I haven't been a member of a sports team since fifth grade basketball. Being born into a family of diminutive stature and still smaller athletic talent isn't really conducive to lifelong organized sport. In high school, the realization dawned on me that one of my sports goals was to make a career of sports and become a member of a team, to experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat from the inside, and to blur the line between fan and teammate, even if in an administrative as opposed to athletic sense.
Despite numerous efforts to bring fans "closer to the action," a certain disconnect remains between fan and team. Poring over KenPom data is exhilarating for me, but numbers on a page don't allow me to feel Binghamton's agony or Kentucky's bounty. Watching a game on television is fun, but you're still thousands of miles away from the action, seeing only what a fixed lens wants you to. Attending games in person can be a more exciting experience, but you're still seeing only the on-court product, just the tip of the basketball iceberg. Although fans invest enormous amounts of emotion into their teams, they go back to their lives at the end of the day. Wins and losses may affect demeanor, but they don't affect what time you wake up in the morning or how difficult the next day at work is.
On February 22nd, I took the first step toward blurring that line. My sport management degree requires that I perform a semester-long internship in the field of my choice. Naturally, I selected men's basketball. After a six-month search that included sending e-mails to over 120 of the 345 D-I teams, I found a program willing to let me, a fan, blur the line and become a member of the team. Luckily for this Midwest bumpkin, that program is Long Beach State. So instead of going to class on Wednesday, I boarded a plane to LAX to hammer out the final details of a dream come true.
Long Beach State is a perfect fit. Instead of being one of a battalion of student managers at a low-level SEC school, I'll get to experience college basketball at its most thrilling and pure. Beginning next fall, I get to see what being a sub-Red Line giant-killer is all about. Wednesday night, I started it all at a pyramid.
The Walter Pyramid, one of college basketball's most unique venues, towers eighteen stories above its largely residential Long Beach neighborhood and serves as a landmark for the LBSU campus. One of only three true pyramids in the country (others being the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas and The Pyramid in Memphis), it's a venue that I've wanted to visit ever since I heard about it years ago. I arrived a few hours before the game to meet with some staff members and explore the venue. A cynic would call the building a whole lot of wasted space, but I would call it art. The seating area only stretches about a third of the way up the building, giving it a cavernous, cathedral-like feel. Although it would be functional with just the bottom third, it wouldn't be anywhere near as cool and certainly not as unique.
I received my ticket from an LBSU coach and walked out to the floor from the basketball offices about an hour before tip. Much to my surprise, the student section was already full. I admired the dedication and arrived at an encouraging realization: this school genuinely cares about their basketball team. I pulled an usher aside and asked him where I would be seated for the evening's tilt. Continuing a remarkable string of good seat locations lately, my chair called to me from one of my favorite locations -- feet on floor courtside. Regardless of where I am, it never gets old. Of all the seats in the arena, it's this one that blurs the line between fan and teammate the most. Grinning from ear to ear, I waited patiently for the game to begin.
Like the two teams' previous matchup in Santa Barbara, this one was all Long Beach. UCSB star Orlando Johnson couldn't get it going in the first 20 minutes, thanks in large part to lockdown on-ball defense by LBSU's Larry Anderson and Casper Ware. Without their key cog, the rest of the Gauchos could never really get it going. By the time Johnson got in rhythm in the second half, it was far too late. The 49ers dominated from start to finish, and the game was a bigger blowout than the score might indicate. The victory gave them at least a share of the Big West title and gave Dan Monson his 250th career victory. I was given the realization that this team is even better than I expected, and that even when they may not look the prettiest, they're still deadly.
Of course, that opinion isn't unbiased. Luckily for me, it's very biased. After the game, I got to head back into the coaches' offices before heading home with the rest of the fans. The next day, I was able to meet more of the coaches and managers, and sit down to discuss my future as an intern in the fall. Friday, I was able to sit in on practice and meet some of the players. For now, I'm just happy to be along for the ride. For this season I'm still a fan, albeit an unorthodox one. Next season, I'll be spending long hours with this team, working night and day to try and win games. The line is blurring, and I couldn't be more thrilled.
at LONG BEACH STATE 70, CALIFORNIA-SANTA BARBARA 58 02/22/2012
CALIFORNIA-SANTA BARBARA 15-9 (9-4) -- O. Johnson 8-16 3-4 20; J. Nunnally 4-13 4-4 13; J. Serna 0-1 1-2 1; K. Boswell 2-4 5-6 11; A. Williams 3-9 0-5 6; G. Somogyi 3-5 1-4 7; N. Garth 0-4 0-0 0; T. Taylor 0-1 0-0 0; C. Peterson 0-3 0-0 0; K. Hornbuckle 0-0 0-0 0; L. Thomas 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-56 14-25 58. LONG BEACH STATE 20-7 (13-0) -- E. Phelps 6-14 2-5 14; L. Anderson 3-10 1-2 7; C. Ware 6-13 1-2 16; J. Ennis 4-8 4-6 14; T. Robinson 3-6 1-2 7; M. Caffey 1-2 1-2 3; E. Dervisevic 4-7 1-1 9; P. Pappageorge 0-0 0-0 0; C. Jackson 0-1 0-0 0; S. Starkey 0-0 0-0 0; M. Vantrimpont 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-61 11-20 70.
Three-point goals: UCSB 4-16 (O. Johnson 1-4; J. Nunnally 1-4; N. Garth 0-3; K. Boswell 2-4; T. Taylor 0-1), LBSU 5-16 (L. Anderson 0-2; C. Ware 3-8; C. Jackson 0-1; J. Ennis 2-5); Rebounds: UCSB 43 (J. Nunnally 12), LBSU 33 (J. Ennis 7); Assists: UCSB 11 (O. Johnson 2), LBSU 13 (E. Phelps 4); Total Fouls -- UCSB 19, LBSU 15; Fouled Out: UCSB-J. Serna; LBSU-None.