I love the sport of basketball. I've loved it since as long as I can remember. Ever since I was a kid, it's been a staple in my life. From playing in community leagues, to junior high, and on to high school, it's the sport I've played the most. From the NBA, to the local high school games, and now college basketball, it's the sport I've watched the most.
Today my #TMM8 journey takes me to Des Moines, Iowa, for a game between Missouri State and Drake. But this isn't any normal game for me; this is a very special one, because along for the trip is my dad. That love of basketball I alluded to before came from him. My dad has that love of basketball in him too. He went to Drake University during their basketball heyday. He was there in the days of coach Maury John, Dolph Pulliam, Willie Wise, and Willie McCarter. He was there in 1969 when Drake made it to the Final Four, where they nearly beat the unstoppable UCLA Bruins led by Lew Alcindor and coach John Wooden. And when I say he was there, I mean he was in the building for every game, home and away, along with a group of his college buddies that were called "The Road Crew".
With that kind of love for our game and passion for his team, it was only a matter of time before he passed it on to me, and it didn't take long. I remember receiving a little six-foot basketball hoop one Christmas when I was a little kid and playing endless games of one-on-one in the basement with my dad. He won the vast majority of the games, and I wasn't exactly a gracious loser. He introduced me to college basketball and March Madness when he let me help fill out a bracket for the first time in 1994, and I was instantly hooked. I remember the first upset pick I got right was Wisconsin-Green Bay over California, a 12-5 upset (#RLU).
In 1996, my dad took me to my first high school game at Liberty High School (my future high school) when I was in sixth grade. After experiencing the atmosphere in that small field house and the excitement of the game, I knew instantly that I wanted to play high school basketball. My dad took me to every Liberty game that season until I got in trouble later during the season (I don't remember what I did) and as punishment he grounded me from going to any Liberty games the rest of season. I was devastated. The next season, my dad and I went to every Liberty game and watched them put together an undefeated state championship run. It was the greatest year of my life as a basketball fan, and I shared every moment of it with my dad.
A few years later, I realized my dream and found myself on the varsity basketball team my senior year. Due to a combination of a lack of talent and a lack of desire to practice (my biggest regret of my life when it comes to basketball), I was just a bench warmer on a very good basketball team. I rode the bench until the end of the game, and if we were in the lead and the game was out of reach, I got to play for a minute or two of garbage time. I scored one basket during that season, a transition three-pointer that sent the crowd into a frenzy. But despite my limited playing role, I wouldn't trade anything for that year of basketball, and my dad was there for every game.
My dad and I now share that love of basketball through our love of Missouri Valley Conference basketball. We shared in the four years of heartbreak during my undergrad years at Missouri State when they barely missed the big dance each year. We also shared Drake's magical 2007-2008 season, including a trip to St. Louis to see them take home the MVC crown at Arch Madness.
Which brings us to tonight's game between our two alma maters. Along with my mom, and later to be joined by one of my younger sisters who was already in Des Moines visiting a friend, my dad and I made the drive up I-35 from Kansas City. The drive was a little nerve racking with rain in Missouri and snow in Iowa, but we made it safely to the Knapp Center on the campus of Drake University. We made it to the game about an hourly early and headed down to an empty front row of seats behind the Drake radio broadcast station. There we waited patiently for the arrival of our good friend Dolph Pulliam, who currently serves as the analyst on the Drake broadcast. Dolph is a legend in Drake basketball history. As I mentioned before, he was a key figure on Drake's Final Four run, making life miserable for every opponent's best offensive player with his relentless defense under coach Maury John's "belly-button defense." Today, along with his radio duties, Dolph is the greatest ambassador Drake basketball and Drake University has ever had. You can't be associated with Drake basketball and not know Dolph. Dolph is also my dad's best friend from college and served as his best man at my parents' wedding. Ever since I met Dolph when I was a child (and hit an 18-foot hook shot against him in a one-on-one game) I've considered him a good friend.
After a few minutes of waiting we saw Dolph walking towards us and smiles crept to our faces. We each greeted Dolph with a hug and then chatted about everything we could over the next 15 minutes. We talked about life, basketball, and about me writing about this game for the 800 Games Project. (Kyle, if you're reading this, Dolph still remembers your interview fondly.) We chatted until Dolph's radio partner let him know that it was almost time to start the pregame show.
After telling Dolph we'd catch up with him after he was done with the postgame show, we made our way up to our seats and settled in for the game. After the introductions, the tip went to Drake and the game was underway. After an empty Drake possession, Missouri State senior guard Michael Bizoukas opened up the scoring with a nice hesitation move and drive to the basket. Drake was able to answer a few possessions later with an Aaron Hawley three-pointer. Drake would push the lead early to 5-2 on a pair of Rayvonte Rice free throws, but this would be the only lead Drake held during the game, and it would be short-lived. Missouri State's senior star player Kyle Weems quickly grabbed the lead back for the Bears with back-to-back baseline jumpers. A few possessions later, Weems buried a deep three-pointer in transition and added another on the next possession. It was clear that Weems was feeling it tonight. A few possessions later, senior center Isaiah Rhine stepped up and hit a wide open three-pointer from the top of the key to push the Bears' lead to seven. We later learned that it was his first career three-point bucket.
Drake was plagued by sloppy play and poor shooting the remainder of the half as Missouri State was able to push the lead to 33-20 by the time the buzzer sounded. The halftime entertainment consisted of a couple fun competitions, especially for the fans. The first was a wing-eating contest between members of each of Drake's dormitories. The pace of the contest was a bit slow, but it was a complete mess. The second contest was a game of musical chairs with a twist. Instead of the competitors just walking around a circle of chairs at center court until the music stopped, they each had a basketball and had to dribble down to one of the two baskets when the music stopped and make a basket before trying to secure a seat.
After the halftime entertainment was complete, the two teams made their way back out on the court and the second half got underway. Missouri State quickly picked up where they left off and went on an early 6-0 run as Drake's sloppy play and poor shooting continued. Drake was finally able to end their scoring drought at 16:58 on a Kurt Alexander free throw, but Missouri State's constantly changing defensive scheme seemed to throw the Bulldogs further off balance as they weren't able to make a field goal until the 11:32 mark of the half, a full 11 minutes and 30 seconds after their last made field goal. There wasn't much excitement for the remainder of the half, and really not much to write about, as Missouri State continued to spread the lead, despite some sloppy play on their part, with stifling defense that held Drake to only four more field goals for the remainder of the game. The game finally came to a close with 57-39 victory for Missouri State.
After the game we made our way back down to the front row of seats behind Dolph's spot on press row and waited for the completion of the radio broadcast. After the post game show was complete, we chatted with Dolph about the game and Dolph's continued passion for Drake basketball was evident in his frustration with Drake's performance. We agreed to resume the conversation at Jethro's BBQ just down the street from the Knapp Center. As we enjoyed the great food, we talked about basketball and life, and my dad and Dolph reminisced about old times. After it finally got late, we said our goodbyes to Dolph and made our way back to Kansas City.
Although it was only a matter of hours and the game lacked much excitement, it had been a great day. As I rode in the car back home, I thought about our game and the connection my Dad and I shared through basketball, and I realized that this is what our game is all about. It's about passion and love. It's about a connection with friends, family, and even strangers. It's about a common bond that brings us together. Basketball may just be a sport, but for most of us it is so much more.
I love the game of basketball and it's all thanks to my dad.