At 2:45 p.m. Central Time on Tuesday, the message came in, with a time stamp that indicated it had been left an hour earlier.
"The plane leaves around 3 p.m.," the sports information director said. "We'll see you down there at the airport."
I'd have received the call on time if I'd been anywhere else. Bowling Green, Kentucky is one of the few places in America where my phone doesn't work correctly, a time-warping non-Verizon vortex where every call is a roamer and new voicemails don't show up on the readout.
But there I was on the campus of Western Kentucky University, in the direct shadow of the roundhouse called E.A. Diddle Arena. Two days earlier, the Hilltoppers had clinched a spot in the Sweet 16 with a win over San Diego; hundreds and hundreds of fans had greeted them on Sunday night at the Bowling Green/Warren County Regional Airport. I was in town to cover the sendoff to the West Regional in Phoenix, which was rumored to be an even bigger deal.
There had been talk of a one o'clock alumni celebration at the airport, but that was scrapped when the cheerleaders and band couldn't be coordinated. I called as many locals as I could (at roaming rates), and nobody knew anything. So I sat in the student union, in front of a bookstore where a shipment of Sweet 16 t-shirts had sold out in less than an hour that morning, wondering where the party was at.
Good thing I checked the voicemail when I did. I jumped back in the car, took three wrong turns, got stuck behind a school bus full of kids, was bottlenecked in traffic on Bowling Green's main drag, and made it to the one-gate regional airport at 3:30 p.m. The small parking lot was nearly empty. An AirTran jet sat alone 50 feet from the terminal, engines idling, but there was nobody in sight save for a few airport empoyees on the tarmac. Whatever sendoff celebration there was, if any, I had clearly missed it.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Bowling Green is a town anchored by the three primary life necessities: fast cars, underwear and basketball. It's the home of GM's Corvette assembly plant, the world headquarters of Fruit of the Loom (locals just call it "Fruit"), and represented by the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, the eighth-winningest college hoops program of all time. That's all pretty much anybody needs to live, if you ask me.
I remember the first time I came to town, over three years ago. It was something I called the Red State Basketball Goodwill Tour
, and I drove into a downtown dotted with churches, murals and tiny stores with striped canopies early one February morning. I pulled over to the side of Main Avenue and called my wife.
"You've got to see this town," I said, nearly moved to tears. "It's such an amazing place."
And the locals were just as amazing. There in the first year of The Mid-Majority, I was offered dinners, places to sleep and free auto tuneups once I arrived. It was a town that seemed to take its name literally, bowling folks over with kindness.
I wanted to give back somehow. The next season, I made plans to spend as much time as possible in Bowling Green, planning to write my first basketball book about a program with a history full of fascinating characters like the red towel-waving coach Diddle. It was a legacy replete with great and talented players, and marked by a death-struggle for respect against the two major Commonwealth sports powerhouses in Lexington and Louisville. It was also a story that included a lot of consistent winning, over 1,500 victories in total. I did a month's worth of research over the summer of 2006, built a rough 21-chapter outline. I even had some productive contact with agents, based mostly on my ESPN.com affiliation.
But when you scratch past the shiny surface of Southern hospitality, sometimes you end up with a losing ticket. I built my 2006-07 schedule to include four WKU home games and a total of two weeks in town, so as to make connections and do interviews. But every time I came back to Bowling Green, the warmth I had received at the start had turned cold.
Finally, in January of last year, after a Hilltoppers home game, a longtime and now-retired program insider halted a small-talk conversation between us, and let an outsider from up north know where things stood.
"You're not going to get much cooperation from us," he said flatly. "When that book gets written, it's going to be by one of us."
And that was that.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
I went inside the tiny terminal, pushing open the automatic door, finding silence and emptiness inside. But just beyond the gate doors were five people in matching black jackets.
"Did the Toppers leave already?" I asked them.
"That's them right there," an older man said, pointing to the AirTran plane. "We can't leave until they do."
These were the contracted TSA-approved screeners, in from Louisville to check all of the team's luggage before boarding. They were also in charge of the final head count.
"The guy with two heads threw us off," deadpanned one of the screeners. "Oops, I don't think we're supposed to tell you about him. He's their secret weapon against UCLA."
There had been a bunch of folks there, they told me, but they'd all left at 3:00 when the team boarded the plane. So, without a story, I went outside the gate and stood there watching the plane as it sat idling. With the masses gone, it was just me and a man in a wheelchair, who was holding his Diddle-inspired red towel aloft in the wind that the charter jet was causing. One of the airport workers opened the metal gate and motioned for us to come through, allowing us to stand directly on the tarmac.
But then, the engines were cut off, and the roar was reduced to a slow whine and then a loud thud. Was something wrong with the plane? Would Western Kentucky make it out to Phoenix for its date with destiny?
"There was a yellow light on the dash," the tarmac tech explained. "We think the door was unlatched."
The workers rolled the stairway back out to the aircraft, properly closed the door. After ten minutes of inactivity, the engines sparked and whirred again. A local TV news crew had shown up to get a few pictures for the five o'clock news (or a motionless AirTran plane) and quickly left, and soon it was just the two of us observers again. The other waved his red towel like a maniac as the plane eased into a turn, then made its way down the narrow asphalt path. I didn't have one of my own, but I made a few mime towel-waving motions, just in case they were watching.
Once the plane finally took off (at 4 p.m., an hour after it was supposed to) and made its quick ascent to the west, my new friend introduced himself. James Russell is a lifelong Topper fan, a master wheelchair pool player, a member of the credentialed press as a writer for WKU Insider
. He's also a self-described WKU fan legend.
"I'm TuckyBill on the boards," he said. "Everybody knows me."
For the next two hours at a nearby Red Lobster, TuckyBill regaled me with stories about the program and its history. He told me about the Sixties and Seventies, when E.A. Diddle and Johnny Oldham took the Hilltoppers to Tournament after Tournament, back when people could smoke in the arena (it got extra smoky in the last minutes of close games, he said, with everybody puffing extra hard from the stress). He told me about how much Diddle and Adolph Rupp hated each other, how they'd angle for recruits and try to undermine the other in the eyes of the NCAA.
"If you're going to write that book, I've gotta give you all the dirt I can," he said.
And who knows? Maybe the book is still a possibility. I'll call it Topper Confidential: The Unauthorized History of Western Kentucky Basketball
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