Game #9-001: North Texas at Creighton BluejaysNovember 9, 2012 8:05 pm
All I needed was some gas. After aimlessly weaving through one-way streets in downtown Omaha in desperate search of an on-ramp to the freeway, I finally hopped on the interstate-- in the wrong direction, of course. It took about a half-hour, but I eventually navigated the city's ridiculously confusing highway system and headed south on I-29, which would eventually lead to I-435, I-70, U.S. 63 and, finally, my home in Columbia, Missouri.
Before I could return home, however, I needed to fill my tank. My misadventure in Omaha had left me running low, and extreme frustration had set in. The high of witnessing two of the best players in college basketball face each other at the CenturyLink Center earlier in the evening had worn off. Now, I was frustrated at my never-ending quest to get the hell out of the state of Nebraska. Swear to god, I think I was trapped there. Once I recovered from the Omaha debacle and found my way out of town, I began sailing along on I-29 and tried to exit the highway to find a gas station-- no luck. Tried again in a few miles at the next exit, and nada. At this point, I'm flipping out. Screaming at nobody in particular, banging the dashboard, cursing as loud as I can simply because nobody else was in the car with me. Finally, I found a BP off Route 34 somewhere between Council Bluffs and Pacific Junction. As I slowed down and turned off the highway, I noticed a group of people walking on the side of the road. Probably homeless, I figured. On to my gas station. It was 11:30 p.m. and I had four hours left in my trip. What did I care what some homeless people were doing on the side of the road?
Predictably, the pay-at-the-pump wasn't working. Just my luck. My stupid credit card wouldn't run. Stupid machine. Stupid pay-at-the-pump. The convenience store had closed hours ago, there was no attendant in sight and there seemed to be no human beings within a 7,000-mile radius, so it wasn't as though I could call somebody to fix it. Like any rational human being, I started punching the machine.
That's when I heard a voice.
"You won't guess what happened to us!"
Suddenly, a teenager emerged under the lights of the BP station. He looked probably 15, maybe 16 tops. I didn't know human beings existed here, so his voice took me by surprise. A preteen girl then appeared under the lights as well, along with an older-looking woman with worn-out clothes and a beaten-down look. This was a family. They were the ones walking on the side of the road - I had thought they were homeless people. Maybe they still were.
"We ran out of gas."
These are the moments that test us as human beings. The family was not physically threatening, nor did they seem even the slightest bit capable of harming me. They looked exhausted, and they began to explain they had walked miles to this gas station to retrieve gas with a gas can. The mother looked desperate. The girl looked frightened. And the boy looked confused. I had no idea who they were, where they were from or why there were here.
So I asked them. I learned they were from Rock Port - a small town in Northwest Missouri near the border of Nebraska -- and they were on their way back from their town's high school football playoff game when their car's gas gauge misinformed them of how many miles they had remaining in the tank. That's why the car broke down on the side of the road at 11:30 p.m. in the heartland of America at this BP gas station on Route 34.
The next logical step, for any decent human being, would be for me to offer them a ride.
The lesson of the Mid-Majority this year is "teamwork." To be a team, you must trust each other. I needed to trust their situation was legitimate. The chances of a mother and two kids running some sort of criminal scheme on me at a gas station were probably slim to none, but more bizarre things have happened before. Point is, these were three strangers. I knew nothing about them. Would it really be smart to offer three complete strangers a ride in my car?
Really, though, the question should have been: Would it be smart for them to get in a car with a complete stranger? They had no idea who I was, either. I was just some odd guy in a suit and tie, a guy claiming he'd just come from a basketball game where he was a videographer, and that's why he had a camera, tripod and laptop in the back of the car in the middle of nowhere.
For me to offer them a ride, I'd have to trust them. Not only them, but the human race in general. For them to get in my car, they'd have to trust me.
There are few things more beautiful in life than watching an offensive set run by the Creighton Bluejays. The ball goes inside. Outside. To the left corner. To the right wing. From Grant Gibbs to Doug McDermott to Austin Chatman to Gregory Echinique to Ethan Wragge. For three. Or not. Maybe they'll pass it again. Whatever Creighton decides to do, it always does it well. No mistakes, no poor passes, no ill-advised decisions.
Friday was no different. Even though Creighton did not shoot well from the perimeter, it was a vintage performance. The ball went everywhere, from side to side, inside to outside, and then always found its way into the hoop. Creighton shot an even 50 percent, good enough to run away with an easy victory over North Texas, the consensus Sun Belt favorites. Not a bad way to start the 2012-13 season.
It is obvious to even the most casual fan that the Bluejays trust one another. They are the definition of a "sum of their parts" kind of team, a common sports term used to describe a team that hides its individual talent beneath a well-oiled machine of teamwork. This paragraph - and this entire essay, really - is beginning to sound like one, big, giant cliché. I get that. But here's why it's not: Because sports has no causal effect on line. This idea of "trust" is not some sort of life lesson that the Creighton Bluejays will remember forever and ever. They share the basketball, they're unselfish, and so on and so on, but that's not a metaphor for life. They aren't all going to use these principles of basketball and apply them to life. That's Disney crap.
What's not crap is the fact that basketball players are humans. They play with human emotion. The idea of "trust" relates to basketball not because basketball teaches people how to trust each other. It's the other way around. "Trust" finds its way into the game, and it becomes an integral part into how a team figures out how to play winning basketball. Greg McDermott trusts his players. They trust his schemes. Doug McDermott trusts that Grant Gibbs' passes will come to him, nice and clean. They trust that Echinique will clear the low block and create some space, they trust that Wragge will be open for three and they trust that Austin Chatman will be capable of running the point at times. There is so much raw confidence that no Creighton player is ever worried about making a mistake. They trust that will not happen, so they play like there's no tomorrow. They trust each other a heck of a lot more than North Texas does right now, which is still dealing with extreme youth and a lack of offensive identity beyond stud Tony Mitchell. He can't do it all alone, but he is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent. That was evident by his three spectacular slam dunks on Friday, his sky-high rebounding and his remarkable raw leaping ability. It was quite a sight, something you don't see it often under the Red Line.
Which brings me to my next point about trust and judgment.
I must confess that I am not only a member of the media, but I am also a follower of an Above-the-Red-Line team. I was at this game in Omaha on behalf of KOMU-TV in Columbia, Mo., doing a story on Tony Mitchell and his ties to Missouri (he originally signed there). Let's be real here, of course. I pitched this story to my higher-ups because I wanted to see the Mecca of the Missouri Valley and because I wanted to see McDermott vs. Mitchell as bad as anybody. But I came to Omaha with a job to do, and my job was to interview Tony Mitchell about his relationship with the Tigers.
Before Friday's afternoon shootaround, I had never met Tony Mitchell. I had never spoken to him. I had never heard him speak, I had never read a quote from him in the newspaper, and I had never even read an interview with him at any point in time. I knew only a few things about Tony Mitchell. First, I knew the facts surrounding his signing at Missouri--that he signed with coach Mike Anderson amidst controversy regarding his high school transcripts, that the NCAA declared him ineligible to compete at Missouri, that he enrolled at North Texas as a partial qualifier. I also knew that I had never seen him smile or show any sort of emotion. His picture on Rivals.com always looked, well, unhappy. Not mean, but unhappy. Not full of joy.
I don't think I fully trusted Tony Mitchell before I met him. I don't mean that in bad way, like I thought he was a bad person or a mean dude or something. I just had a preconceived notion of who I thought he was and what his personality was like. I thought he was going to be cold and distant, maybe detached from the interview and not all that helpful to the story. This wasn't a sign of a bad person, just a sign of maybe somebody who's sick and tired of the spotlight and all the media members coming after him. I didn't blame him because I figured I'd feel the same way if a bunch of nerdy reporters in collared shirts constantly wanted to talk to me. No matter what I thought of him, though, the fact that I had any sort of judgment about him without meeting him is the problem. I didn't trust that people might be different than they appear.
When North Texas' SID fetched Mitchell for me at the end of North Texas' afternoon shootaround, he walked toward me with a blank stare. I've interviewed enough athletes to not get star-struck anymore, but as he approached me, I started to judge him. Not necessarily positively or negatively, but I just judged him in general. I bet he won't say a whole lot about Missouri. I bet he's quiet. I bet I need to coax a lot out of him. This will be a challenging interview.
Suddenly, Tony Mitchell was within a few feet of me. All 6'9'' of him. Here comes the All-American. Still a blank look.
Then, he broke into a big, goofy smile and outstretched his hand. "Hi," he said, warmly. We shook hands. By now, he knows the drill with reporters, so he took my microphone, clipped it under his jersey and prepared for the interview.
He wasn't quiet at all. He was actually about as friendly as any athlete I've ever encountered. I wasn't surprised by the friendliness. I would say that 99.9 percent of athletes I've dealt with are "friendly." It was his warmness that surprised me. His willingness to open up, his willingness to answer my questions completely and truthfully, his willingness to help me. I figured I was just another reporter and just another interview he had to endure after practice. That's not how he treated it, though. He really did help me, and now I have a heck of a story and a great interview to give to my newsroom.
Funny how that works. Maybe I should trust people to be helpful more often. I should just trust that people are generally good and generally helpful, and generally willing to please others. After talking to Tony Mitchell - a guy I wrote off as probably unwilling to help my cause but eventually turned out to be a better interview than I ever could have imagined - I'm realizing that it's dangerous and, frankly, just plain stupid to judge somebody before ever meeting them.
Omaha is a funny place. It is the largest city in Nebraska and has a vibrant, charming downtown area, but it appears to arise completely out of the blue when driving north on I-29. There are zero road signs for Omaha, just several for a place called Council Bluffs, which is right next to Omaha. For miles and miles and miles, there is nothing. And then, suddenly, Omaha pops up on the side of the highway, only to disappear soon after if you're simply passing through.
The city of Omaha embraces Creighton like a professional team. The CenturyLink Center looks like a palace in the downtown area, and the arena set a record on Friday night for the largest crowd in the history of the program for a season opener. With expectations as high as they've ever been for this Creighton team, more than 17,000 people turned out for a November game against a team from the Sun Belt.
I knew the place would be loud and amped. It was. The Creighton faithful, just as I've seen over years and years of attending Arch Madness, were on their game on Friday night. The place was electric, and I could really feel how much they love Bluejays' basketball. I could feel how much they trusted their team, how much they liked their players.
I love road trips, but like everybody, I sometimes loathe the drive home. After the excitement of college basketball, all that's left is a pitch-black highway, crappy music on the radio and the sounds and sights of Highway Hypnosis. That's why at 11:30 p.m., stuck in Nebraska with no end in sight, I was not looking forward to a long, boring drive in the dark. When three complete strangers appeared at the gas station, maybe I should have just jumped in my car and booked it out of town.
That thought never crossed my mind, though. And, no, it's not because Tony Mitchell was different than I thought he'd be or that Creighton's unselfish offensive basketball inspired me to do the right thing. Again, I must stress that "trust" finds its way into basketball, not vice versa. Basketball's life lessons had nothing to do with this.
I was raised to help people and trust them. Sometimes, that's to my detriment. Maybe it will get me in trouble some day.
I told the mom and her two kids they could get in the back of my car. I just had to put my humungous camera case, laptop case, backpack and tripod in the trunk so they could fit. They all piled into the car, and I drove them to their car without incident.
Story over. Not too exciting, right? They weren't a front for a serial killer operation, and my suit and tie wasn't a front for a robbery. Everybody returned home safely. I think we all could have predicted that. But my odd little encounter with this family made me realize that we have the innate ability to trust other human beings, even people we've never met before. It speaks to the general idea that mankind, I think, is good, more or less, I suppose. And when you find that right chemistry of people who trust each other, it turns into the Creighton Bluejays. at CREIGHTON 71, NORTH TEXAS 51
NORTH TEXAS 0-1 (0-0) -- T. Mitchell 8-15 0-0 18; J. Williams 4-14 1-3 9; A. Williams 3-14 3-4 9; R. Franklin 4-8 0-0 8; C. Jones 0-4 0-0 0; P. Hardwick 1-5 1-2 3; C. Overlander 0-3 0-0 0; K. Coleman 1-2 0-1 2; J. Holmen 1-3 0-0 2; N. Stojiljkovic 0-0 0-0 0; B. Walton 0-0 0-0 0; A. Mitchell 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-69 5-10 51.
CREIGHTON 1-0 (0-0) -- D. McDermott 6-11 8-8 21; G. Gibbs 2-2 2-2 6; A. Chatman 4-7 2-2 11; J. Manigat 2-7 2-2 6; G. Echenique 3-4 1-2 7; A. Yates 1-4 1-2 3; E. Wragge 1-3 1-2 4; J. Jones 0-2 0-0 0; A. Dingman 4-5 0-0 10; W. Artino 1-2 0-0 2; G. Groselle 0-1 1-2 1; J. Kelling 0-0 0-0 0; M. Oginni 0-0 0-0 0; A. Olsen 0-0 0-0 0; T. Stormberg 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-48 18-22 71.
Three-point goals: NTEX 2-16 (R. Franklin 0-1; C. Jones 0-1; T. Mitchell 2-5; J. Williams 0-5; P. Hardwick 0-1; C. Overlander 0-3), CREI 5-18 (J. Jones 0-2; E. Wragge 1-3; D. McDermott 1-3; J. Manigat 0-4; A. Chatman 1-3; A. Dingman 2-3); Rebounds: NTEX 34 (T. Mitchell 7), CREI 36 (D. McDermott 11); Assists: NTEX 11 (C. Jones 3), CREI 14 (G. Gibbs 4); Total Fouls -- NTEX 19, CREI 12; Fouled Out: NTEX-None; CREI-None.