Ask any assistant coach in college basketball, they'll tell you that one of the toughest challenges with away games is food. Carefully prepared team meals are usually the rule at home, but the road is an endless and glowing ribbon of McDonald's, Burger King, convenience stores and casual dining. Chain restaurants might align themselves with sports by way of official sponsorships and such, but the reality is that what they sell makes you fat.
Same goes for travelling journalists, too. I have my own offseason workouts -- eight-mile runs in the park back in Pawtucket, two-a-day hourlong stationary bike sessions of 17 miles each, all with the goal of maintaining some level of fitness during the five-month grind. By late November, though, I find myself sweating and short of breath on long flights of stairs, and the one-two punch of Thanksgiving and Christmas makes my shirts and pants start getting uncomfortably tight by the time the calendar turns. With all the sitting around in chairs and car seats that covering athletics requires, I get my Freshman 15 once a year, every year.
The road just isn't a very good place to get consistent, quality exercise. No amount of deadline stress is enough to keep a metabolism up at normal levels. I've run five marathons in the past four years -- including a 3:47 between game days during the 100GP
-- but I haven't been able to do one since I started working as a professional writer. There's a clear reason for that: the only marathon I'm capable of finishing now is a "Project Runway" marathon.
"It's just skin," my wife said helpfully after Thanksgiving dinner, during the episode about Sarah Jessica Parker's new clothing line.
Stretched skin, lined with fat cells. Being a vegetarian is an advantage because there's a lot less fat intake with that diet, but cumulative effects are what they are, and I've tried everything possible. Like eating the fish sandwiches or veggie burgers at BK, but they're loaded with enough sodium that the calories are nearly up there with the Whopper. I've tried sticking to 1,500 calories of daily intake, but that's useless if you're only burning 1,000 a day.
I've even tried stocking up on food at Wal-Marts instead of stopping at restaurants. Here's the shopping list I came up with last season.
- Fruit Harvest cereal or somesuch
- bottled water
- peanut butter
- fruit bars
But the problem with having a bag of that much food in the backseat of the car, within arm's reach at all times, is that most people will go ahead and eat it whenever they even think for a second that they're hungry. It's like living in a pantry, one that's moving 70 mph.
So, after months of careful consideration, my plan for 2007-08 has been this: a 20-minute walk at a rest area three times a week, coffee instead of breakfast, a big meal either at lunch or post-game, and one slice of press room pizza per arena visit. I'm sticking to it, mostly, but I still think I'll be breaking out the fat-pants early anyway.***
Old Dominion? More like an odd dominion. Games at the Constant Center are always loud and raucous, but the fans there don't do many of those repurposed traditions picked up from other schools at road games and conference tournaments. The things fans do at ODU are organically grown, but like "Sweet Caroline" at Red Sox games, they require a lot of explanation and backstory.
Take, for instance, the "Ice Cream and Cake" dance, an elaborate step-and-wave series that the writers of the minor novelty hit never had in mind when they tried and failed to follow up on "Peanut Butter Jelly Time." They break it out at the eight-minute media timeout of the second half, and everyone in the student section knows the moves. That one's just strange, I won't try to explain it any further.
Then there's the Blues Brothers act. Two members of the ODU band, dressed as Jake and Elwood Blues, come out at halftime and they run through the standards: "Can't Turn You Loose," "Soul Man." The dancing is all very pitch-perfect, and hardly anyone goes to the concession stands until they're done.
I caught up with Jake after the game, a runaway loss to Georgetown, and asked him what it was all about. It started out several years ago as a one-time deal, but fans wanted more. They've been doing it ever since at basketball and soccer games (ODU won't have football again until 2009), and they've kept it in limited run.
"We only bring it out on special occasions," said Jake. "We don't want people to get sick of it."
Jake and Elwood take the act very seriously, they've even driven around in their own Bluesmobile. But they honor the originals by not trying to sing, and they don't have their names spelled out on their hands like Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi did.
"No, we don't go that far," Jake explained, looking down at his blank knuckles. "We're not total dorks about it or anything."
At least ODU's Blues Brothers know where the line between honoring the past and total lameness
is. I'll take Norfolk Jake over John Goodman any day.***
After a week on the road in the American South, the land of passive-aggressive kindness and sweet sweet tea, it's great to get back to some good old Eastern rudeness.
As I drive into Washington, D.C. on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, I see dilapidated buildings, yellow warning signs, cheap-beer billboards, cars on blocks on side streets with newspaper-sized stacks of parking tickets tucked under the wipers. This is the real P-Funk, the Chocolate City that George Clinton was talking about all those years ago. This is where basketball players tough enough to win national championships come from.
I drive by XM headquarters, honk and wave to the entertainment provider that makes my long drives bearable. Two blocks down, there's a fat man on a sidewalk yelling into a cell phone that he holds a foot in front of his face. I can hear him through my closed windows, over the play-by-play of a Samford game on the satellite radio.
"No, fuck you!
" he screams. "Fuck! You!
I find a free parking space neat the New York Avenue Metro stop near a row of brownstones, hide the valuables under the seats anyway, and lug my laptop bag to the rail station. I'm going to the Verizon Center, home of one of the greatest mid-major upsets of all time (George Mason over Connecticut in 2006), as well as of the annual BB&T Classic, an event organized by the author who wrote the seminal work The Last Amateurs
Ahh, the subway. To go from the red and blue signs of the Interstate Highway System to the candy-colored vines of underground city passage... it's like coming home. I straphang, counting the stops until the Chinatown stop that serves Washington's NBA arena. I daydream about the Chipotle around the corner from the Verizon Center, where I'll have my big meal of the day before gametime -- a veggie burrito wrap the size of John Feinstein's ego. The crackling PA system warns me to stand clear of the doors, but I'm clear away in my own ecstatic world.
There's a guy with a pencil and sketch pad -- maybe he's an artist -- sitting across the aisle from where I am. He's trying to draw the other straphanger, a moody teen in a baggy grey sweatshirt gazing out the window, posing in his own clothing ad, lost in his white iPod earbuds. Over and over, the sketcher looks up to study him, then goes to his work. He tries to work out the folds of the sweatshirt, the tangle of white cord, shade in the light and dark areas. But he's having trouble with it. He gives up, smears a thick eraser over the whole page until the marks are gone, then starts again.
But this time, I notice that the sketcher's eyes are now darting between the pad and me
, he's trying to draw my shape. He starts with the outline of my brown coat, adding shades where the leather folds and wrinkles. I know exactly what to do. I pull out my cell phone, activate the camera, and and create my own work -- a portrait of the artist drawing a picture of a stranger taking a picture of the artist drawing a picture of a stranger.
And at that moment, the battery dies and the cell phone loudly powers down.***
I head back to Rhode Island for a two-week break from the road, but there's some unfinished business first. It's Monday night, and I have to find WiFi along the I-95 corridor in Connecticut so I can check the boxscores, and start a blog entry I'll finish and post on Tuesday morning.
Finding the internet on the road is a bigger hassle than it was in the old days (those being 2004 or 2005). Back then, you could pull into a hotel parking lot, turn down the screen brightness setting to hide the telltale "spooky face glow," and surf the wild waves of free web access for a couple of hours. (I've even done a couple of ESPN.com chats that way.) But those days are over... hotel chains have wised up to people like me, and have started locking down their signals with WEP, giving out the password on check-in. There have even been a few chilling-effect lawsuits building a precedent for "signal theft," and nobody wants to be made a random example of.
Connecticut's always been crappy for WiFi anyway, since the exit services on I-95 are all hidden behind tree groves and very few have the types of gas-food-lodging holy trinities that can be found so readily in more spacious states. This is why Connecticut's been able to get away with having state-sanctioned "service areas," where they charge 30 extra cents for a gallon of gas.
But since last season ended, those service areas have turned into happy WiFi havens. Each area has its own McDonald's, a company that's aggressively rolled out McWiFi internet access at its locations nationwide. I ran into some early beta tests in the mid-South a couple of years ago. If you bought an Extra Value Meal, you'd get a free coupon for two hours of wireless access.
It doesn't work that way anymore, apparently. I ask the Hispanic lady at the counter for a coupon, she misunderstands me and leads me to a rack of discount hotel coupons near the service area entrance. Oh well. I crack the laptop open, and the screen asks for $2.99 for a two-hour block, which is better in a lot of ways than the ten-dollar T-Mobile "Day Pass" at Starbucks, where most people only spend 30 minutes before the adult-contemporary music runs them off. I drop my credit card info (later finding that it charged me twice), and I've unlocked the secret to McWiFi... something I'm sure I'll be using a lot of this year.
One more bizarre scene, though. At 11:30 pm in a Monday night, the service area parking lot is nearly empty, the McDonald's is customer-free except for myself, and a local Puerto Rican contingent is using the restaurant floor for a spicy, sexy dance practice. Twelve dancers in pairs go through an elaborate routine, accompanied by a CD boombox. They are serious about this, as a leader continually barks out instructions while the the dancers work on the moves again, again and again.
And there I am, watching the dancers, studying basketball boxscores online. At my laptop's side, a large-sized red container of greasy, salty, delicious french fries. Six hundred and fifty calories.