VALPARAISO, Ind. - Back in the glorious 1980s, 10-year-old me despised the Iron Sheik
. When the Sheik would come to the ring and demand everyone stand and be quiet for Nikolai Volkoff's rendition of the Soviet national anthem, finishing with the trademark, "Iran number 1; Russia number 1; USA? Ptooey."
When the Foreign Legion would eventually win
by some devious method (you think college basketball referees are bad?) and their music would play as they stood triumphantly, I would scream at the television. Soon I went to my first live show at the now-demolished New Haven Coliseum, and I thought it was the greatest thing ever when they were beaten by Barry Wyndham and Mike Rotundo. I may have sworn at Sheik at the way out, cheered on by the crowd around me.
Whether the WWF clientele got more intelligent, their target demographic trended upward, or a combination of both, being a heel ain't what it used to be. It still pays to be anti-American, but it pays more to be anti-establishment. The first big "heel" of the modern era was Dwayne Johnson, who started off being billed as a good guy, or face. But he was so "good" in interviews and appearance that the new-era crowd turned on him. The Rock turned into a heel, and eventually the crowd smelled what he was cooking (I want that nominated for worst pun of the season, please).
More recently, guys like C.M. Punk have blurred the line between heel and "face", being booed by some sections of the crowd, but cheered by the "smart", often older fans for pretty much being a dick. But being very, very good at being a dick? It's not as easy as you might think.
Detroit came into the ARC Saturday afternoon knowing they were walking into trouble. The other two recaps (how big was this game to get three
, count 'em three stories
on it?) demonstrated why there was bad blood between these two teams, so please go ahead and read them first before you go on.
The people and students of Valparaiso seem like nice folk, they even let the Girl Scouts set up a concession stand, $3.50 for a box, the best deal
and nicest (and youngest) concession workers I've dealt with all season (I'm still eating them as I type this). Last summer, I had to go to Indianapolis and made a point to drive through Valparaiso, just far enough from Chicago where they can be considered true Hoosiers, but close enough where we could make it from the north side of Chicago to the ARC in plenty of time for this game.
Last summer, I marveled at how I loved the beautiful campus. I wandered around the ARC on a warm July day, there was some swim lessons going on and a volleyball camp on Homer Drew Court. I took some pictures, everyone said hello, no one told me to get the fuck out (as happened elsewhere), and I was on my way.
But those nice folk? They were pissed, super pissed, especially the students. I've seen some angry looks in my day, and that student section had some of the angriest I've seen in a long time.
I've never personally talked to Ray McCallum, Jr., but most of the things I've read about him tell me he's a quality young man (I'm sure he's not perfect, but who is?) I have no idea what McCallum was thinking when he decided to dunk the ball at the end of the Horizon League title game last season (it's at 1:50 here
). It wasn't a smart thing to do, but I think it's a safe assumption to think that it wasn't him who vandalized the Valpo campus afterward. That is inexcusable.
If you've watched enough big wrestling matches, you know that the heel always gets the shit kicked out of him early in the match. The crowd goes nuts, the good guy plays to them, does whatever he wants, until it's time to go for the pin.
From the time Ryan Broekhoff opened the proceedings with a pair of #superhoops
to the time Jason Calliste was called for a flagrant foul (the crowd always loves when the heel gets caught doing something underhanded) after Will Bogan hit a #superhoop
with 10:16 left, it was party time in Valparaiso. The dicks from Detroit were finally going to get what was coming to them (Valpo did post a comeback win at Detroit last month, but most of the people in the ARC couldn't make that trip).
But now up 61-46 after a free throw, Valpo rolled a seemingly unconscious Detroit over for the pin. And they kicked out at two and a half.
But the boos suddenly turn to horror as out of nowhere, McCallum just takes over the show. Suddenly the lead is six, then four, and when Calliste had a four-point play with 5:01 left, the game was tied. (That four-point play had the added bonus for Detroit of fouling out Valpo point guard Erik Buggs, taking away McCallum's stiffest defensive resistance.)
In professional wrestling, the heel always did something illegal to win, which almost without fail included "accidentally" knocking the referee out of the way and clobbering your opponent with contraband before going over to wake the referee up to count the pin.
There was nothing illegal about what McCallum and the Titans did Saturday, once they grabbed the lead, Valpo had no response and they were soon on the mat for the three-second tan (that alsogoes into the worst pun category, mark it down).
A stunned Valparaiso crowd could barely think to boo. I'm sure on normal days at the ARC, security is a pretty cushy way to make a few extra bucks, but they had their hands full with the student section just a couple of feet from the Detroit bench for most of this game. Thankfully, there were no incidents as Detroit - the heel triumphant again - left the floor.
The truth is the hero needs the villain, and the villain can't survive without the hero. That's always been the case, of course, but in recent times, the clear delineation of who we're supposed to side with is not always crystal.
As the game unfolded, I found myself rooting more and more for McCallum and the Titans. It probably makes be a bad person, but to see so many people have their day ruined in unison made me smile. Ah, good old Schadenfreude
, how I missed you.
Every time Detroit scored down the stretch, McCallum would slap the ground with the palms of his hands and start clapping at whomever had the ball for Valpo. Each time the boos were deafening. And each time, McCallum seemed to gain energy from them. Finally, leading by six with a minute left, McCallum's runner was well short. But two Valpo players let the rebound slip through their hands, and in one motion, McCallum grabbed the ball and in one motion scooped it back in.
He put his arms in the air and flexed his muscles toward the crowd, just as a heel is supposed to do after stealing a victory. All that was missing was his music playing on the way out.
Let's not misconstrue what my message is here. I'm not advocating poor sportsmanship or taunting or dirty tactics. I'm also not trying to poke fun at Valparaiso. Look, I've been to enough games in the Northeast this season with zero atmosphere and even less fans that the sight of a mid-major facility like the ARC completely packed at tip-off was a beautiful thing. In fact, it was the atmosphere that made the game so special.
Without Butler to deal with in the Horizon League (and it should be pointed out that it was a Valpo-Detroit final last season even with Butler there), there's a good chance that these teams will meet again in the Horizon final in three weeks. There's also a decent shot that it will be back in Valparaiso, as the Crusaders still have a one-game lead in the loss column in the standings.
As McCallum walked past the student section to leave the floor Saturday, he smiled a little but never glanced at them. Perhaps that's wise, college basketball is not professional wrestling after all, and he didn't want to incite any more venom toward him after he had already been victorious.
It was some show, though.