CHICAGO -- The truest of all the true things written about The Palestra
, The Mid-Majority's true and ancestral haunted home, is this: "It's a basketball echo chamber where every sound is amplified, where 100 people sound like a thousand, where a thousand sound like 10,000, and where 10,000 sound like nothing you've ever heard before." It's a quote credited to one Joe Rhoads
, and it was printed on the front concourse wall upon the occasion of the building's transformative "Palestra 2000" renovation. I knew these words and this math to be true before I ever read that quote, before it was ever typeset and immortalized on the wall like that. The first time I stepped into The Palestra, on a bright Saturday morning in 1997, there were ten people there and they sounded like 100.
As the early 2000s unspooled, as I spent more time in The Cathedral of College Basketball, walked through those doors and that concourse more often, I became curious as to whom, exactly, Joe Rhoads was. Initial details on the author of this simple and cogent chunk of Philly basketball wisdom were sparse: he was a sportswriter from the Dallas newspaper who dearly loved The Palestra, and he thought of it fondly as the best arena in America. He waxed poetic about it in print, apparently, back in the 1980s... but no library or internet search would show me where the rest of those words were.
After I started this website in 2004, after writings based on my low-budget travel to 100 games earned me media access and a paid gig, I was able to ask more questions. Imagine my surprise when other sportswriters informed me that Rhoads had traveled around the country in an old Chevy van, going to nearly 100 games in a season and racking up 25,000 road miles. I thought they were joking. But by 2006, some were drawing the connection directly
-- I was following in somebody's footsteps, and I didn't even know it.
Between Seasons 3 and 4, in the summer of 2007, I resolved to hunt down the mysterious Joe Rhoads. Google and Lexis-Nexis turned up nothing, so I would fly to Dallas, rent a car, go to the Morning News and start asking around. Hopefully he was still alive. If so, maybe I'd get a lead, or a phone number, and get a chance to meet him face to face... for lunch, maybe, or a cup of coffee. He wouldn't be creeped out, right? He was a writer and he'd understand that I was simply a journalist looking for another journalist, under the guise of a make-believe story about The Palestra.
But I stopped short. By then, I'd become severely uncomfortable with the idea of being known by strangers. I'd stopped doing interviews. I'd given up on trying to respond to earnest 2,000-word letters about how my work had affected people's lives. I never knew what the right answer was, and silence seemed safest. I'd already taken on my first cyber-stalker.
So I left him alone, just like I would have wanted to be left. Maybe Joe Rhoads didn't want to be found, and I wouldn't have blamed him if that were the case.
But I never stopped wishing I could ask him one single, simple question.
"Why did you stop doing it?"
* * *
Last year, I stopped writing. I told my editors at Basketball Times
and Basketball Prospectus
that I was going to take a one-year sabbatical during the 2011-12 season, after seven long years of relentlessly chasing around the roundball. I was burned out, exhausted, blood-cynical about ESPN and sportz culture
, prematurely aging, caught in a cycle of losing 20 pounds every April just to pack them back on again before conference play began the following season.
"Sabbatical" can also be a gentle, kindly, velvet-gloved method of saying "never coming back." In October, I moved from the East Coast to Chicago to begin a new, more relaxing life. The center of this renewed existence is my fiancé Holley. She came to me not caring much at all about basketball as a spectator sport, which was and is a great relief because I don't have to talk about it every day anymore. She's naturally curious about my prior pursuit and my system of motivations, though. She does love Bally (just like everybody does), she records impromptu songs about him on her iPhone voice recorder, and she's the inventor of "Baby Bally" -- the next logical step in the pattern of global consumer domination that began with Basktball Juice.
But whenever the subject of actual basketball comes up -- when I have to take time to crunch stats, or when I mention the progress of the 800 Games Project ("Wow, looks like they hit 600"), or explain ALLCAPSGAME and Last Man, or even when there's a game on the TV at the restaurant and I gaze at it for an extra moment, she needs clarification.
"Kyle, I'm only asking you this because I need to know where you are with it," she'll say. "Sometimes it seems like you have one foot back in that world and one foot here in the present. So are you still in, or are you out?"
"Out," the general reply will go. "Definitely out. Whatever I do between today and the day The Mid-Majority fizzles out will be for curatorial or janitorial purposes. I'm not going to run off and go back out on the road next season, don't worry. I've handed the site over to the readers, I just set guidelines and boundaries now. I'm so proud of what they've done, as much as anyone who falls and watches 100 rise in their place would be.
"But I've ceded control of it, like a child that's all grown up, and that does break my heart. The moment I stopped was the moment I started being forgotten, and that's never fun. The Mid-Majority was always destined to break my heart, I guess."
With the season winding down and available opportunities running out, I invited Holley on a date to our first-ever men's mid-major college basketball game together, this past Thursday. It was the Loyola Ramblers' penultimate home contest against Green Bay. She was excited to go. We took the CTA Blue Line from Logan Square and Wicker Park, then up the Red Line 65-and-a-half blocks to Rogers Park. I was nervous about the collision of old and new worlds this represented, and I openly admitted it as we sat in the new, near-empty Gentile Center before tipoff.
This was only my second game of the 2011-12 season, after so many years of hundreds. And after so much time away from basketball, I was able to see it through new eyes: hers. I was able to observe college basketball free of context, the way the majority of observers observe it, all those people I (and so many others, and maybe even you) have so often criticized for not fully understanding. Blissfully ignorant of rosters and rotations and tendencies and patterns, free of the judgements and expectations and synthesized hype, the game was pure again. For two hours, the game proceeded as a green-white-gold-red blur of grace and power, punctuated by acrobatic, athletic feats.
"Kyle, No. 24 just flew through the air!" as she grabbed my arm.
"Did you see that?" I did -- it was a perfect touch-pass layup in the paint for the home team. "That was beautiful, Kyle."
And the game was good and close, like most between two teams with poor records are. By the end, we were openly rooting for Loyola, for Chicago, for our beloved home city, and we cheered as the players in white drew close to force overtime, all the way up to the end when they fell due to a clutch three-point basket the other way. At each made and missed shot, as possessions ebbed and flowed, Holley shrieked, sighed, clenched her fists, roared in appreciation, groaned sadly. These are natural reactions when there's an event with a desired outcome and uncertain conclusion playing out in front of you. This is the simple, visceral power of sports in action.
When it was over, when my time in a world where I once lived came to a close, when my temporary $15 visitor's pass had expired, I felt eight years of everything flash across my consciousness. All those miles flooded back, winding all the way to the Palestra and the very beginning.
"Holley," I asked. "Why do you think people fall out of love?"
After a thoughtful pause, she replied. "I really don't know. But you have to ask yourself what you loved about this in the first place. Did you love basketball, or did you love writing about it?"
"You're right," I said. "And I already know the answer to that question."
had called the game for cable outlet MSG, and he was going back to New Jersey to do radio for the New Jersey Nets NBA game that night. I had an afternoon tilt at NJIT, so we were heading in the same direction.
"What an amazing, amazing game," he said as we stood in one of the multi-deck alley parking lots you see a lot of in New York City. We waited for his car to be lowered from a collapsible blue metal tower. He took the time to shake the tension from his shoulders and arms. "Such a shame that those problems in the production truck kept the game from being shown on TV. But I kept going, I couldn't let up. I get so worked up during a game like that, I forget that anybody's watching sometimes."
The car arrived. It was a beat-up, faded old American car. "Capper, I thought you'd be rollin' in a Benz or something, maybe a Maserati," I deadpanned. "My perfect image of you is shattered forever."
As we traversed the bridges and tunnels and endless tolls, a dozen basketballs rolled around in the back seat. "Yeah, those are left over from youth camps I do," he explained. "I try to do as many of those as I can, especially in the summer when the season's over. Anything to stay connected to the game, you know?
"There are sacrifices, sure," he continued. "Like having to drive this car. I know I'm never going to get rich from basketball, but I love this game, Kyle. It beats a real job any day. I love basketball so much, and I'm going to hold on to it as long as I can. I'm just so lucky to have a family that puts up with that."
In the summer, when the NBA lockout began and imperiled his radio paycheck from the Nets, I was reminded again just how serious and hungry he had to be, and I knew there were hundreds of people who loved basketball just as much who were just as affected. But it was that moment, in the car. That's when I knew I didn't love basketball half as much as Tim Capstraw did. And did I ever, really? What he had given me through the television set on those NEC games of the week and "Holding Court" wasn't love, it was enthusiasm and fascination. Those burn off after a couple of hours, a week, a few months, and sometimes seven years. For him, it was an effect of the cause, the tip of a deep-rooted iceberg. His love for Our Game runs to a depth I could not fathom. If I removed basketball from my life, I knew I wouldn't miss it. I did, and I don't.
But the writing, and the people, and the storytelling... God, I miss those more than anything. I'd convinced myself I didn't. I love writing like Tim Capstraw loves basketball, and not doing it every day opened up a gap in my soul that no other pursuit has filled.
Fortunately for me, Holley is a better and more expressive writer than I am. While my books become more antiquated and outdated with each passing day, her poetry has been published in books that colleges use in classes. Our big upcoming project is a business that will help people get their stories out in book form, from concept (or Kickstart) to chapter structure to cover design to printing to distribution to marketing. End to end. Our target market will be busy folks who are doing great things on smaller stages, who want to collect and bind their tales of motivation and inspiration before it's too late.
Another thing that life away from the highway has allowed me to do is to finally solve the mystery of Joe Rhoads. It turns out that Google autocorrection technology has come a long way in eight years. Somewhere along the line, somebody in Philadelphia typed his name wrong into a computer, and the error multiplied thanks to lazy copywriters. The name on his bylines and LinkedIn account happens to be the one he was born with and uses professionally, and it's spelled the same way as the legendary Scholars are.
Joe Rhodes attended Bradley, saw a lot of Missouri Valley Conference games as an intern for the Peoria Journal-Star
, kicked around various newspapers like the ink-stained nomads of that era tended to do, and more recently he's done freelance work for the New York Times
and TV Guide
. He ended up as an entertainment writer in Los Angeles, covering the storytelling industry for anyone who gives him a check to do so. Last autumn, he ably wrote up AMC's "Hell on Wheels"
for the Gray Lady. I imagine him as a Capstrawian writer, someone who loves what he does, bears the sacrifices and crummy wheels with humor, and enjoys the occasional glass of wine and cigar
. Perhaps he's got a great family that puts up with him.
But back in the nether reaches of his clip file, there's the work he did two generations ago as a crazy kid in the mid-1980s, driving around the country to college basketball games, sleeping in the van, typing up what he saw on gosh-knows-what. His timeless advice
proved true in my own traveling heyday as well: "Never yell at a trucker, no matter how close he comes to driving you off the highway." And also: "Never eat chicken tacos when you're trying to drive."
And now it's your turn to take the wheel for a while.