My earliest basketball memory: it's a cold winter morning in New England, November 1983. I'm eleven years old, and I'm pulling a Greg Ballard Washington Bullets home jersey over my spindly torso (the only one at the sporting goods store that fit me). I'm taller than the other boys in the neighborhood, and my parents think that the loosely-organized weekend kids' league a town over would be a good release for my spastic youthful energy. I'm loaded into the Honda Accord and I sit in the back seat, quivering with anticipation, head full of hoop daydreams.
It would end up being my last visit to the weekend kids' league. The coach sized me up after the shootaround, and had me typecast immediately. "Hey tall kid," he said, grabbing my shoulder. "See that filled-in rectangle on the line outside the painted area, under the basket? When we have the ball, stand there... and don't move a muscle
. If someone passes it to you, pass it to a teammate. When we're on defense, stand in the paint and put your hands up. That's all I want you to do."
I must not have done a good job. After several minutes and several flurries of elbows, I was replaced by the only other member of our six-man team and watched the rest of the game, alone, on the bench.
Never one to quit, I would try again in high school. I had grown to six-foot-one by my sophomore year, and was almost literally pushed out onto the floor - "you're going out for basketball, right?"
During the annual varsity vs. faculty preseason game, I was out defending the perimeter for some reason, and we got the ball back on a steal. In transition, I caught a long outlet pass. I dashed out in front, taking the ball past the timeline, charging into the paint, trembling inside as I realized I was about to score my first two points of my life. I laid the ball up softly against the backboard, and it bounced high off the back of the rim and into my hands. Again, I put it up, slamming it hard against the bottom of the iron. I caught the ball again, then heaved it desperately towards the heavens...
One day, I went into my father's bedroom after shooting hoops in the driveway, my basketball still under my arm. "Dad?" I whispered. "You awake?"
"Yes," he mumbled, still half asleep.
"Do you think I'll ever make it to the NBA?"
My dear father denies to this day that such an event took place, but it was at this moment when my brief and unstoried basketball career was buried, headstoned and epitaphed. I decided to donate my concrete hands to a far less physically taxing pursuit: journalism.
I can't remember much about my years at the University of Oregon
, except for the rainy January and February nights spent huddled in the student section at McArthur Court. The Hoop Ducks of the early Nineties didn't much going for them, except for a waterbug-like guard named Terrell Brandon
, who had an odd knack for dropping wheelbarrows of points on Pac-10 opponents. My main "basketball buddy" those days was Gregory, an architecture major who shared my appreciation of the 2-3 zone, Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve beer, and little else.
"I was up in Portland last weekend," Gregory said to me one time. "My girlfriend couldn't get me tickets to the Blazer game, it was sold out. I was bummed, so she took me to a University of Portland
game instead. They were playing some school from eastern Washington. Slagga Wagga
"There are schools up in Portland?" I replied, somewhat surprised. "So how was the game?"
He game me a confused look. "It was... cute."
Despite my exposure to the NCAA Tournament each March, small-college basketball remained an abstract concept to me for a long time. For all I knew, the Santa Claras
and Southwest Minnesota State A&T's that populated the bottom third of the bracket and provided walkovers for 1 and 2 seeds were simply inventions of network promoters, or just the Washington Generals in different uniforms.
When I moved back east in 1997 to pick up a degree from Drexel University in Philadelphia, I began my mid-major education in earnest. Part of the reason I had chosen Drexel over other schools was that they had won the East Coast Conference (now the America East) three years in a row, and had achieved the round of 32 a year earlier, powered by Malik Rose and eye-catching gold lamé uniforms. It would be an adjustment moving to a big city and a new school, but at least I knew I'd have decent basketball to watch.
It did take some adjustment to go from a noisy, boisterous bandbox nicknamed "The Pit" to a half-empty 1,000-seat gymnasium with a concession stand that only stocked cardboard-like pizza slices and cold pretzels. The Dragons never made it to the NCAA's during my era, but as the Northeasterns and Hartfords and Hofstras marched through, the games were for the most part good and tight. Several years of life in the America East led me to an important, yet seemingly obvious, conclusion: two evenly matched teams with reasonable levels of talent will provide a completely entertaining basketball experience, regardless of league or level.
It didn't hurt matters that my Drexel season ticket also allowed admission to the annual Drexel-Penn game at the nearby Palestra, the proud palace of American college basketball, where, as author Joe Rhoads once said, "a hundred people sound like a thousand, a thousand sound like ten thousand, and ten thousand sound like nothing you've ever heard before."
Then I fell in love with conference tournaments. The Atlantic 10 tourney was still being held at the creaky old Spectrum, and I would make a point of taking a day off each March and watch all four games of the opening round... despite the Philadelphia Daily News' pronouncement that anybody who made it through the whole day of weeding out lower seeds "deserves a medal, or at least an invitation to get a life." If the games got out of hand, there were cheerleaders, dance teams, bands and crazy fans to provide entertainment.
When the A-10 felt it had outgrown Philadelphia and began rotating its tournament site, I was left without my fix of live March basketball. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference came to my rescue, conveniently staging their 2003 tourney up the road in Trenton, New Jersey. Three of the quarterfinals were closely contested. Both semifinals went into overtime, and the insanely loud cheering of Manhattan and Niagara supporters rang in my ears for days afterward. The line between hobby and obsession is usually either hazy or crookedly drawn, but I knew I was hooked.
I found myself spending many weekends this past winter on the road, discovering new arenas and teams and players. I saw games at the hoops mecca that is Madison Square Garden, in the flashy bank-sponsored arenas of state colleges, in dusty 500-seat gyms with collapsible bleachers. I spent so much time at the Palestra that the pretzel vendors knew my name, and an advance scout for Temple once asked me who I was working for. I ended up going to 82 games between November to March (including 24 during conference championship week), and at some point realized that this was a blog waiting to happen.
There are 81 teams in the seven "major" conferences, that is, the ones that play all their games with long TV timeouts. But there are also 24 other Division I conferences, and 245 other Division I teams. Now you may have to scour the fine print in your Street and Smith's basketball annual to find them, but trust me, they all are real schools with real basketball teams. The media, employing both political correctness and Orwellian doublespeak, calls the other D1 leagues "mid-majors" - a general term that's applied to either a pack of western state schools or a tiny collection of agricultural colleges in the southeast. I never received decent math grades, but it's obvious that we have a clear mid-majority here.
So I'll be updating this site on a semi-daily basis with articles, commentary and relevant links over the course of the season. You can follow along in my daring attempt to attend 100 NCAA games before the national championship is awarded in April. There are also lots of great supplemental features as well - I've got school and conference directories sorted every which-way, recaps of everyone's 2003-04 campaigns, links to each school's official basketball websites, schedules for all the D1 teams, and results that will be updated daily (yes, by hand!).
I'll try to steer clear of The Last Amateurs-style sentimentality. I'll try to minimize exuberant celebrations of the relative "purity" of college basketball without widespread corruption or win-at-all-costs attitude, and I'll try not to effuse about how a 14-seed and the honor of being first-round cannon fodder for Duke can be considered a wild success. I may not be able to keep those promises, but the point I am attempting to forward is simple: behind that cavalcade of obscure scores on your ESPN sports ticker delaying your NBA update, there is a lot of great basketball being played, and you may be missing out on it.
Over there on the right side of the screen is a customizable schedule - just enter your zip code, and as the NCAA's official ad campaign says, "there's probably a game near you tonight." Please take the opportunity to find a college basketball game in your area, get in your car, and go to it. Most games won't cost more than 8 or 10 bucks a ticket, which makes small-college hoops perfect down-economy entertainment for your entire family.
If you don't know anything about the schools or the conference or the players, all the better. Don't worry about not seeing a future NBA star that you can tell all your buddies you saw during his college days - that will only buy you a couple seconds' worth of coolness anyway. Don't worry about about not going in with a rooting interest - that might take care of itself over the course of the game, maybe you'll have a new favorite team. Enjoy the atmosphere, learn the chants, eat a nacho plate. If you'd like, write to me all about your experience afterwards. Trust me, it'll be fun.
So please enjoy The Mid-Majority, and tell all your friends!
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