Thursday, March 19, 2009

My team, my teams

One of these people is me:



That photo was taken at Birmingham-Southern's 70-69 home win over Winthrop on Jan. 24, 2004. I'm one of the guys standing up in the back row, probably the dude in the cap wearing a gray t-shirt over a white longsleeve.

That was a hell of an afternoon. My Panthers, in the final stages of their transition to D-I, were taking on the Big South's reigning bully in the program's first quasi-nationally televised home game. (Thanks, Fox Sports Net!) Bill Battle Coliseum sold out--all 2, 076 seats--and James Collins hit two free throws at the end of the game to give BSC what was pretty well inarguably the program's biggest win since taking the NAIA national title in 1995. It didn't matter that Winthrop was in the middle of a single-season lull or that the foul that sent Collins to the line was a terrible ticky-tack call that drove Gregg Marshall nearly clear out of his skin. We'd beaten Winthrop--twice that year, in fact. We all walked out into the sunshine that afternoon not just thinking but knowing that our little school's basketball team would one day play in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it wouldn't be right away, but it would happen. The Big South wasn't too big for us. Two years later, with BSC again looking like a legitimate threat to battle for the bid, I started this blog to chronicle their march to the tournament and give other Big South fans a voice out there in the wide world of the Interwebs.

In the final game of the 2006 regular season, BSC hosted Winthrop again with the league's regular season title, homecourt advantage throughout the conference tourney, and a minimum NIT berth on the line. They lost, 56-43. A week later they would be eliminated in the first round of the Big South tournament by a team they had beaten by 16 points in their most recent meeting. Some three months later, Birmingham-Southern would abandon its scholarship athletics program and drop to NCAA Division III.

Most of me understands that the financial realities of Division I athletics made the move inevitable. Part of me will never recover, or forgive.

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It's not an exaggeration to say I've loved the NCAA Tournament and the underdogs that play in it for as long as I can remember. I cried when Chuck Person's Auburn team were eliminated by Louisville in the 1986 final eight, which makes sense--I was seven, and they were Auburn. But I cried when Syracuse lost to Indiana in the 1987 final, too, for no other reason than that I felt like the Orange weren't supposed to win.

The next year I remember giddily penciling in 13th-seeded Richmond past Indiana in the first round and then Georgia Tech in the second on my precious, precious bracket ripped from the inside of the Sports Illustrated. By 1989 I was already head-over-heels for the mid-majors of the world, staying up late to watch highlights of No. 14 Siena beating No. 3 Stanford on SportsCenter and reading the AP story that popped up in the Opelika-Auburn News under the headline "Measle Men"--there had been a measles outbreak on Siena's campus that had forced the team to spend a month on the road, or something--a dozen times. That same week, Curry Kirkpatrick wrote a snippet for his back-page Sports Illustrated column about how Middle Tennessee State's Mike Buck had outscored fourth-seeded Florida St. all by "his own scrawny self" for some extended period. So I watched MTSU's second-round game against Virginia with wild hope--too bad it was one of those games where every time MTSU would draw within three or four in the second half, the bad guys would drain a 3.

Come next March, at age 11, I was watching all the small conference championship games ESPN could give me--though I don't remember the details, I know the first one was Monmouth falling to Robert Morris in the NEC final, because, seriously, How cool of a name is "Monmouth"? The same goes for "Coppin State"--I know I watched the Eagles win the MEAC, because I remember how disappointed I was when John Saunders told us at halftime of another game that their "valiant effort" against second-seeded Syracuse was going to come up short.

No point in sugarcoating it: this is aberrant behavior for an 11-year-old child. No boy growing up in rural Alabama, no matter how sports-obsessed, should be transfixed by the likes of Monmouth and Coppin State. I understand that*. Hell, it's not even particularly normal behavior now.

The point is this: I didn't fall in love with mid-majors and underdogs because of Birmingham-Southern's basketball team. I fell in love with Birmingham-Southern's basketball team because they were a mid-major and underdog.

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The last three college basketball seasons have been ... weird.

I've kept up with the Panthers, but after not fielding a team in 2006-2007--not surprisingly, the roster full of scholarship players did not stick around to be non-scholarship players--it's going to take some time to ramp back up to speed even in D-III, and really knowing a D-III team from a thousand miles away is almost impossible anyway.

Auburn could have filled the void, I guess, but towards the end of that infuriating 2000 season I let myself stop caring and really, until this past two months, what reason has there been to start caring again?

So during these regular seasons I've been rooting for ... no one, really. Mid-majors over majors in November and December? Of course. Auburn? Always against Alabama, at least, even if the stakes have been so depressingly low otherwise. Any mid-major in position to sew up an at-large bid is an automatic favorite.

But those motivations only go so far. For the most part, the regular season has been a kind of extended information-gathering session, a convoluted and prolonged set of preliminaries before the real games being during Championship Week. What once felt like, well, sports now feels a bit like research. It's research I enjoy, research that on certain days--BracketBusters, those occasional Saturdays when ESPN airs a critical Valley game, that first glorious day of Championship Week--I outright cherish. But research.

This is, of course, how millions of Tournament-only college basketball fans already see the sport. But for someone for whom the hoops season became something much, much bigger than research, this is deeply disorienting, wildly frustrating. There have many times during the past couple of Januaries and Februaries where I've felt like I haven't known what to do with either myself or this blog.

I don't think that feeling will be as bad in the future. But I don't expect it to ever go completely away, either.

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The always-brilliant Michael Litos on what the selection of Arizona for the 2009 NCAA Tournament:
Prior to the selections, I said to everyone who would listen–-and to some who would not–-that this was the ultimate policy year for the committee. I was careful to use those two specific words together because you could see it coming from a mile away. There was enough bubble malleability and enough sameness to get a true understanding of the NCAA tournament worldview despite the mid-numbing rhetoric thrown around by the various “ologists.”

Resumes and bodies of work and RPI and SOS and top 50 wins aren’t the point. We all see now.
To further his point, Litos quotes this section of Gary Parrish's response at CBS:
What you need to know is that no BCS-affiliated school with a top 50 RPI was omitted this season, but six non-BCS-affiliated schools with top 50 RPIs were -- specifically San Diego State (34), Creighton (40), UAB (46), Illinois State (47), Saint Mary's (48) and Niagara (49). What that means is that for the fifth consecutive season, the three best RPIs omitted from the field belonged to non-BCS affiliated schools.
When we're little kids on the playground, the first rule we're taught is Play fair. This is one of the best things about sports: unfairness can be tough to spot in real life and even harder to do something about, but in sports it's usually pretty clearcut. Using drugs to hit a baseball farther than your opponent can is unfair. Hitting a player after the whistle has blown on the football field so he can't play any more is unfair. Lying about your age so you can compete in a gymnastics competition is unfair. And though it's certainly not a new development, the selection process for the NCAA Tournament is unfair. In some ways, it's more unfair than any of these other examples, because there's no immediate punishment: in baseball, a steroid user can be suspended and have their records taken away. A football player can be penalized. An Olympic athlete in gymnastics or any other sport can be stripped of their medals. There is nothing like this for the Committee or the teams that benefit.

That does not mean there is no punishment. Today and tomorrow, 24 different teams from the non-power conferences will take on power-conference teams in the first round of the Tournament. The job of punishment is theirs. I am a fanatic, and I realize this--as I tried to make clear, I don't have a choice, always been this way--but mid-majors beating high-majors in the NCAAs isn't just fun, exciting, cool, etc. It's justice.

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A handful of friends from BSC and I made a pact. Whenever the Panthers advanced the Big South tourney final--not if ever, whenever--we would be there, no matter our jobs or obligations or travel distance. Whenever they won, we would storm the court, even if we were in our mid-50s and bald. And then we would follow them to their first-round game, and scream our lungs out for them, and watch Birmingham-Southern pull the upset.

I'm telling you: that was a dream. Giving it up hurt like hell three years ago, and it hurts today. But I'm so, so glad I had it, because it gave me an idea of what it'll be like for the kids at North Dakota St. when they beat Kansas, or at VCU if they knock off Notre Dame, or at Morgan St. when they write their names into the history books against Oklahoma. Without exaggeration, without a trace of hyperbole, I can tell you it will be a dream come true.

And this is why today and tomorrow are my favorite two days on the American sports calendar. That dream is going to come true, somewhere on this bracket, sometime in this first round. Justice will be served. Mad celebrations will take place. There have been a couple close calls, but it's never not happened at least once. It'll happen.

Today and tomorrow, then, are not research. There's no neutrality, no cold detachment. It's the sharing of that dream, the collective hope of all those who follow this sport from the underside of Kyle's Red Line. So Go Butler. Go Radford. Go VCU and Go American and Go Morgan St. and Go Akron and Go Western Kentucky and Go Northern Iowa and Go Cal St. Northridge. I don't have a mid-major team any more, but this is the NCAA Tournament: I have all these teams.

Make it happen, guys.

A quick p.s.: I'm going to try and check in during the day today and definitely will tomorrow a.m., but it's possible this will be the last post today. And just in case it is, congrats to Auburn on their first postseason victory in five years last night, though this post probably makes clear why I'll enjoy any future ones a little more than that one.

*As for an explanation ... I don't have one. Maybe some secluded part of my brain had already taken a hard look at my genetic profile, determined how badly I would always, always suck at sports, and drove my sympathies towards teams with similar handicaps. Maybe it was a weird offshoot of my professional teams at the time being the utterly hapless Braves and Falcons. Maybe I was just a big softie from the start. I don't know.

12 comments:

Jan said...

nice post... I suspect you have a soft spot for the underdogs because both your parents do. (we're Auburn fans, right?) your genetics gave you no chance. now, what happened to your brothers, espicially the youngest????

SEC Homer said...

I feel you. I graduated from the University of South Alabama. "Hodge for THREEEEE, GOOOOOD!!!!!!, South Alabama wins it!!!". Opening round of the NCAA's in 1989. The 11 seeded Jags came back from behind to beat the 6 seed Bama at the buzzer. OK time to watch the coon asses play Butler.

csims4125 said...

Nice post. I'm a Samford alum and remember the excitement around the program when we won the TAAC tournament (before it became the A-Sun and before we moved conferences). The one thing that March always brings is the underdogs who make the tourney, if not advance.

Speaking of unfairness, one other point that I agree with John Feinstein on is the need to change the play-in game. His argument is if we have a play-in game, then make it between the lowest 2 at-large teams, not the 2 mid-majors who made it and whose excitement comes from making the trip to the Dance.

kimbo said...

Hey that was one of the three BSC basketball games I actually went to. I was a freshman, and after Dr. Berte left it just wasn't the same somehow. I also remember our baseball team beat Alabama that year. That was fun too.

SEC Homer said...

OMG, American has a GREAT chance at the upset,they are up by 14. If its not on in your area go to cbssportsline.com and you can watch it live although the res is crappy.

SEC Homer said...

Can I take back my Gonzaga to the elite 8 pick? Even if they pull this out, they look like they don't really care out there. Nova has really tightened up the D and look like they will pull it out.

Ben said...

In my opinion (for whatever it is worth), the best writing is always truthful and heartfelt. This post was both. Good jorb.

Acton said...

I came to BSC the year AFTER they won the NAIA championship. Always enjoyed Bill Battle Coliseum - called it the Wine & Cheese Seats. No bleachers. Comfy seats for spoiled behinds.
Living in Baltimore, I don't get much news from BSC, so this was a nice trip down memory lane. Thanks!

SEC Homer said...

Happy upset day(I hope).

Anonymous said...

Great, great article. I root for ALL the underdogs and "mid"-majors too, so you are not alone. I was there when scrawny Mike Buck beat Florida State to lead MY team to victory. We haven't been back since 1989--- so for all those basking in the glory... enjoy the moment !

Congrat to conference mate Western Kentucky for beat Illinois, a year after their Sweet 16 run. Gonzaga vs. WKU on Saturday.

Alas, I will be cheering for my Middle Tennessee Lady Raiders on Sunday at 11am against Michigan State (we are playing the worse-seeded Lady Spartans on their home floor-- is that fair?)

Again, great piece of work and touched something in me so that I had to respond !

http://www.BlueRaiderZone.com

Jerry Hinnen said...

Thanks to everyone who had nice things to say about this post. It's been coming for a while.

Special shout-out to my fellow BSC alums. Acton, I agree the seats (at least in the original Bill Battle ... after the D-I renovations, they did get some bleachers in there) but in some ways that was why I liked it ... I mean, no matter where you sat, you had a good seat, right? Admittedly, it didn't help the usual lack of atmosphere. Oh well.

Marsha Hinnen said...

Ah, so you remember AU's 1986 team that went to the Elite Eight! Almost turned a bunch of confirmed Auburn football fans into basketball enthusiasts. But even before that memorable year of March Madness, do you recall when you were five years old and became so distraught when the tournament bracket came out? All because you couldn't quite figure out how it worked to take 64 teams and produce the single NCAA basketball champion. Too bad there wasn't a big demand for five-year-old college basketball analysts. You may not have understood everything you read or heard about the match-ups, the tournament participants, or the course of play during the tournament games, but no one could deny the intensity of your interest!