"In some alternate universe, a much better version of The Big Year exists, one that embraces the essential, insular weirdness and romantic fanaticism of the birding community it chronicles."
Game #9-013: Yale vs. Sacred Heart PioneersNovember 10, 2012 5:30 pm
- Kimberley Jones, Austin Chronicle
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. - Comcast was pissing me off last spring.
I try to be pretty loyal, and it was a pain to switch cable companies, so I was able to live with the fact that they didn't have some channels (like Military History, one of my favorites), and lacked some HD options.
But when they couldn't figure out why Fox Soccer Channel would go out intermittently, that was the last straw. I had already dealt with AT&T with my I-Phone, and their incessant UVerse pitch was finally successful.
One of the perks of the switch was a slew of HBO networks; although I'm not a huge movie fan, I do have some time off in the summer. On a lazy July morning, I stumbled upon a movie called "The Big Year". Honestly, it was forgettable, a waste of great actors Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, and was certifiably rotten on Rotten Tomatoes at a middling 38% approval rating
However, the premise kept me watching. Three men, with very different backgrounds, spend one year trying to see as many different bird species as they can in the United States. They spend money they don't have, do things they never thought they'd do, and alienate friends and family who just can't seem to understand their obsession.
In the end, "winning" is relative. The final scenes show the reigning champion, Wilson, alone, while second-place Black is dating a fellow bird-lover and is much happier than he was at the beginning of the film in his office cubicle.
The movie came around on the HBO loop a few more times during the summer. The parallels to our community became more and more clear. I thought about my life, and TMM9, and decided this was going to big my "Big Year".
Within reason, of course. I can't afford to quit my job, and as I'm scheduled to go back to school to take some classes next fall, I probably can't afford to go bankrupt (although that remains to be seen).
However, if you believe in omens, everything was drawing me to this challenge/opportunity/farcical silliness. Early last spring, I was told that my high school soccer and basketball coaching contract would not be renewed. While devastated was a little strong, I was certainly stunned.
I was heartened, though, by the simple words of one of my now-former players, who said simply, "Everything happens for a reason."
Other offers came in and I was back on the sidelines coaching soccer this fall. I had a couple of very good assistant offerings for basketball and came close to taking them. But I paused and thought about Season 9 of TMM, and how much fun I had in Season 8. Points for going to the most games? Challenges? A chance to spend a winter driving around the Northeast seeing college basketball (and the people and stories that come with it)?
This is my "Big Year" alright.
It won't be easy, on many fronts. I put together a ludicrously ambitious schedule about a month ago, seeing games almost every night, driving to places hours away. My school day begins at 7:30 a.m., meaning I have to be there by 7, leaving at 6:30. That's early. I have to find time to write these recaps and do the stories I'm going to see justice, because they deserve it. Last time I checked there are only 24 hours per day.
Three days into the season, I'm already two games behind. My new soccer team decided to get fairly hot at the end of the campaign and sneaked into the state tournament
. Hurricanes and snow pushed the game back further and further, all the way to last Saturday, smack in the middle of what was supposed to be a Connecticut 6 tripleheader in Hartford. I was probably lucky to make it to the last two.
The ostentatious schedule was to send me to Chestnut Hill, Mass. for Boston College-Florida International Sunday, but I also write a local high school football column, and - yes - that season is still going on for a few more weeks.
I worry if my aging Toyota Camry will hold up through a few months of punishment. I worry if my wallet will hold up through that same abuse. I worry that while the mind is willing in early November, the body will be weak by mid-February.
Having HBO for the summer also brought me face-to-face with their new show "The Newsroom", which was immediately interesting to me because I actually have a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse. one of the most prestigious schools of its kind in the country.
It sits here on the wall, unloved and unused for the most part. I worked briefly behind the scenes in Sportz
, but more than a decade ago I left to go into the education field that is now my life. I'd be lying if sometimes I don't wonder. But everything happens for a reason, right?
In the season finale of "The Newsroom", a defeated and inconsolable Will McEvoy sits in a hospital bed. He's one of the top news anchors in the country, but his world is crumbling around him, has been for a while. But suddenly, with a wonderfully fake plot twist, he is quoting from one of my favorites, Man of La Mancha.
"But, My Lord, you're not well. - Not well?
What is sickness to the body of a knight-errant?
What matter wounds? For each time he falls...
he will rise again... and woe to the wicked!
- Sancho? - Here, Your Grace!
- My armor, my sword! - More misadventures!
Adventures, old friend!"
It's bullshit, I know. But adventures are what many people miss from life (which is one of the general points Cervantes was trying to make in Don Quixote in the first place). We crave them. We need them. And they're different for different folk. My adventures (and hopefully yours) for the next few months are going to be in college basketball.
The path to victory for Sacred Heart in its season opener on Saturday afternoon certainly looked quixotic when they went to halftime down 44-28 to Yale, without likely their two starting guards in Evan Kelley and Chris Evans due to injury. It was even more so when yet another Pioneer turnover gave the Bulldogs the ball up 61-37 with 14:23 left in the game.
But there were a couple of people on the Sacred Heart bench who still believed. And they are a couple of the reasons why I hope for the best for the Pioneers this season.
If you go to a Sacred Heart home game, it's not hard to pick out Dave Bike's family. Because it was a short trip to Hartford and it was Bike's 1000th game on the bench (he's in his 35th year as head coach for the Pioneers), there they were Saturday. His young granddaughter sat at the end, periodically distracted enough where she would run up into the stands or toward the locker room.
Bike's grandson, a little bit older, sat next to the team, decked out in his replica red SHU jersey. While the body language of the team and bench started to waver a little, the youngster didn't really care about the scoreboard, yelling out his cheers and clapping his hands just as he did in pregame warmups. Yale's Austin Morgan (who hit six three-pointers and scored 28 points) hit two free throws with 8:38 left to put the Bulldogs up 71-52, but still the kid kept up his chatter.
Suddenly and without any warning, Sacred Heart began its comeback. Shane Gibson scored seven straight points, and the Pioneers started to get a huge contribution from freshman Tevin Falzon, who looked more than frightened in his college debut in the first half, but finished with five points and five rebounds.
Suddenly, the kid's voice had plenty of company on the Sacred Heart bench. Soon, the small contingent of fans behind the bench (probably a decent percentage related to Bike as well) joined in. With eight seconds left, Gibson's layup got SHU all the way back to 76-76 and we were headed to overtime.
The Pioneers let a five-point lead disappear in the extra session, but were clutch at the free throw line down the stretch for a memorable 85-82 win in the season opener, Bike's 521st victory as Sacred Heart head coach.
For someone chasing windmills like me, Sacred Heart will be easy to root for. Of the six Connecticut mid-majors, they carry the most Nutmeggers, including Gibson. Now a senior, Gibson played his scholastic ball
in at a tiny school in Danielson, so far off the beaten path I've been there once in more than three decades as a Connecticut resident. At 6-foot-2, he is an unassuming figure, and doesn't really stand out until he starts scoring points. And, boy, can he score. He ended up with 29 points, and he wasn't particularly sharp.
Point guard Phil Gaetano, all 5-foot-10 of him, is a local product, as are injured guards Kelley and Evans, all three largely overlooked by Division I schools. Actually, most of the Pioneers are.
And then, of course, there's Bike, who is nearing retirement. He would like to go off into the sunset with an NCAA Tournament appearance, and this may be his best chance to do it. It's a long shot, sure (SHU was picked sixth in the NEC preseason poll), but as we saw Saturday, they can compete with most teams at their level.
As the game ended, Kelley and Evans - both sitting near Bike's grandson and helping him lead the cheers -were among the first to give Bike's grandson a high-five.
After all, what is a 24-point second-half deficit without your two starting guards to the body of a knight-errant?
As it turns out, the movie "The Big Year" was actually based on a true story, Mark Obmascik wrote "The Big Year, A tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession" about the 1998 chase.
And you've entered the more interesting "alternate universe".
At least I hope it will be for you. The TMM9 writers and teams will criss-cross the country, checking out teams that you've barely heard of and may never make their way to ESPN, NBCSN, or any other N, for that matter unless they make a good run in early March.
Why? Well, there's not a good answer to that question in mid-November, is there? I dug up (don't you love the Internet?) a 2004 interview that Obmascik did with PBS
. He was asked by the host, "In the end, of course, only one of the three won the competition. Do you think the other two felt like losers?"
His answer provides a little insight into our community:
"No, not at all. In many ways, the Big Year cost them dearly. It cost them financially, it cost them their health, it wrung them out emotionally. But if you talk to them today, they had the time of their lives. It was really a terrific thing. I mean, how many people get to do the one thing that they really want to do and do it for a whole year? I mean, how many people get to chase their dream like that for a year? Birding may not be your dream, but for these guys it was. These guys went for it. Most people live their lives with the brakes on."
I'm about to cut the brake line.
Is that stupid? Probably.
Crazy even? Absolutely.
But will it be fun? Yup.
And memorable? Oh, hell yes.