"Ah, you have no idea of the magnitude of this thing. If she is
Game #9-142: Vermont at Quinnipiac BobcatsDecember 8, 2012 4:07 pm
TD Banknorth Sports Center
allowed to infiltrate this world, then George Costanza as you know him,
Ceases to Exist! You see, right now, I have Relationship George, but
there is also Independent George. That's the George you know, the
George you grew up with -- Movie George, Coffee shop George, Liar
George, Bawdy George."- George Costanza, Seinfeld
HAMDEN, Conn. - My college basketball world rarely collides with any of my others. These days, I'm even able to keep my high school sports writing, soccer diatribes, and college basketball travels separate on Twitter. Most of the time, the worlds don't seem to get along, or - more aptly - understand each other very well.
Maybe it's my fault, it's not like I try all that hard. Most times I like to keep the worlds apart, it helps privacy, and - to be honest - trying to explain something like the Mid-majority to people who don't know anything about college basketball, well, it might take a while. Or more than a while.
It also helps me keep some perspective on life, sometimes people in their insular world think what they do is the most important thing in the world. It's not. If it involves a game, it's definitely not.
This Saturday was supposed to be like any other in my Mid-majority quest, in my original schedule I had it down as a tripleheader between Brooklyn and Madison Square Garden.
My day job is in high school special education, and I've helped (not enough) with something called Unified Sports over the years. Basically, it's a spin-off of Special Olympics, except allowing students to play as a school team against other school teams, with rules stipulating that there must be a number of "athletes" (those with disabilities) and "helpers"
(those without). It's been a rousing success at our school, even though it takes a ton of time and effort out of the organizers to make it happen.
Two weeks ago, I saw a flier for a Unified Sports field trip to Quinnipiac for the men's basketball game against Vermont on Dec. 8. I immediately knew I wasn't making it to New York City that day.
Much of my duties at school are now working with a 17-year-old named Mikey, who was like most other toddlers until, at the age of four, he suffered numerous strokes after he ate something infected with E-coli. He hasn't spoken or walked on his own since, and likely never will again.
However, he was fortunate. The brain damage did not affect his mental capacities.
In the three years I've known Mikey, he has become more than a student, he is an inspiration.
Thanks to some amazing modern technology, Mikey can communicate with a machine that is calibrated to his eyes and drive his motorized wheelchair by moving his head. While he can't stand on his own, he does have some voluntary movement in his legs and his arms (more in his legs than in his arms). Using a special calculator and computer mouse, Mikey is at the top of his junior class academically, taking almost exclusively AP and Honors courses.
It's not as easy as he makes it look. I've seen him have days where minor seizures (tremors) make it tough to concentrate. As he types with a single toe, papers and notes can take forever (compounded by the tremors that come when he has to exert himself). He can't feed himself, and needs someone to help him to go to the bathroom, both of which can be extremely embarrassing for a 17-year-old boy, as I'm sure you can imagine.
But he comes to school with a smile almost every day, does his best to join whatever groups he can, and is not afraid to tell me I've got horrible taste in music and sports teams.
One of the issues they wanted me to deal with last year was Mikey's physical education classes. Like anyone else, he needs them, and the daily exercise seemed to help limit the tremors. But in his freshman year, he was almost always walking (he can move, although it's difficult to change directions, if someone holds his belt from behind) by himself, separate from what the class was doing.
Last year, we tried to include him a little more, but there were some games (badminton, archery) that were just impossible with little control of arms.
How about Unified Sports? It was great, especially in soccer season when he could kick a ball pretty well if it was teed up for him, and he was able to do some track events.
Last summer, we had to decide whether to put him into recreational or competitive PE class for his junior year. On the surface, recreational seemed like the obvious choice, but those were mostly static games, the ones he had so much trouble participating with the rest of the group in, which is all he really wanted to do.
Competitive gym class it was, even if it meant he would be with some of the top athletes in the school.
As it turned out, as the girls soccer coach at the school, a couple of my players were in the class, as well as several other varsity athletes who understood what the deal was, and have been great with Mikey.
The school year started with flag football, Mikey's role turned out to be center (he could snap the ball by kicking it back to the quarterback) and defensive lineman, where (he is 6-feet tall) he could chase the opposing QB out of the pocket and try to get his hand in their face.
In softball, he could use his feet to play the field and run the bases if someone else batted for him. Volleyball was a little tougher, but he made some nice bumps with his head (wearing a helmet, of course).
Three weeks ago, it was time for basketball.
Hmmm, what to do?
Well, I figured he could play defense just like he did in football. For offense? He could be a screener, and with me in tow holding him, that would be pretty effective. I taught him quickly what to do, and he got it after a couple of classes.
All games were half-court, which was perfect for him with limited movement. On the first possession of the opening game, Mikey shuffled over and set a screen on Nicole, one of my soccer players. It was perfect, except when she went to move around it, Mikey -
without complete control of his arms, remember - smacked her straight in the face as his arm flew up involuntarily.
"You OK, Nicole," I asked.
"Yup", as her tongue was feeling inside her mouth to make sure there was no blood.
Thankfully, she - like the rest of his classmates and schoolmates - is a good sport.
There have been very few incidents like that, thankfully. It didn't take Mikey long to figure out that in a half-court gym game where there were few shooters, the two big football linemen would dominate, so he would always try to draft them on his squad.
One day when he couldn't and they ended up against him, one of the big linemen made a kamikaze move toward the basket, evidently not noticing that me and Mikey were between him and the hoop. I tried to get him out of the way, but it was too late, and he got trucked, tumbling to the floor. Scary stuff, although he wears a helmet, Mikey doesn't have much of an ability to cushion his fall with his arms. Because I was holding him, it made the impact less, but he's broken fingers and an arm once or twice that way.
I looked at Mikey's face through the helmet. He was smiling.
"Mikey took a charge!," one of his teammates yelled from the other side of the court. And so I had to explain to Mikey the difference between a block and a charge.
Mikey is not the biggest basketball fan (the Red Sox are his main sports squad), but he was set to join the Unified squad Saturday at Quinnipiac. I found it somewhat ironic that they were playing Vermont and one of the more interesting current Mid-majority players, junior Brian Voelkel, who was MVP of the America East final last season against Stony Brook despite scoring only five points. In fact, he took only one shot, but had 15 rebounds and seven assists.
All week, I told Mikey to keep an eye on Voelkel and watch all the ways that he helps his team without scoring, things like setting screens and taking charges.
As it turned out, Quinnipiac always reserves part of a section behind the basket for groups like ours. I eschewed the school bus (Mikey wasn't on it, either) and got there early, and it turned out that my seat was literally next to old friend Keith Gaither, whom I wrote a story on last season.
All Keith wanted to talk about was the Quinnipiac women's team, who had played earlier in the afternoon and beaten Holy Cross to go to 7-0 on the season. I tried to explain to him about Voelkel and how he never shoots, but he dominates anyway.
I got a quizzical look. "Can he dribble?"
"Yeah, but he likes to get rebounds and assists and stuff."
"So he doesn't like to score?"
"That's weird, man."
Mikey's grandmother got slightly lost coming to TD Bank Center, but they came in through the handicapped entrance just as the national anthem was playing. Mikey doesn't like to use the wheelchair if he can help it, so his dad walked him in, and plopped him in the seat next to me.
"There is the guy, Number 1 in black," I said.
Of course, with Quinnipiac's strategy clearly to leave Voelkel alone on offense, he proceeded to take three shots in the game's first four minutes. Oops.
The game itself was a hideous offensive display, which probably could have been expected between two teams that pride themselves on defense (and not offense). Vermont led 19-16 at the half.
"Yea, these guys miss more shots than our gym class does," I said.
I wasn't kidding about Voelkel being one of the more interesting characters in college hoops. He's listed at 6-foot-6, but that's a tad generous, and looks more like a linebacker than a Division I basketball forward. He had to be told repeatedly to tuck his shirt in, which would last all of about five seconds before it would come out again.
But, sure enough, it would be Voelkel making the big plays down the stretch to lead Vermont to a solid road victory. With the Bobcats within 35-34 and five minutes left, Voelkel used his wide open status to hit a #superhoop, then hit another for the dagger with 2:15 remaining. In the end, Voelkel took a whopping eight shots, but finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists in a 53-46 win.
I tried to get a photo with Keith and Mikey, but Keith had a long day between the two games, and was a little disgusted by another Bobcats' loss, so he was gone as soon as the final buzzer sounded.
Part of the field trip deal is a visit from assistant coach Scott Burrell, who took a while afterward, likely because of head coach Tom Moore needed to vent as the Bobcats fell to 3-5 and have eight days before taking the court again because of finals.
Burrell - still a big celebrity in the area because of his stardom at UConn - is a great guy, but his talk might have gone a little over the head of the Unified Team.
"We just didn't make enough plays,"
Burrell said. "They just wanted it a little more than us and we didn't execute on offense or get enough loose balls."
Scott posed for a few pictures, signed a few autographs, and was gone. Mikey was not impressed much, by now he was tired, and just wanted to go.
I talked Mikey's family into meeting me down the hill from the arena at Griff's Chicken Shack, my favorite area eatery. On the way out, the Vermont team was also leaving, and I saw Voelkel with a "Think Globally, Act Locally" t-shirt on, untucked of course. He looked like me in college when I was about to leave my family to go back to school, he had unhealthy food of some sort tucked under each arm, gave a couple of hugs and was gone.
As I mentioned last season, I actually coached his cousins for a couple of years in summer camp way back when I was in high school and college, and there they were. I tried to tell them the brief story of Mikey and gym class and Voelkel.
"That's amazing", was the response, and I don't think they were talking about their cousin.
At the restaurant, it took more time than I would have imagined to unload Mikey out of the van and into the wheelchair to roll in. To the family (and Mikey's father is only a couple of years older than me), it's all second nature by now, but I thought of how many times he's done that in the last 14 years.
Because Mikey has trouble swallowing, his food must be chopped up as small as possible, and he often struggles to chew it before getting it down. Sometimes a portion of it, or some saliva, ends up coming down his shirt. None of the family nor Mikey bats an eye, but I did notice some baffled looks from some of the other people in the restaurant. I could probably go as far as to say that a couple of them looked very uncomfortable.
Finally, Griff's was closing, another excellent dinner was done, and Mikey was on his way home, possibly to watch some television (he loves CSI-like shows) or play some video games (which he does with his feet, he's a pretty good chess player).
I wished them well, told Mikey I would see him Monday, and went to my car, which was parked in the back. It took me a couple of minutes to check some scores on Twitter and respond to a couple of text messages. I started the car, and pulled back around to the front, only to see Mikey's father putting the finishing touches on deconstructing the wheelchair so it would fit in their van.
I waved, thinking to myself, there is so much to what these people go through every day that I don't know. Or, more appropriately, I don't want to think about.
You're here to read about college basketball, and I've obviously gone a bit off the track here, so I apologize.
But we talk about humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness here, too. These are ideals that continue long after a basketball game or season is over, and make us better people because of them.
You can believe what you want to about Fate and pray to whatever or whomever you want, it's still a semi-free country, but in the 24 hours or so since leaving Mikey on Saturday night, I thought about how many things had to happen to put Mikey and myself together at a mid-major college basketball game in a season where I happened to be traveling great distances writing about them.
Or maybe, someday, our worlds are just meant to collide. And Saturday was my turn.
VERMONT 53, at QUINNIPIAC 46
VERMONT 5-3 (0-0) -- B. Voelkel 4-8 4-4 14; E. O'Day 3-6 0-3 6; S. Carissimo 0-3 3-6 3; C. Rugg 1-2 6-8 8; C. Rusin 3-8 1-2 8; T. Blue 4-6 3-4 13; L. Apfeld 0-3 0-0 0; J. Elbaum 0-3 1-2 1; B. Kilpatrick 0-1 0-0 0; B. Crenca 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 15-40 18-29 53.
QUINNIPIAC 3-5 (0-0) -- G. Young 4-14 2-3 10; I. Azotam 5-9 3-6 13; O. Drame 4-7 1-2 9; J. Jackson 0-4 3-4 3; E. Conti 2-4 0-1 4; D. Johnson 1-5 0-2 2; S. Shannon 0-4 2-2 2; Z. Hearst 0-2 0-0 0; K. Ray 1-4 0-0 3. Totals 17-53 11-20 46.
Three-point goals: UVM 5-15 (T. Blue 2-3; L. Apfeld 0-1; C. Rusin 1-3; S. Carissimo 0-1; J. Elbaum 0-1; B. Voelkel 2-5; C. Rugg 0-1), QUIN 1-9 (G. Young 0-2; E. Conti 0-2; Z. Hearst 0-1; K. Ray 1-2; S. Shannon 0-2); Rebounds: UVM 30 (B. Voelkel 10), QUIN 37 (G. Young 10); Assists: UVM 8 (S. Carissimo 4), QUIN 8 (D. Johnson 4); Total Fouls -- UVM 18, QUIN 21; Fouled Out: UVM-L. Apfeld; QUIN-None.