A lot of investments paid off Saturday at Denver's Magness Arena.
For me, it was the payoff of the Emotional Investment I made starting in 2010, when I was belatedly inspired by Kyle's Season 6 "investments" essay to adopt Denver as "my" mid-major team, start a blog about the Pioneers, and begin attending and covering their games. Through the roller coaster of the last two seasons, the one thing that was consistently missing was a true college basketball atmosphere: DU is a hockey school, and the students simply do not come out in force for hoops. So even when I've seen the Pioneers pull off big wins -- over North Texas and Arkansas State last year, over Southern Miss and St. Mary's this year -- they've been devoid of that emotional oomph that makes Our Game so great. My investment in the Pioneers was still worthwhile, but it had never led to that singular moment where I thought to myself, "Wow, this is amazing." Until Saturday night.
With ESPN coming to Magness Arena for the first time ever, and student leaders staging an unprecedented coordinated push to make the game the can't-miss culmination of a big weekend party on campus, the student body finally decided that basketball was worth supporting in a big way. They came out in force to an extent previously unimaginable for a Denver basketball game.
For the coaches and players, Saturday was the payoff -- or at least, *a* payoff, the latest and greatest payoff yet, hopefully foreshadowing more and even greater payoffs to come -- of years of hard work, from the recruiting trail to the practice court to the far-flung arenas of the Sun Belt Conference. "That was unbelievable! The student section was unbelievable!" said co-captain Rob Lewis, barely able to contain himself. Lewis, a fifth-year senior who was Joe Scott's very first recruit to DU, said emphatically he's never seen anything like it at DU.
Saturday was even a reward for ex-players whose investments of sweat and tears helped build Denver toward this crescendo. "This is something that we've worked hard for for years," DU alum Kyle Lewis, last year's point guard and senior captain, told me after the game as he waited near the locker room to congratulate his former coach and teammates. Lewis had watched the game from a few rows behind the Pioneer bench. "It's just great to see that finally we get the national exposure that this school has deserved, and not only that, but a great win while we're doing it."
For administrators and alums, Saturday was the payoff of vision, hard work, and, well, literal investments, i.e., lots of money, that went into turning Denver into a Division I program, building this fantastic arena, and having faith that, like in Field of Dreams, if they built it, success would come. "People dreamed about this," said a ebullient Peg Bradley-Doppes, DU's Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation, when I happened to see her after the game and asked for a quick interview. "You saw Dan Ritchie and Joy Burns come out on the court at the end -- they built this facility 12 years ago, and we became Division I in all the sports, and for them to see this type of crowd and this energy and the kids singing the fight song and rushing the floor -- it was great."
But now I'm getting ahead of myself, and I've spoiled the ending. Let's take a step back: all the way back to Jan. 11, in fact.
That's when the Worldwide Leader announced that it would televise the Denver-Middle Tennessee State game on February 4. It would be the first-ever basketball broadcast from Magness Arena (housed in the Ritchie Center, along with Joy Burns Arena) on the ESPN Family of Networks. At that time, Denver was 13-3 overall, 3-1 in the Sun Belt, and ranked 17 in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25. Middle Tennessee was 15-2, 4-0, and ranked 7 in the mid-major poll. DU vs. MTSU looked like a battle of mid-major heavyweights and conceivable at-large contenders; this would be sort of like an in-conference BracketBusters game.
Since the ESPN announcement, MTSU had improved to 10-0 and gained national attention with a close loss at Vanderbilt. But Denver, meanwhile, had gone 3-4 (1-4 on the road) in the weeks that followed, falling out of the Mid-Major Top 25 and off the national radar. The Pioneers' slide hit its nadir in a heartbreaking, referee-assisted 8-on-5 defeat at Louisiana-Lafayette's Cajundome on Thursday night, some 40 hours before tipoff of the Middle Tennessee game. In short, Denver was limping into the spotlight, and it wasn't entirely clear if Saturday's game would live up to its original billing.
It also wasn't entirely clear, for a while, if the game would even happen. Even as Denver was losing to Lafayette (and, simultaneously, Middle Tennessee was beating North Texas in Denton), snow was beginning to fall in Denver, the beginning of an expected 36-hour snowstorm that would ultimately break records in the metro area. I took a time lapse video of the storm from our house, using Timelapse Camera HD on my iPad:
By Friday morning, a ton of snow had already fallen (don't be fooled by the relatively paltry accumulations in the foreground on the video above; those ledges are on my porch, largely shielded by the roof and the wind direction), and much activity in the Denver area was shut down, moreso as you got closer to the Eastern plains. Yet both Denver and Middle Tennessee were scheduled to fly from Dallas to DIA, which is out toward those plains, Friday morning. Lots of flights into Denver were being cancelled due to the weather, and I was worried they wouldn't make it. Luckily, the Pioneers and Blue Raiders were on one of the lucky flights that took off -- and I do mean "one." The two teams were on the same flight, much to the surprise of both. ("I couldn't believe it was happening," said sophomore Chris Udofia. "It was definitely an awkward situation." The team members were interspersed throughout the flight; Joe Scott had a middle seat in between two of MTSU's star players.)
Even after the teams arrived safely in Denver, with the storm continuing into another night, one had to wonder if the weather Saturday would be bad enough to force the game's cancellation. I suspected they'd try hard to avoid that, though, as ESPN probably would not go out of its way to work a rescheduled matchup into the lineup, given Denver's aforementioned slide. In any event, any thought of a possible cancellation went out the window when DU went ahead with Friday night's huge hockey rivalry game against Colorado College, played when the worst of the storm was still raging.
Earlier in the week, I had considered going to Friday's hockey game, to help set the scene for the basketball game the next day. I knew there was an effort to promote the Saturday-afternoon basketball game as a sort of middle act in a crazy sports weekend for DU students, sandwiched between the home-and-home rivalry series with CC Friday and Saturday night, and I thought attending the hockey game might give me some background material for this writeup. The snowstorm squelched those thoughts, and I stayed home as Denver set a hockey attendance record in the middle of a blizzard (!) but lost the game, 2-0. Just as well: with all the material I'd get on Saturday, the hockey game would have been my "I really didn't need that stew" moment.
Anyway, although Saturday's game was going forward, one had to wonder if the turnout at Magness Arena -- which I had expected to be quite high after I saw the big crowd at the Arkansas State game -- would suffer because of the storm. Asking people to attend a basketball game in the midst of a storm that's dumping more than a foot of snow on them (upwards of two feet in drifts) is asking a lot.
Thankfully, by midday Saturday, the snow had stopped falling and the sun had come out, starting the slow melting process. Local roads remained treacherous in spots -- the entrance to the alley that serves a couple dozen houses in our neighborhood was virtually impassable due to all the slush and walled-in water from snow melt -- but major roads were fine. My drive to Magness Arena was a breeze once I escaped our alley. I put on some Petty for the drive, and wondered whether it was a good or bad omen that shuffle play landed on "Even the Losers" just as I was pulling into the Magness Arena parking lot.
On the way toward the arena, I spent several minutes framing a photo of DU Bally and Mile High Bally in the snow in front of the building's signature gold spire. This must have drawn confused stares from at last some of the perhaps 100 people who walked by, streaming into the arena, as I was doing it. Such is the lot in life of a TMM blogger who's proud of his #ballz. As I told @skyvan (DU student and photographer Andrew Fielding) later when he said my Bally photos suggest I need mental help, I'm not the only one who does this!
Speaking of Fielding, I ran into him moments after walking into Magness. I had wondered if the planned student pregame events -- the result of unprecedented coordination between Denver's student government, fraternities/sororities, and student spirit committee -- would be hampered by the weather, but Andrew quickly set me straight: there are "hundreds of drunk kids" pregaming on the campus green, he told me. "They built a snow castle." I promptly set off to check it out.
They had, indeed, built a snow castle. They were also drinking, dancing, and blasting music out on the green. (There was also a gorilla.) I caught the tail end of the festivities, but they were still a sight to behold. "This is @DU_MHoops??" I tweeted. "I think there may be an actual student section today..."
Oh, and there was actually a scalper. At a DU basketball game. And I saw him successfully complete at least one transaction. Incredible.
When I returned to the Ritchie Center and finally walked into Magness Arena proper, I was impressed that every seat in the lower sections had a pom-pom. I was even more impressed with the student section, which immediately confirmed my tweeted suspicion that it would actually exist. Boy, did it ever exist. The overall attendance was actually somewhat less than at the Arkansas State game, as the upper sections were largely empty -- probably due to the snowstorm and a lack of "Rising Stars" -- but the excitement and energy of the student section, and of the lower sections generally, made up for the empty seats ten times over. "Hot damn, it's a real college basketball atmosphere!" I tweeted.
One of the day's most memorable moments happened when the Pioneers emerged from the tunnel to take the court for warmups. They ran by the student section, which erupted into cheers, amplified by the band promptly breaking into the fight song. Denver never, ever gets an opportunity to make an entrance like that. I have no connection to this school beyond a self-selected Emotional Investment, but I'm not gonna lie: I got goosebumps at that moment. The players would later tell me it was special for them, too. "It's something that really has never happened before, so that was really cool," said Rob Lewis, before adding another "Unbelievable!"
As tip time approached, it got crazier and crazier. At this point, I should probably just post a few of the pictures I took of the scene, starting with the one that was retweeted by the Associated Press, featuring ESPN's broadcast team, Dave Flemming & Sean Farnham:
That's Joey Leon in the bottom picture, a DU senior and co-chair of the student spirit committee, and also a pep band member. Leon played a big role in organizing all the student events to encourage this tremendous turnout, and was clearly soaking it all in. That's another "investment" that paid off Saturday. "I think it went really great," Leon would tell me after the game. "I bet we had 400 or 500 kids out here. Students absolutely loved it. There was face paint, people had signs, everyone got gameday shirts."
I already posted a video that includes (starting at the 2:30 mark) the opening tip and student section reaction to Denver's quick basket to take a 2-0 lead. After watching the beginning of the action from the perspective of that video -- the baseline near the student section -- I returned to my "home base" on press row, on the opposite end, to tend to my live-tweeting and also try and observe the game action with greater focus.
What quickly became clear was that this was a very competitive game, and also very "aesthetically pleasing," as Matt Zemek would put it. Both teams were performing at a high level, and it did not appear initially that either would be able to pull away from the other.
What also became apparent was that sophomore star Chris Udofia was a beast on this day. He had 11 points in the first half, and would finish with a career-high 27 for the game. Early on, it occurred to me that the student section would go absolutely nuts when Udofia got around to throwing down one of his big #OMGDUNX. At one point, he almost did, but the layup was the safer play and, being a Joe Scott player through and through, a layup is what he did:
(Eventually, Udofia did get a dunk -- several of them, in fact -- and the crowd did indeed go wild. I'll have a video of one such moment a bit later.)
Late in the first half, it occurred to me to turn on ESPN3 for the live feed of the game I was at. I was amused to see them displaying hockey banners, presumably talking about how DU is a hockey school just now starting to embrace hoops. Yup.
I was also overly amused, as I always am, by the lag between real life and the ESPN3 feed, or, as I like to refer to it, the rift in the space-time continuum whereby I am watching a basketball game IN THE FUTURE.
Anyway, the score at halftime was Denver 34, Middle Tennessee 31. Amazingly, Denver was shooting only 1-for-5 from superhoop land, and yet they led by three points. For a team that prides itself on excellent three-point shooting, this was an excellent sign. "Now imagine what happens if they get hot from 3," I thought to myself.
As it turned out, Denver would only actually get two more 3-pointers all night -- but they were huge ones. After MTSU rallied from 38-33 to tie the game at 38 with 17:32 left, a pair of 3s by Brian Stafford and Chris Udofia at 17:08 and 15:53 gave Denver the lead for good. A bit later, a pair of old-fashioned three-point plays -- for which I proposed and used the hashtag YeOldeSuperhoope -- first by Udofia at 5:10 and then by freshman Royce O'Neale at 4:28, helped Denver put the game away for good.
Here's a video showing the first of those two and-one plays, and the student section reaction:
And here are two photos of the second one, as O'Neale watches the ball hang on the rim, and the crowd goes wild after it falls in:
While we're at it, here are a few more crowd reaction shots from the final minutes:
As the clock wound down, Joey Leon had some words of wisdom for me: "If we win, you're going to want to be on the other side of the court, because we're going to f***ing rush this sh*t." Oddly, this possibility had not occurred to me before, but as soon as Leon said it, I realized that of course it would happen.
(Later, I would learn that this court-storming had caused some choice reactions. Let me just say this: I don't know if Denver's court-storming adheres to the "rules" for such things, but I do know the overarching rule is often expressed as, "Act like you've been there before" -- and that rule just doesn't apply here. Denver HAS NOT been here before: on ESPN2, in a big national game, shellacking a respected opponent, in front of a large student section going wild. The overwhelming sense of giddy excitement in that building lent itself perfectly to a court-storming; it felt completely natural. If it was wrong, then dammit, I don't want to be right.)
Once I realized the court-storming was going to happen, I had a decision to make. At first, I followed Joey's advice, and headed to the opposite sideline, all the better to photograph the oncoming rush. But then I realized, wait, DU Bally needs to be here for this. That's right: I was thinking first and foremost of my stuffed basketball, the one who's been with me through this whole project, from the beginning of the Emotional Investment. It just wouldn't be right for DU Bally to be stuck in the corner of the press table on the opposite baseline during Denver basketball's greatest moment of national TV triumph. So I went over and got Bally. I briefly put him near the Denver bench...
...and pondered what exactly to do. Then finally I decided there was only one course of action: I must rush the court with the students, and take Bally with me.
Just as I arrived in the court-storming staging area, the rope-holders also arrived. They were going to stop the inevitable, imminent surging mass of humanity with...a thin yellow rope? Riiiiight.
It truly was a fool's rope: the thing obviously stood no chance of stopping the rush, but it could very easily have caused injury. I briefly fell down during the early moments of the court-storming, as did several girls behind me, precisely because the rope was making things far more chaotic than they needed to be. Indeed, for a split second, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of the rope resting against my forehead, or rather against Bally who was against my forehead, as I tried to slip under the rope while others pushed and pulled. The court-storming, by itself, was not particularly a safety hazard; the rope made it one. I guess that's another example of how DU "hasn't been there before." Here's a hint: next time, NO ROPE.
In any case, rope or no rope, the students rushed the court, and Bally and I rushed with them. Here's the video. (I'm pretty sure you can hear students chanting "S-B-C! S-B-C!" at one point, an amusing reference to the Sun Belt Conference and the famed "S-E-C!" chants in football, albeit a rather nonsensical reference in the context of a conference game where both teams are from the SBC.) The rush starts just after the 1:10 mark.
This is the second time I've stormed the floor at a basketball game. The first time was last March, in Greeley, when Northern Colorado beat Montana in the Big Sky title game to advance to its first-ever NCAA Tournament. I extensively live-tweeted that event too, and after the court-storming, I wrote, "I will say this. @midmajority is right about emotional investments. This was fun. But it's NOTHING like how I would feel if it were Denver. This was parachuting into someone else's celebration, and having a grand old time with it. But it's not like following a team from the start."
I can't compare apples to apples, since Denver didn't advance to an NCAA Tournament on Saturday -- they just won a big conference game that happened to be on TV, in front of a loud crowd that came out because the game was on TV. But having said that, the feeling was definitely different. The Northern Colorado experience was epic, but it wasn't the culmination of anything. This was the culmination, at least thus far, of my emotional investment in Denver basketball.
When I got home and my wonderful wife, who watched our three daughters all afternoon and took them to a friend's birthday party solo so that I could attend the game, asked me whether I'd had a good time -- saying words to the effect of, "I hope it was really awesome, because I'm exhausted" -- I told her that, yes, it had been awesome: really, really awesome. Hard-to-put-into-words awesome. Why? Because it was my emotional investment paying off.
To an outsider, beating Middle Tennessee State at home may not seem worthy of all this. But if you were there, and if you know the circumstances, if you're invested in this team, you understand. Everyone I spoke to Saturday, when I shed my court-storming fandom and resumed inhabiting the role of the Fake Journalist, certainly understood.
"I mean, it was beautiful," said Kyle Lewis, the alum ex-captain. "It was a great thing for the University of Denver, a great thing for the 12 or 13 guys in that locker room...It's been a night-and-day change from last season with students, fans, everyone -- there's some excitement around the University of Denver. It's great to see, and I think people are starting to understand it, and they're starting to join the program and come along as we move forward."
Head coach Joe Scott, asked by the Denver Post's Irv Moss if it was the best atmosphere he's seen, said: "At Denver? Oh, yeah...We've had good crowds all year, but in terms of our university engagement and our student involvement and our university community involvement...it was huge." Scott added that he'd told his players that "sometimes in life, you only get one shot," and "for our guys to step up to the plate today and perform at such a high level, with that one shot here, with the students and everybody watching -- we showed everybody who we've been all year long...and now our students have seen it, and maybe that can sort of galvanize our student body."
No one was more excited or emotional than Peg Bradley-Doppes, the vice chancellor (essentially Denver's athletic director). "It is amazing what they did today," she said, "being the sixth man on the court, but also branding our university on a national platform. That's what makes DU so special is the kids, and their energy, their passion."
I said "no one was more excited," but okay -- maybe Rob Lewis, the current senior co-captain, was. Lewis was plainly beside himself with excitement over the crowd. After giving typical measured answers to most of the regular basketball-related post-game questions, his eyes lit up and his voice took on a completely different tone when asked about the atmosphere. He said the word "unbelievable" four separate times. "They were huge," he concluded, referring to the students. "That was really cool."
MIDDLE TENNESSEE 21-4 (10-1) -- B. Massey 2-6 2-2 6; M. Knight 5-13 4-6 14; R. Cintron 3-6 0-0 9; J. Sulton 3-5 4-4 10; L. Dendy 5-8 5-7 15; J. Jones 1-3 0-0 2; K. Hammonds 0-0 0-0 0; S. Jones 1-2 2-2 4; J. Oden 0-0 0-0 0; J. Gallman 0-0 0-0 0; T. Walker 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-43 17-21 60.
DENVER 17-7 (7-4) -- B. Olson 1-6 2-2 4; C. Udofia 10-14 5-5 27; R. O'Neale 4-6 6-6 14; B. Stafford 1-6 4-6 7; C. Hallam 0-5 0-0 0; R. Lewis 6-9 5-5 17; B. Foeman 0-1 0-0 0; J. Coughlin 2-2 0-1 4; T. Hallam 1-1 0-0 2; A. Pickert 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-50 22-25 75.
Three-point goals: MTSU 3-7 (M. Knight 0-2; R. Cintron 3-5), DEN 3-15 (R. Lewis 0-1; B. Stafford 1-4; C. Hallam 0-3; C. Udofia 2-2; R. O'Neale 0-1; B. Olson 0-4); Rebounds: MTSU 26 (L. Dendy 7), DEN 25 (C. Udofia 9); Assists: MTSU 9 (L. Dendy 3), DEN 12 (B. Stafford 3); Total Fouls -- MTSU 24, DEN 18; Fouled Out: MTSU-None; DEN-None.