Game 107: Villanova 79, at Bucknell 60 Tuesday, December 6, 2005
Sojka Pavilion - Lewisburg, PA
When you sling adjectives and metaphors about the Patriot League these days, especially to a national audience
, you do so under a long and cold shadow. Someone's already been there and done that.
So I want to take you back to a distant and faraway time and place. Okay, so maybe 21 months ago isn't quite medieval, but this tale occurs in a land where time started standing still years ago. It's a musty and creaky old horse barn in the forests of Maryland called the Show Place Arena, and it's the semifinals of the 2004 Patriot League Tournament.
I was late for the first game - work-related emergencies do happen on Sunday afternoons in my line. It featured the streaking league champion Lehigh
Mountain Hawks and their exciting, high-scoring senior point guard, Austen Rowland. As I entered the arena, they were in the early stages of a 23-2 run that would cut out the collective heart of their opponents, put an unmerciful end to a lackluster 14-15 season by the Bison of Bucknell
Only a busload of fans accompanied them and sat quietly behind their bench in that quarter-full arena, seemingly content to be in a place other than Lewisburg, Pa. for a weekend. Their orange shirts matched those of the five on the floor, young men with names like Davorin Skornik and Jack Namvou. Seeing significant action in the game was a three-point gunner, one Kevin Bettencourt, whose bombs often fell short of the target; then there was a big, gawky greenhorn that went by Chris McNaughton.
I'd been to a number of Patriot League games that season - mostly Lehigh ones - and I'd faithfully TiVoed all the Friday night games of the week that were exclusive to DirecTV subscribers. If the games got too boring, I'd fast forward to halftime, when the color commentator would spin yarns about the conference and its players. "From The Bench," the segment was called. The man talking was John Feinstein.
Anybody over the age of 25 who followed college basketball knew who Feinstein was - he had earlier taken a break from writing books about seasons inside power-conferences (and golf) to issue a tome about the little academics-first league and its history. "The Last Amateurs," he called it.
I was on my second pass through the book at the time, I'd brought it along in the car. Noticing Feinstein on press row at the makeshift television booth, the idea struck me - this was a perfect opportunity to get my copy signed. Between semifinal games, I passed out of the building, took the hardcover from my suitcase in the trunk; I went back inside, past several layers of lax arena security, none of which were interested in checking my ticket.
and eventual league runner-up American
went at it, I rehearsed my speech.
"John," I would say. "John, I... I'd be honored if you'd sign my book."
No, that's no good. What would he care if I was honored or not? Who was I, anyway? Just a software engineer who was spending my vacation-week at conference tourneys, explaining to friends back home that I wasn't crazy for choosing thousands of road miles and 25 basketball games over a Florida spring training trip.
No, too formal. Act relaxed.
"John, hey, how you doing. I really enjoyed your book, really ot me turned on to the Patriot League."
Wait, turned on
? Too creepy and stalkerish. Just keep it simple.
"John, sign my book. I mean, your book? The one that... I bought, you know, at the bookstore. Heh. Crap, do you have a pen on you?"
By then, the session was over and the arena was being broken down - the two finalists would meet the next weekend at Stabler Arena in Bethlehem, guaranteeing a much more excited atmosphere than we'd seen that day. The Patriot League signs and bunting was pulled off the walls - for the last time, it would turn out. The conference went to an all-campus-site tournament for 2004-05.
I lingered in the stands, hovering, waiting. Mr. Feinstein carried on casual conversations with people in suits, people in league logo jackets, shook hands. I picked the nearby yellow-coated security agent who I'd explain my autograph need to.OK, this is your chance... Go!
And then the window would close, someone else would come along to talk to him. More time to practice my charm.
"John, hi. Lehigh looks good, huh? Think they'll duck the play-in game? Sign my book? Oops, your..."
And that's when I realized how stupid I was being. What am I doing?
I scolded myself. This is ridiculous. It's hero worship.
To lift someone up over yourself, to bow before celebrity, is a hobgoblin of the most miniature of minds, I reminded myself. After all, I wasn't even a writer. I wrote C++ code for a living and dealt with clients for 60 hours a week. He lived in a completely different world, a different context, one that had nothing to do with mine - if John Feinstein was a famous and talented orange, I was a road apple. None of what I was doing made any sense.
I looked at the invisible barrier that separates the seats and the arena, left it unbreached. Finally, the award-winning author and commentator walked away into the tunnel, checking the messages on his tiny cell phone as he disappeared into the darkness.
Nobody - not I, nor the college basketball media establishment, nor the Bucknell players and coaches - had any idea of what the future would bring.