For Rockne Andrew Roll, basketball was always an afterthought. Despite his prodigious height - he's 6-foot-5 now - his youth league experience nearly ruined the sport for him entirely, thanks to a combination of "bad coaches and jackass teammates." "People always asked me if I played basketball," Rockne says. "I said I didn't and got a lot of funny looks for it."
Instead, he completely disregarded the sport during his undergraduate years at Oregon State, never attending a game there while he was a student. His graduate school experience wasn't much better, as he went to a few Oregon games at Matthew Knight Arena (missing out on the charm of Oregon's venerable MacArthur Court); more so to hang out with friends on winter Thursday nights than for love of sports.
And then my house decided to catch fire. In my Mid-Majority recap of the event, which happened the day after a Portland State-Oregon game last December. I skipped a few details, like how I fell in love with my girlfriend the day after, and upon whose floor I was crashing - avoiding the futon entirely.
Fortuitously, Rockne happened to live four blocks from me at the time, so he took me in so I could take in copious amounts of college basketball during winter break. I explained to him why I was writing these recaps of Our Game, and he was pretty receptive, and enjoyed what he found on the site during 800GP. (It didn't help that I wouldn't shut up about it.)
Then, as he put it, he got offered a job as a "sports reporter" - he mostly was a photographer - at a small Oregon Coast paper and lived with his girlfriend. That led into him watching basketball in his free time, even when he had just gotten done covering a high school game. All of a sudden, there was an itch to scratch.
"I had been covering a team from a tiny high school that had been struggling both financially and on the floor, so I pretty quickly identified with the plight of small vs. large," Rockne says, "particularly when it came to schools with talented players that had no chance to play in the NBA and were honestly working to get their degrees going up against draft-pick factories like Kentucky."
Unfortunately, for many an Other-24-loving Oregonian, below-the-line options in the state are few with little between. You can either take Portland or Portland State; separated by a nine-mile drive. Other than that, you're treated to a lot of body bag games in Corvallis and Eugene early in the year, with the occasional Red Line Upset sprinkled in. Twice a decade, Portland serves as an NCAA Tournament first weekend site. Stuck in Southern Oregon, half-a-day's drive from the nearest mid-major gym, Rockne got his fix through pixelvision, falling in love with the West Coast Conference.
"There's a number of good teams in the conference that play really team-oriented ball," he says. "It's not about this superstar or that future lottery pick, and it makes it more fun to watch."
He also appreciates the conference's history, from San Francisco's back-to-back national championships with Bill Russell and K.C. Jones to Loyola Marymount's birth of The System to Gonzaga's transformation from Cinderella to a charmed life. But to him, Our Game is more special below the line.
"When so much of high-major ball is caught up in the money and the one-and-done philosophy that ignores the fact college is a place to get an education for the rest of one's life and not just a farm system for the NBA, it feels good to cheer for the little guy," Rockne says. "The teams and conferences who make do with less and just play the game and, more often than major media will give them credit for, play it very well."
But instead of focusing on someone who has been around college basketball forever, why not focus on someone just discovering the sport? What was it like to realize what you'd been missing out on before? What was it like to feel like a part of something bigger? What was it like to be involved in a community and find new friends while growing closer to old ones? What was it like when Our Game became yours?
For the start of his first full season as a college basketball fan, Rockne righted a big wrong: He finally made it to OSU's Gill Coliseum for a game for the first time earlier this month, watching the Beavers put a 20-point whooping on Niagara in the first game of both teams' seasons.
He took in an Oregon-Northern Arizona game he called his favorite as a fan, simply because the thought of a Red Line Upset was there as the Lumberjacks had a late lead in Eugene before the Ducks remembered exactly who it was who built them the most opulent arena in college sports, plowing over Kyle Whelliston's favorite undergraduate bar in the process. He started a project to document Oregon's season from start to finish, visually and in writing. He's hooked on the sport.