LOS ANGELES -- This one's for the old-timers, the folks who have been following the journey from its humble beginnings two and a half years ago. You know who you are.
There's a secret I've been keeping from you (shhhh...), or rather it's part of the story that didn't fit well inside the 30-second capsule that I've worked to fit within the average attention span or feature story structure
. You know that I cut my teeth on big-boy basketball in Oregon in the early Nineties, then moved on to Drexel in the late part of the decade, where I fell in love with the mid-majors. What I left out was my connection with the Anteaters of California-Irvine.
The hinge years of the millennium weren't exactly the easiest time to be a Dragon fan. After a nice run in 1999 to the America East title game (a huge and depression-inducing loss to Delaware), the 1999-2000 squad was a virtually unwatchable mess. Drexel went on an unexpected 11 of 12 spurt halfway through the 2000-01 season, but it all came crashing down in a four-game losing streak to end the season. I desperately needed other outlets.
This also happened to be the time when high-speed internet started coming around. Geeks like me had been all over rich-content communications for a while, BBSing and Compuserving in the Eighties, using all those ridiculous applications named after Archie
-comic characters in the Nineties. I can still recall the special thrill of using my Macintosh Plus to check the weather in Singapore, or to check how many Cokes were in the machine downstairs. The idea that I could request information with a few keystrokes and receive it within seconds, well, that was magical once.
My apartment building was three blocks from a telephone switching station, and in 1998 we were some of the first Philadelphia residents to ditch dialup and use Digital Subscriber Lines, which at the time cost upwards of $75 per month. There weren't many sites out there for us "broadband" users (though most people didn't call it that back then), but each new discovery was well worth the high cost. After years of plain text, there were images (ones that took less than five minutes to load), a few postage-stamp sized videos, and an ever-growing amount of available audio.
One of the first stations to embrace internet radio was KUCI
in Irvine, California, which started streaming its signal all the way back in 1996. In its nearly 40 years, it's always been the next-best thing to pirate radio, refusing to play mainstream music and giving over its airwaves to alternate viewpoints.
And on Thursday and Saturday nights, KUCI gave over its airwaves to alternate basketball, Big West basketball. It was one of the only internet radio stations broadcasting sports, and if I was up late at night doing homework or without a date (which was often), I'd fire up an arcane and bug-ridden program called "RealPlayer" and tune in. The signal was rich stereo, and would only drop a few times during games (usually late in the second half).
While my Drexel Dragons sputtered and seized up several blocks away, my new love -- the Anteaters -- were tearing through the Big West Conference. In January of 2001, UCI rattled off 13 straight wins and would have spun a fearsome 22-game streak if not for a 62-57 loss at Utah State. I'd spend the week thinking thoughts like, "How many points can Jerry Green score against Boise State tonight?" and "Who's a better shooter, Ben Jones or Sean Jackson?" It didn't matter that I had nobody to talk to about this as I walked around the Drexel campus, it was my fun secret. But I still bought a UCI hat and t-shirt from the online store.
The 25-win Anteaters lost to Pacific in the tourney semis, which earned them a trip to Tulsa -- I listened to every minute of that 75-71 loss, too. The next year, there was more hope, and there was the emergence of a 7-0 European-style big named Adam Parada. After a one-point loss to UCLA in December, the 'Eaters ripped through the Big West, winning 13 league games but falling again in the semis, this time to California-Santa Barbara. That year's NIT trip ended badly at Brigham Young.
I still follow the Anteaters, like I do with all the Big West teams, but they've slowly slipped from their championship form -- 2002-03 was their last 20-win campaign. But finally last Saturday, in my regular travels, I made my first visit to Bren Events Center. I took pictures of the 2001 and 2002 Big West Conference championship banners. And it was basketball homecoming, one of those great mid-major traditions for teams without football, the culmination of a day of rides and booths and the crowning of a king and queen. After the Anteaters completed a win over Cal State Northridge, I got to talk to Pat Douglass, who's been head coach there since 1997.
"Why'd you come out all this way?" Douglass asked me when I said I worked with ESPN.
I've interviewed nearly 150 Division I coaches, but it was as if I had met a celebrity. "Oh, just coming to see you guys play," I blurted out in my trademarked blend of casual, off-handed speech and stuttering.
I also got to talk to the long-time radio team, and was just as nervous. I didn't think they were used to wild-eyed weirdos with press passes coming up to them, thanking them profusely, and gushing about internet radio and Jerry Green and that night they beat Utah State by a point in 2002. They were kind as I tried to stammer through a litany of reasons why what they were doing was making a positive impact; I just didn't have the words handy.
But after a couple days of reflection, I do now. In the decade or so since Internet use became widespread, we've all taken its fundamental magic for granted. This web allows you to visit other places, to learn things you didn't know, to read these words I type in Los Angeles from wherever you are. It allows Tomohide Katagiri
to follow his beloved and adopted Vermont Catamounts from Japan, and it allows you to adopt any school you'd like to and follow them well enough to fall in love. The Internet allows anyone who wants to to expand their horizons beyond the home team, to see the big picture -- and with over 300 teams, it's a very huge picture -- with more clarity.
It certainly did for me. And credit where it's due, I might not have reached this point if it wasn't for those crazy Anteaters. Zot.