CHICAGO, Nov. 5 - In January 2006, I had the opportunity to spend a Sunday hanging out with Southern Illinois equipment manager Alvy Armstrong. These were the types of days I appreciated most when I was on the road, killing myself slowly by zipping from game to game: meeting people whose names were generally unknown, but who were integral to college basketball -- so much so that Our Game would collapse without their contributions.
For a whole afternoon, in a closet-sized space under SIU Arena, he washed the men's basketball jerseys from the game that day, sorted sneakers, mended torn warmups, and prepared the traveling package for the women's team's upcoming road trip. I stayed in the corner, out of the way, because there wasn't much I could do to help. Alvy worked at light-speed, swiftly moving from one task to another, while still finding the time to make polite conversation with me. He was fully dedicated and proud to be doing a job that was taken for granted and well short on proper credit.
In amongst the heaping piles of fabric and plastic, standing out against all the maroon and white in the small room, was a stack of oversized yellow t-shirts. Printed on them in bright pink bold block letters, on the front and the back, were these words: I Let My Teammates Down.
"What are those?" I asked.
"Oh," Alvy said, pausing. "Those are the football team's." He explained to me that their longtime head coach, Jerry Kill, had them printed up before the recent season began. Whenever a player missed a block in practice, or blew a play, or put their own interests above the team's in some way, they were issued an embarrassing t-shirt and had to wear it until further notice. If Saluki football players wanted to be individuals, their coach made sure they really
stood out. "They had kind of a down year, by his standards."
Rampant individualism wasn't a problem for the men's basketball team. Under Bruce Weber, then Matt Painter, and finally Chris Lowery, the Salukis emerged from late-90s mediocrity into mid-major stardom with a single, simple unifying concept: the nastiest, grittiest end-to-end defense imaginable. Two months after I visited Alvy in his den, Southern Illinois earned its fifth consecutive NCAA bid after a season in which the team allowed an average of just 56 points per game -- and only 50 per game at SIU Arena. In the Round of 64, however, they were properly Pitsnogled by West Virginia, managing just 46 points and losing by 18.
It turned out that the previous half-decade was prologue to a breakout season. With a team primarily made up of juniors, the Salukis ground out a school-record 29 wins in 2006-07, each one more deliciously ugly and unwatchable than the last. The final two, over Holy Cross and Virginia Tech, came in Columbus, Ohio on the NCAA Tournament's first weekend. I had a front-row seat for those.
Afterwards, in the Nationwide Arena tunnels, sole senior Jamaal Tatum could be found yelling, "Mean 16! It's the Mean 16 now!"
SIU came within a single possession of the Hate Eight, coming up just short against Kansas out in San Jose.
Of course, relying on team defense can be a razor-edged risk, especially when individual points come at a premium. That's what happened the following season, when the Salukis often failed to break 55 on the road, stumbled in Missouri Valley Conference play, and ended up going a round deep at the NIT. Fans in Carbondale weren't all that concerned, though, because the Sweet 16 season and the long run of legacy-building excellence had unlocked the type of industry recognition all mid-major teams dream of. All of a sudden, prep ballers on national watch lists and Top 100's were committing to SIU. Most significantly, Coach Lowery had cracked the powerful Chicago market, those tough city leagues that produced straight-to-NBA draftees and Big Ten stars. With an upstate pipeline, Southern Illinois stood to rule the MVC for years to come.
During the summer of 2008, I received my first book deal, and my first book was going to be a chronicle of one year in the lives of three upwardly-mobile mid-major programs. The Southern Illinois Salukis, given their intriguing recent history, and precipice position as a "Next Gonzaga," made them an easy choice. I was granted access by the administration and coaching staff, and received the full cooperation of the conference.
But sitting through those early-season closed practices at SIU Arena, something seemed off. It wasn't just that there were six freshmen on this team -- that amount of turnover and re-coring would be disruptive to any program -- but the energy had left the building. These were wandering walkthroughs, with none of the signature sweat, anger and hunger that so defined the Mean 16 team.
Any agita was relegated to the coaching staff. Lowery, who tends to be soft-spoken in conversation anyway, was initially helpful and talkative when I came over with my notebook, but as the days went on he became quieter and more withdrawn. Team pizza dinners were eerily silent. The coaches huddled at one table. The players sat at other tables, many of them wearing headphones as they ate. For my part, it was awkward to figure out exactly where to sit.
The 2008-09 Salukis opened at home by hosting a Preseason NIT pod, another symbol of the program's growing prestige (there had also been a visit from the ESPN College GameDay crew the previous season). As tradition dictated, the first game came against the weakest of the four attendee teams: the Division II California (Pa.) Vulcans. SIU won by 16 points going away, but the game had been uncomfortably tied 25-25 at halftime.
I spent the next morning in the office of assistant coach Rodney Watson, watching the tape. In his 18th year on the Saluki bench, Watson was the mainstay through the Weber, Painter and Lowery years, the common element. Running through the Vulcans' offensive possessions, he could barely hide his disgust and fury at what he was watching for a second time.
"You see that, Kyle?" he said. "Right there. Right there.
That's not Saluki basketball."
I admitted that I didn't quite see it. Besides, I was there to listen and observe and learn, not to impress anyone with offered expertise.
"Stand up. You have the ball, arc left side." I assumed a point guard's stance, and Coach Watson covered me close, arms up. "Watch me close you out." I faked to the left, attempted to shift to the right, but he mirrored and shadowed me, his feet moving straight and parallel to mine with each move. His hands anticipated and cut off my potential escape passes. This is what it felt like to be guarded by Jamaal Tatum, I thought. Not comfortable at all.
"I can teach anyone to play defense, Kyle," he said, letting me off the hook. "Maybe even you. But teaching a kid to get out of his own head is a different story. You know what I mean?"
I was beginning to. Team isn't just sacrificing the individual for the collective. Something more basic and elemental is necessary. It's the ability to get out of one's own way in order to be able to understand and explore the motivations of others -- the needs of teammates and coaches, as well as the desires of opponents. The Southern Illinois secret was no more complicated or sophisticated than that: empathy plus motivation. This team had a whole lot of neither.
The Salukis' season spiraled out of control, losses mounted, and prized recruits were jettisoned for bad behavior. I removed myself from the equation, and that book was never written. Coach Watson left Carbondale after that season was over, and took over a scandal-scarred Division II program at Southern Indiana. Since then, he's won 80 percent of his games
as head coach of the Screamin' Eagles. If the architect of SIU's legendary defense isn't a Division I head coach by now, the system doesn't make sense. Or, perhaps, he's come to the same conclusions about life I have -- that smaller is better, and that being famous is a waste of time.
The last time I saw the Salukis play was in January of 2011, a deep 20-point loss on a 20-below Saturday night out at frigid Northern Iowa. As the undersized maroon-clad five flailed about on the McLeod Center floor, Coach Lowery stood on the sidelines, arms at sides, seemingly waiting as patiently as he could for the game to be over.
"This is sad," I said aloud, to nobody in particular.
"Oh, this isn't the bottom, though," said the Salukis beat writer next to me. "Wait until next year. You'll see."
I still have my yellow t-shirt, size XL, with pink letters on the front and reverse. Alvy was kind enough to give me one, as long as I promised not to wear it anywhere in the vicinity of Carbondale. It lives in the closet, in a deep stack, most of the time. I wear it to bed on occasion, or over a long-sleeved shirt on the treadmill, but it's a difficult shirt to explain to girlfriends or people at the gym. It's kind of a long story.* * *
Writing is certainly a solitary and anti-social pursuit, no? In these modern times, it's just you and a keyboard, and if you write everything out longhand first (like I do), it's even longer and lonelier. Authoring a book turns you into a basketcase for months on end, temporarily inhibits the ability to interface with the rest of the species, and destroys relationships and marriages. I speak from experience here.
You may have heard the bumpersticker-quote, credited to many different people
: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Sportswriting then, at the very least, must be like opera about photography. In the decade or so since this site was initially launched, the online sportswriting industry seems to have doubled in size annually, overwhelming and drowning anybody who would take it upon themselves to act as gatekeeper.
Despite all this extra sportswriting, sportswriters haven't really offered any deeper understanding about the sports they write about, and have failed to provide any ironclad insight into why teams work or don't. Wizards with databases, working from homes and offices, have proven themselves much more capable in this regard. (Same applies for politics
, for that matter.) It seems that the best a sportswriter can do in this current modern environment is to elicit sharp reactions, confirm or challenge audience biases, distill things into bullet lists, and argue about stuff on social media platforms.
Since leaving the road, I've missed the college basketball press room like I miss hemorrhoids. With precious few exceptions, I found them to be places where fat white people set expectations for thin black people, then judge them. That's no fun. A recent trend in sportswriting is the boutique sportswriting website, underwritten by a larger media entity and supported by advertising clicks, where writers write about sports -- or rather, about themselves watching sports on television. The central irony of Bleacher Report, the exploitative content farm
now owned by Turner, is that very few of those writers are actually in
the bleachers. They're watching the same ESPN we all have at home.
I still do love this site and its community dearly, and can't imagine my life without it. I continue to spend hundreds of hours maintaining and reprogramming and redesigning things, trying to come up with new and different ideas every year to keep it fresh. I do this because I believe that there's a crucial and critical difference between sportswriting and writing about sports
. Since 2004, The Mid-Majority has been dedicated to the idea that going to the games, and documenting the experience, produces work that's far more useful to intelligent and inquisitive readers, with a much longer shelf-life. (More so, anyway, than a Top 5 list or a disposable prediction piece.) And mid-major basketball, then as now, is one of the last popular yet affordable sports we have.
True reporting, as far as I've always understood it, is "hey, look what I found," not "here's my opinion." But producing that kind of writing requires overcoming writing's fundamental hurdle of self -- to leap out of one's own head, out of one's own home. Out there is perspective. Out there is experience. Out there are people whom one can learn from and ask questions of. It's the world as it is, not a narrow vision of what it should be. Actual journalism, the kind I prefer at least, is concerned with sharing that adventure with interested others.
It's clear that a lot of people don't agree with this assessment of things. Some complained about the lack of a "singular voice" at TMM last season (at least one person dedicated a whole essay to this
). Support for the site isn't what it used to be, and without support there's no reason for it to exist. This is the first year we've faced a struggle to sell out our Membership packages
, even though we have just over half as many as last season on offer. I still maintain, though, that the 800 Games Project
, a group initiative that involved over 100 writers and logged over 87,000 collective miles, is this site's signature and grandest achievement, far superior to anything I did alone.
I understand that some have found this year's team concept confusing. Some have asked me, The Game's commissioner, to defend the concept, primarily on the basis that dividing TMM Nation into tribes defeats the whole All Of Us, Each Of Us
vibe we've been cultivating for so long. I argue the opposite -- this type of competition is somehow less benign than that within your office fantasy baseball league. I'm thinking about all those writers from last year, the ones who wrote one or two pieces and then moved on, the ones who didn't get the feedback, praise, kudos or plaudits they were looking for. Maybe they ended up writing for Bleacher Report, who knows.
One captain and four team scribes: it's a direct response to the basic loneliness of the long-distance writer. Each group of four, younger and college-age usually, will get a supportive editor-mentor to encourage them to work at always getting better, as well as the reality check of a wider audience on an established (non-profit, ad-free) website. When it comes down to it, isn't that what most beginning writers need to gain confidence and command?
This is indeed an experiment, another in a long series of experiments that stretches back eight long years. As with the 800 Games Project, it will produce another season full of excellent experiential sports journalism (the concept guarantees that). Some of these writers, this next generation of The Mid-Majority, will go on afterwards, graduate to other things, and provide perspective to an industry that could use a lot more. For the next five months, they need and deserve your attention and support. Yes, the mission is different now -- but abandoning TMM because it isn't the product of one singular voice anymore is insulting and unfair to them.
So it's down to you, the readers, to support these teams, these writers, this site. We can continue this beyond this season with an ongoing evolution of ideas, perhaps even another nine years, if you believe in it as strongly as I do.