I don’t really know how I got here.
Not in the straightforward biological sense. Not really, even, in the more complex what-are-any-of-us-doing-on-this-here-Earth construction.
But when it comes to the question of how I wound up writing about the long, weird history of college basketball in a much-loved forum like this, the mystery deepens.
After all, I haven’t played the sport since sixth grade, despite showing promise as a good-passing big man (or, less charitably, a chubby kid who knew full well I was the team’s third-best Matt). I didn’t attend any definition of a mid-major; instead, I graduated from a huge state university in one of the most lumbering power conferences of all, the Big Ten. Baseball has always been my favorite sport; I live and die for my alma mater’s hockey team; I’ve spent my whole adult life in Minnesota, one of the two or three states in America that don’t even have
a mid-major hoops program.
Like I said: I don’t really know how I got here.
That’s true in a more literal sense, too. I can’t remember where or why I first clicked on a link to the Mid-Majority, but my best guess is that it happened sometime late in Season 3. Fittingly, I was probably scouring the far-flung outposts of the sports internet for office-pool advice my coworkers had missed; back before That George Mason Team, I suppose I was looking for the next Gonzaga or Valpo or Hampton.
What I found was a lot different, a lot rarer and a lot harder to figure out than 15-over-2.
Because even with the world of sports blogging in its relative infancy back then, the templates were already sliding into place: the hot-take-driven funnels of outrage; the boobs-and-GIFs pageview farms; the vibrant, sometimes impenetrable stathead forums; and the emerging “This Pop Culture Thing and That Sports Thing Are Alike” model that, in 2013, provides the dialectic structure for at least half of the internet.
But this was something new. Its voice, and its community, were passionate, but smart and measured too. There were dumb jokes and abstruse stats, but the jokes had joy to them, and the numbers were deployed with heart. It was writing about sports—not ‘80s movies or reality TV or domestic foibles—but it wasn’t sportswriting
And that’s why, in spite of my complete lack of mid-major bonafides, I stuck around. Serious, substantial coverage of any sport is rare enough, and as I dove deeper into the Mid-Majority, I learned that it also came with a thoughtful community of fans, and a host who shared more than a few of my personal preoccupations (wanderlust, design obscurities, a passionate amour fou
with the Minnesota Twins). I went from reader to supporter to adopter of an increasingly peripatetic Bally
, and each November 1 started to feel a little more like coming home.
So, okay, maybe it’s not that strange that I wound up in this corner of the sports internet.
And if I can start my consideration of hoops history with a little more detailed look at my own, the first-blush weirdness of this new role actually starts to wear off, too. I won’t be spending much time this year subjecting you to my memoirs, but, hey, we just met, and there’s a point to all of this. ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶Fall, 1987:
As an eight-year-old kid, I’m deeply in love with sports, and haven’t quite figured out yet that I’m not all that good at most of them. What I am good at, though, is reading. A lot. Book after book of baseball history and football minutiae and hockey trivia. Reams of Sports Illustrated. And, from before Midnight Madness to the bitter end of the Big Dance, my truest love and my first exposure to serious basketball overload: Street & Smith’s College Basketball Annual.
In the pre-Internet days, Street & Smith was the densest possible source of hoops information a kid could find. The glossy feature well was full of the usual anodyne All-Americans and Top 25 rundowns; they were instructive, but tended to feature the same old teams with the same old stories, and I didn’t devote too much time to them.
No, from that first copy on, I’d spend the bulk of the season in the back of the book, buried in the two-color team-by-team previews. They weren’t much to look at—a couple pages and a photo or two for each conference, eight or nine blocks with everyone’s stats and schedules and vitals—but for me, they were a treasure chest of impossibly exotic players and cities and conferences. Pepperdine and Providence and Furman. The Metro and the Big Sky and the Sun Belt. Fennis Dembo. Ledell Eackles (pronounced “eck-uls”). Whatever a VMI Keydet could be.
Season after season, I’d construct elaborate brackets and tournaments and storylines around these mystery teams. The cover of Street & Smith would usually hang on gamely until about Christmastime. By the time March rolled around, I’d usually lost the WAC and the West Coast Conference from the back of the book, but it didn’t really matter. In my notebooks and on my five-foot basement hoop, some of the most magical tournament runs of the Mid-Majority were already happening.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶January, 1993:
I’m crowded around a little plastic boombox on the back of a school bus, listening to Wreckx-n-Effect’s Hard or Smooth
, and trying to modulate the volume so our eighth-grade basketball team can get down to “Rump Shaker” but the coaches up front can’t hear it. We’re hurtling through a freezing night in rural South Dakota, heading home after a win in Aberdeen or Huron or the notorious, tiny bandbox in Sisseton, where the crowd is almost right on top of you.
By this time, I’d already figured out that I was no basketball player. But a colleague of my dad’s had taken over junior-high coaching duties, and I wound up with a gig as the team’s official scorer and statistician. I took my work as seriously as you’d expect a bespectacled young sports nerd to take it, but it wasn’t just the neat symmetry of points and rebounds and foul totals that I loved about it.
No, what I remember from those seasons is the old familiar tug of hot, crowded gyms on bitterly cold midwestern Fridays. The feeling that takes over a whole building as a close game builds to its finish and a young coach shouts guidance, even if it’s a 16-14 seventh-place-trophy game, grinding along with no shot clock. And those bus rides; as cold and uncomfortable as they could be, they were still places of community, where joy and sadness and victory and defeat were shared among friends.
As I moved into high school, my relationship with the sport shifted; I played pep-band trumpet instead of keeping score, and the urgency of the game itself took a backseat to more life-or-death high school matters like looking cool and finding a spot to make out with that cute clarinet player. But what I never lost was that sense of the basketball game as a warm, welcome beacon in the midst of a cold prairie.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶February 3, 2011:
On the same couch and the same laptop where I sit now, I’m staying up way too late for a weeknight, typing tweets about a Cal State Fullerton/UC-Irvine game. It’s National Pixelvision Day, one of many made-up and completely awesome celebrations of Our Game here at the Mid-Majority, and I’m taking the leap into the world of Basketball Content Providers. I’d always left the serious discussion to the mid-major grads, the season-ticket holders and the other people who seemed to know what they were talking about—I was a fan, but they were the people who knew this world.
The end of the 2010 season changed that. The beauty of Butler’s magical tournament run, and the abject sadness of its end, had been something for all of us (and each of us). No matter what our background or bias before that March, we’d all been through the days of #TooBigYo together, and our community was stronger for it.
And, so, on the second iteration of National Pixelvision Day, I stay up after midnight, analyzing and cracking wise about Isaiah Umipig’s sonorous name and Mike Wilder’s epic Afro, a plain old regular-season Big West matchup carrying on unlikely echoes of my third-grade brackets and eighth-grade bonhomie. (I am not the only one of this site’s writers to have had such an experience with the Big West and the internet.
)✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
This journey from imagination to statistics to commentary to essays is especially fitting when you consider our sport.
Basketball, more than any other game, is a story of self-invention and reinvention. A hundred times a game, paths to the basket open and close; screens make defenders switch abruptly; point guards slash low and big men become shooters. Nothing about basketball is fixed, in time, space or narrative.
Even our most cherished tales are about unexpected change: think about Magic Johnson, a 6’9 point guard, winning an NBA title while starting at center. Norman Dale, disgraced college coach forced to start over in rural Indiana. (That’s my one Hoosiers
reference for the year.) Or Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that became a tournament darling despite its basketball program being younger than this site.
This year, those are the stories I hope to tell: the games, people, teams, coaches and moments that made an indelible mark on our sport. Depending on where you’re from, you’ll know some of them intimately, and others will be brand-new to you; I hope that all of them can help come together and say something about how we got where we are.
Given the ever-shifting nature of Our Game, and the business that surrounds it, my focus won’t stick to any hard-and-fast rules about red lines. That said, we’re all here thanks to our devotion to a certain kind of team: the smart programs that play against the strong. The ones facing systemic disadvantages and uphill struggles. The ones who know the deck’s stacked against them, but that fight on anyway. Budgets and conferences and uniforms aside, those are the stories I’ll be telling.
However I got here, it’s time to get moving. I can’t wait to have you join me.
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