bulldogs' lead to the tune of a mere 35-31 deficit.
At halftime, we took the opportunity to peruse the t-shirt selection, where I got my first dose of Howard, Drake Athletics' jack-of-all-trades. As best as I can tell, Howard is a ubiquitous presence on campus: according to my wife and brother-in-law (who recently served as a coaching intern on the American-style football staff), any time a job needs doing in facilities, equipment, et cetera, Howard will be the first to show up and the last to leave. I grew up on the campus of a small college, and it's people like this who make these institutions run, and give them a large part of their charm. I was pleased to learn about him, but was disappointed when we returned, as we learned from the women behind us that we'd missed Drake's unofficial mascot, Porterhouse. They filled us in on his Most Beautiful Bulldog wins, photogeneity, and talent with children.
In the second half, Drake's haphazard offense again helped them pull away from the Sycamores. Ever the realists, the women behind us, who had returned to their Statler and Waldorf routine, wondered aloud, "I wonder how Phelps will blow this one!" As Karl Madison, Drake's smooth, diminutive guard, laid in two of his eventual 24 (his only miss all night was a free throw), the folks in the donor seats stood up for a Wayne's World-style "We're Not Worthy!" It had become obvious to even the hardened Phelps-haters that there would be no inexplicable collapse that night.
As I flew away from the Midwest the next afternoon I thought back to the Drake fans, and their knowledge, and their spirit, it dawned on me: despite their protestations to the contrary, they are worthy. Drake and their fans create a fantastic atmosphere, even while they endure small-school headaches like semester-break pep bands. They deserve to see their team play above their heads from time to time. The deserve to watch some conference wins. They deserve to see Our Game played well.
at DRAKE 79, INDIANA STATE 64 12/28/2011
INDIANA STATE 9-3 (0-1) -- C. Richard 1-8 2-2 4; D. Lathan 8-15 7-8 24; J. Odum 3-10 4-4 10; S. McWhorter 2-5 0-1 5; J. Printy 2-7 0-0 4; M. Walker 1-3 1-2 3; R. Mahurin 2-5 0-0 5; K. Doluony 0-1 0-1 0; J. Gant 0-0 0-0 0; J. Kitchell 3-4 0-1 7; L. Eitel 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 23-59 14-19 64. DRAKE 8-4 (1-0) -- B. Simons 6-10 0-2 15; J. Jeffers 6-8 0-0 14; K. Madison 9-9 5-6 24; J. Clarke 2-7 0-5 4; R. Rice 8-17 6-7 22; A. Hawley 0-3 0-0 0; K. Woods 0-1 0-0 0; K. Alexander 0-0 0-0 0; R. Uhlenhopp 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-55 11-20 79.
Three-point goals: INST 4-18 (J. Printy 0-5; D. Lathan 1-3; C. Richard 0-2; K. Doluony 0-1; R. Mahurin 1-4; J. Kitchell 1-1; S. McWhorter 1-2), DRKE 6-10 (B. Simons 3-6; K. Madison 1-1; J. Jeffers 2-2; R. Rice 0-1); Rebounds: INST 29 (C. Richard 8), DRKE 32 (J. Clarke 12); Assists: INST 8 (C. Richard 3), DRKE 7 (K. Madison 3); Total Fouls -- INST 18, DRKE 21; Fouled Out: INST-None; DRKE-None.