"Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told, 'I'm with you kid. Let's go.' "
Game #9-560: Robert Morris Colonials at Providence FriarsMarch 25, 2013 7:00 pm
Dunkin Donuts Center
- Maya Angelou
PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Game 139. End of the line.
It was a fitting conclusion to a season that raced along faster than I ever imagined it would. Working on a couple of hours of sleep, going to an arena above the Red Line, watching a team from the NEC, one of my favorite conferences, try to fight its damnedest against the odds and a hostile crowd, but eventually coming up just short.
It was poignant that on the day of my final live college basketball game, my school was hosting a Unified basketball tournament (high school's version of the Special Olympics). Although none of them could ever dream of dunking, sadly, some of the kids on the various squads actually got my Dunk City references. Hey, it's not like I can touch the rim, either.
Defensive strategies needed plenty of work, there wasn't much in the way of adjustments, and the tempo was very slow, but most of the kids could care less, as long as they got to run around on the court and have fun. A perspective that we lose sometimes chasing Division I college basketball teams around for an entire winter. Oh, and of course Mikey was out there,
setting screens, and using his length to cause defensive problems, too.
It was also apropos that one final spring snowstorm threatened the Providence area, meaning the Toyota Camry got blanketed one last time in that annoying but necessary road salt that is a pain in the ass to get off (and probably causes more damage than is readily observed).
But, like many other trips this season, there was plenty of time to reflect and to examine, as Socrates told us 2,500 years ago
. After escaping the unnecessarily convoluted parking garage and getting onto snowy Interstate 95 (luckily it wasn't sticking) for a final 90-minute ride home, there was one last chance to mull over the season past.
I billed this way back in November as The Big Year
, and I'd like to think I followed suit. There were times - many times - where I was told I was insane (or worse). There were times, probably even more prevalent, where I called myself crazy (or worse) on an open road far from home, trying to count the hours of sleep I could get that night. Or that week. I tried to completely block out the financial aspect of the expedition. As a good friend of mine who I've met only once recently told me, the traveler was winning decisively over the homesteader
. For those that knew me best, the traveler's lopsided triumph was far from a Red Line upset.
I thought of Murray, Ky.
and Charleston, Ill.
and Lewisburg, Pa.
, places I never would have had a chance to see if it weren't for this journey. Ditto for bigger cities like Baltimore
, and Philadelphia,
not to mention the dozen or so times I got to visit the greatest city in the world
: Bridgeport, Connecticut, of course.
There are too many destinations to mention, obviously: West Point
, Terre Haute
, Bowling Green (two of them)
, all places where Our Game thrives under the radar of most of the people who watch college basketball, even those who are paid to do so for a living.
They all have gyms and campuses that are unlike the other 346 in Division I, and they all have stories to tell. I tried to tell as many as I possibly could on a shoestring budget and trying to keep a full-time job. While I'm proud of the 139 Mid-majority games seen, I'm probably more impressed that I made it to 62 different facilities to see them.
As I crossed the border into my home state for the final time (Welcome to Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy), I thought of the long-forgotten Talking Heads and "Road to Nowhere", a song that became my anthem, seeming to pop up on my I-pod every time I was tiring in the middle of a long drive, often fairly close to the terrestrial definition of nowhere.
And it's all right."
Most of all, though, as the mileposts went past one last time, I thought of my father.
My dad hated basketball. Couldn't understand why I wanted to play the sport when I was little. When I would put on the then fledgling ESPN on the lone color television in the house, I'd get, "Why do you want to watch a bunch of black people run around and shoot a basketball?"
Now you might call him a racist for that last statement, but I would argue - as I have all season - that things are much less simple that people make them out to be in life. Like the proverbial iceberg, the surface only tells the beginning of the story, even if it is the one we like to focus on.
I can't defend my dad for making statements like he did, but he never used a derogatory word, even in private company, more than I can say for many people I've come across over the years. When an African-American kid joined our hockey league, he had no problem with him on the team that he coached, in fact, he encouraged it. When I brought over black friends or had black teammates, it was never an issue.
And he also never got up to change the channel (Remote? What's a remote?). He acquiesced, and actually learned about the teams like we did. When we begged him to take us to the 1985 NCAA tournament in Hartford, we didn't have to plead for too long. Somewhere in the attic there must be a tattered SMU t-shirt from that day, the same types of attire the NCAA is peddling at outrageous prices nearly three decades later. So some things haven't changed.
SMU lost to Loyola-Illinois that afternoon, my first Red Line upset, and one that I strongly rooted against (I liked the horse and saying "Smoo"), but it wasn't the last time my dad took me to a basketball game, and he came to see me play in my short-lived career more often than not. As I type this, he sits next to me watching my alma mater and a school he gave more than a few of his hard-earned dollars to, Syracuse advance to a Final Four, although he'd surely rather be watching something on the Speed Channel, or even better - outside working on the shed in the yard.
He'll never get to do that again.
The first phone call came from my sister while I was in Asheville, N.C. a few days after Christmas, one of the nicer motels I stayed in this season in my travels. She called to tell me my father had suffered a stroke, but it wasn't major, he walked into the hospital and shouldn't be there too long.
"Do you want me to come home now?"
"No, it's not that big a deal."
When I finally made it back from the south, I went to visit my dad, but he wasn't improving. Three days later, with doctors still baffled, he was rushed to Yale-New Haven Hospital, late on a Saturday night. A young doctor sat us down and explained they might have to open his brain, and if they did, they didn't know what kind of quality of life he'd have if he recovered.
We were leaning against the surgery, but fortunately a couple of hours later, the doctor returned and said Dad was responding to new treatments. The cause for the deteriorating conditions was a second massive stroke, but it seemed like the worst was over.
I talked a lot about Fate this season, and as Fate would have it, I wasn't scheduled to go far the next day. In fact, after sleeping in the hospital, I only had to walk a mile down the street to Lee Amphitheater to watch Yale take on nationally-ranked Florida
If you noticed (and a couple of you were keeping track), I stayed local for a short time, but Dad quickly improved, and I resumed my travels. Improved, of course, is relative, after a couple of weeks he graduated to Gaylord Hospital, a fantastic rehabilitation facility
where he remains most of the time, although he gets to come home on the weekends, and - this weekend - Easter.
But he'll never be what he was. His right arm barely works, he'll likely have to walk with a cane for the rest of his life, and - most importantly to him - aphasia has made it impossible for him to communicate properly (although he can understand fairly well). These things could improve over time, but his life is permanently altered. The same could be said for anyone at Gaylord, and as I roamed the halls, I watched the same going on in almost every room, some of the patients much younger than my father, victims of traumatic brain injuries from a variety of causes: auto accidents, diabetes, work-related.
Depressing? Yes. At least at first. But I watched how hard the physical therapists, speech experts, and nurses worked to make patients better, sometimes disgusting tasks involving things we take for granted we can accomplish by ourselves every day. As I sat in on a TBI (traumatic brain injury) meeting and listened to how someone hit by a drunk driver had reshaped his life over the last two decades in a relatively positive light, "Everything happens for a reason
" echoed in my head. As Charles Swindoll said, "the only thing we can do is play the one string we have."
Like many of the teams in Our Game, that string is not always perfect, most of us have flaws we'd like to rid ourselves of, but can't. We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to fix our imperfections before we finally understand that we should concentrate - as the speaker at the TBI meeting said - more on what we can do rather than what we can't. If that sounds familiar, it's a quote from .... John Wooden (although he surely got it from somewhere else).
Just as every season does, life also always ends in a loss. But it's up to us to make it memorable, to play that "string" to the best of our ability until we're told to stop.
In my final adventure for TMM9, that's just what Robert Morris did against Providence in the second round of the NIT. The Big East Friars before a near sell-out crowd at the Dunkin Donuts Center threatened to take out the unheralded Colonials on a few occasions after the upstarts jumped out to an early lead and held it for most of the first half.
But each time, Robert Morris, playing that string as hard as it could, scoring eight straight points to grab a 62-61 lead with 5:30 left.
Alas, the string was bound to break under such pressure and down the stretch it did. The Friars eventually put Robert Morris away and the careers of Velton Jones and Russell Johnson came to an end.
It came to an end on their terms, though, just as it did for me and my Toyota Camry as I pulled back into the driveway somewhere around 11:30 p.m.
Just like the Colonials, I was exhausted and given everything I had, played the string I was given the best I possibly could.
Now to do that for the rest of the year.