THP #3: Wtorek w Małej Polsce (Tuesday in Little Poland)

November 19,2019 – New Britain, Connecticut
New Hampshire vs Central Connecticut State
Men’s Basketball

New Britain. The Hardware City. The eighth-most populated city in The Nutmeg State.

New Britain has seen a laundry list of sports stars start their rise to prominence within its borders. From Lamar Odom and Walter Camp to George Springer and Tebucky Jones, New Britain has always been one of Connecticut’s great sports cities.

Located 20 minutes southwest of Hartford, New Britain has found ways to change and adapt since its incorporation.

Known as “The Hardward Capital of the World” during the early 20th century, New Britain was home to the invention of the wire coat hanger in 1869.

More importantly to this blog, New Britain has a claim to be the birthplace of the basketball dribble at the local YMCA, which is where racquetball was said to be created as well.

The city features a long connection to the Polish diaspora. Nearly a fifth of the city’s population claims polish ancestry, second only to a large Puerto Rican population in the diverse city.

Take a ride through Little Poland with me.

Things to Eat

With a large Polish community comes Polish restaurants, and New Britain doesn’t disappoint.

Staropolska is a diner right on Broad Street that serves all the Polish delights.

There was really only one choice for me: pierogis.

Served with a side of pickled cabbage and topped with fried onions, these fried cheese-and-potato dumplings fill you up. My cholesterol was a bit mad, but I didn’t much care.

Beyond the Polish delicacies, there are numerous places to get a good bit in New Britain. However, one stands above the rest and is a local institution: Capitol Lunch.

In business since 1929, Capitol Lunch has a menu that basically boils down to four things: hot dogs, burgers, fries, and onion rings.

The hot dogs are what made the place famous and you gotta get one with everything. Everything means cheese, onions, and a big ladle of Capitol’s homemade meat sauce. It’s one of the least pretentious and best meals you can get in New England.

And a dog costs $2.29. Can’t beat that.

Things to Do

Two of the great landmarks in town are Walnut Hill Park and the New Britain Museum of American Art.

Designed by Frederick W. Olmstead, the same man who designed Central Park, Walnut Hill Park rises above New Britain. Atop the hill sits a striking 90-foot-high column capped by two sculpted eagles that stands as a monument to World War 1.

There are other monuments in the park, including a large stone memorializing the accomplishments of women during the wars of the 20th century.

The World War 1 Monument
The Women’s Monument

Tucked at the bottom of the hill is the New Britain Museum of American Art. Opened in 1903, the museum features pieces from Thomas Cole, Georgia O’Keeffe, and New Britain’s own Sol LeWitt.

Located just off of downtown, it’s absolutely worth a stop when you’re in New Britain. For a $15 ticket, and roughly 90-100 minutes to take it all in, it’s a great place to take in quality art at a bargain of a price.

And they allowed me to take pictures so I’m able to bring some of the art to you.

Welders at Electric Boat Company by Beatrice Lavis Cuming
Jane Jackson by Elihu Vedder. Yes, a distant relative of Eddie.
Head of an Algerian (Moorish Prince) by Elizabeth Nourse

And lastly, take in the raw size and scope of Thomas Hart Benton’s The Arts of Life in America

The Campus

Central Connecticut State is the largest school in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system. The four-university system encompasses the state-run universities outside of the UConn system.

The oldest publicly-funded university in The Nutmeg State, CCSU has an undergraduate enrollment of roughly 9,500 students and the most popular programs at the school are business and marketing.

Athletically, the Blue Devils are strong in women’s soccer and the football team won the Northeast Conference title in 2017 and 2019.

A few prominent athletic alums from the school include former Dallas Cowboys coach Dave Campo, NFL executive Scott Pioli, and former Boston College football coach Steve Addazio.

The main athletics building is Kaiser Hall which also hosts Detrick Gymnasium, home of the basketball teams. The gym is named for Bill Detrick who coached the Blue Devils to 469 wins over 29 seasons and made six Division II tournaments while at the helm.

The gym sits 2,654 and has been the home of the Blue Devils since 1965.

Kaiser Hall
Detrick Gymnasium

The Game

The Blue Devils played host to the New Hampshire Wildcats in a game located at the seventh level of Kenpom. The Blue Devils entered with a Kenpom ranking of 348 while UNH was 314.

Everything seemed well early for the home team as they were up eight points halfway through the first half. However, the Wildcats flipped it to a five-point lead of their own by halftime and cruised through the final 20 to earn a 77-63 win.

Despite coming against a winless team, the game was deeply important for UNH. It was a road win. Last season the Wildcats didn’t pick up their first road win until February.

New Hampshire’s offense last year was abysmal and has bounced back this season thanks to a strong and experienced sophomore class and a key transfer guard in Sean Sutherlin.

Last year they missed the America East tournament. This year, the Wildcats are going to be a nuisance come conference play.

Time of game: 1:49
Lowest admission price: $8
Attendance: 1,274
Top Performer: Jayden Martinez (UNH) – 22 points, 15 rebounds.

The Final Breakdown

What a neat trip this was. My first two stops were in Maine and had almost a dream-like quality to them, especially driving to Fort Kent and the top of America.

New Britain felt more familiar. It reminded me of the mill towns of Northern Massachusetts where I grew up and its strong diaspora communities were on full display everywhere I went.

Connecticut gets a weird reputation in New England as its northeast corner sits in the outer suburbs of Boston while its southwest corner is very much in the sphere of New York City so its identity gets pulled both ways.

But New Britain is very much a city that’s been worn in by the hills and valleys of time. That’s the type of place I prefer over the well-manicured lawns of some of the other college towns I’ll go to in my travels.

Even if you can’t make it to CCSU, definitely stop by in New Britain the next time you’re driving up Route 84. The hot dogs and pierogis are worth it.

Previous Stops
1: Maine Fort-Kent
2: The University of Maine

Up Next: Fuzzy Bears and Claude Monet

THP #2: The Downeast Queen

November 3, 2019 – Bangor, Maine
University of Maine vs McGill men’s basketball

Almost the exact halfway point between Boston and Quebec City, Bangor sits in the heart of Central Maine with the Penobscot River running right through town

The Queen City of the East is gorgeous. Even on a chilly New England fall day, downtown Bangor stood out.

The third-largest city in the state of Maine, Bangor was once the lumber capital of the east coast. In the 1860s, Bangor was the world’s largest lumber port with more than 3,000 ships passing through the docks each year.

The glory of the lumber years is long past but the city still stands bright today thanks in part to being home to Husson College and the nearby University of Maine.

Most importantly, it’s pronounced bain-gore and not banger.

Come take a ride with me through downtown Bangor.

Things to Eat

Bangor is a sneaky good food town. With the two colleges nearby, there are bound to be good food stops and they do not disappoint.

I had dinner at Dysart’s. Wow. It’s like an IHOP type of restaurant but 10/10. Quality ingredients. Homemade soups and breads. You can tell it’s a place that take’s pride in the food that comes out of the kitchen.

One thing you’ll notice about the food reviews in these blogs are the three C’s: Clubs, Caesars, and Cookies. I’m on a quest to find the best Caesar salad in New England and a cookie and a club sandwich can say so much more about the quality of a restaurant than a fancy dish can.

With that said, you’re going to have a tough time trying to find a better cookie in New England than at Fork & Spoon in the heart of Bangor. The size of a small car tire, they satisfy in a way that Chips Ahoy could only dream of.

Homemade vegetable soup at Dysart’s
Turkey Club with the goodies at Dysart’s
Dysart’s blueberry pie. Yes, homemade.
The birthday cake cookie from Fork & Spoon

The University

The University of Maine is the flagship of the state’s university system and is located in Orono which is about 20 minutes north of Bangor. With an enrollment of roughly 11,000, U-Maine is also the state’s lone Division I athletics program.

Academically, the University of Maine is one of a select number of space grant universities that get federal grants to study and research the cosmos. Additionally, Maine is home to one of the nation’s oldest honors college and is the birthplace of the Phi Kappa Phi honors society.

When it comes to athletics, Maine is mostly known for its men’s hockey team. The Black Bears won national titles in 1993 and 1999, with the former considered the greatest college hockey team of all time after racking up a 41-1-2 record en route to the title.

Games at Alfond Arena are fun, loud, and usually draw the biggest regular season crowds for Maine sporting events.

Alfond Arena

The Game

Cross Insurance Center

When it comes to basketball in Maine, Bangor is home. The Bangor Auditorium stood for 57 years and hosted packed houses pushing 6,000 people for the high school state finals.

Closed in 2013, the new Cross Insurance Center opened to replace it. Not to be confused with the Cross Insurance Arena two hours south in Portland, the CIC opened as the new home for basketball in Maine.

The high school finals take place there and both men’s and women’s teams from the University left their on-campus home, the cozy Memorial Gym, and set up shop in Bangor.

However, when it comes to University of Maine basketball, the real success has come on the women’s side. With nine NCAA tournament appearances, including bids in 2018 and 2019 thanks to a pair of America East titles, the women’s team has quietly built itself into one of the most consistent mid-major programs in the Northeast.

Throughout the arena, there are wall hangings and memorabilia from basketball greatness long past.

A small portion of the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame

And the arena itself is a real gem. With a seating capacity of 5,500, the CIC has all the amenities of other midsize modern arenas. Spacious concourses, a variety of food options, and good sightlines make this a real hidden gem in New England.

Oh, and did I mention that there’s a casino across the street?

The Seating Bowl
The concourse

The game itself was a fun one. Despite it being an exhibition, both teams came to play. The Black Bears opened up a seven-point lead at intermission and held it through the second half to claim a 70-63 win.

Time of game – 1:42
Price for a bottle of water: $3
Attendance – 320
Top Performer – Andrew Fleming (Maine): 22 pts, 9 reb, 5 ast, 4 blk, 2 stl

Thanks Bangor it was fun. Looking forward to coming back one more time.

Up Next: Blue Devil Mania

THP #1: North

November 2, 2019 – Fort Kent, Maine
Maine-Fort Kent v Husson men’s basketball

My feet are in the Saint John River and I’m staring at New Brunswick. This is where The Hoops Project begins.

Fort Kent, Maine. You’ve never been there. Until right now, I’d bet money that you didn’t know it even existed. More north than Quebec City, the cherry on top of the Eastern Seaboard, Fort Kent feels like the edge.

To get there, you drive up Route 95, peel off onto Maine Route 11 and go north until there’s no more America left.

And it is beautiful country. Even with the leaves off the trees, the natural wonder knew no bounds throughout Aroostook County.

From Bangor it was a 3:10 drive to downtown Fort Kent. The drive is one for thinking. You drive through tiny hamlets that would be forgotten if not for the census and pass by family burial plots with headstones that date back centuries.

Quick aside: Aroostook County is massive. It’s larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Maine is bigger than South Carolina in terms of area. That just feels wrong, but it’s correct. 

There are signs reminding you of your fragility the deeper you get into the woods. The signs remind you that the roads may be made for man, but we’re no match for a pissed off moose.

But it is gorgeous and serene. Please take a ride with me for the final 10 miles to campus.

Things to See

Fort Kent is small. With a population just a shade higher than 4,000, there’s only a single stoplight in downtown, at a T-intersection by the Citgo.

Located in the heart of French Acadia, the Acadian flag flies at the same height as the American and Canadian flags at the border crossing. The Acadian flag is identical to the French flag with the addition of a five-pointed gold star in the upper left corner.

There were several signs in storefronts downtown signifying that both English and French were spoken at the shop. A heavily Catholic town, the St. Louis Church shoots into the sky with its wrought-iron steeple piercing the clouds.

Fort Kent also has a neat historic site with the Blockhouse. Did you know that Canada (then a British protectorate) and the US almost went to war in the 1830s? The Aroostook War nearly turned bloody as the United States and the United Kingdom bickered about the Maine/New Brunswick border.

The Blockhouse is a two-story-high wooden fortification built as tensions grew between the two nations. In the end, thousands of troops and militiamen were mobilized but no shots were fired. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty ended hostilities in 1842.

Downtown Fort Kent
St. Louis Church
Fort Kent Blockhouse
Looking across the Saint John River to Clair, New Brunswick

Things to Eat

Fort Kent may feel like the edge of the universe but the Subway and McDonald’s remind you that America it still is.

However, there are far better places in town to eat including Walker’s Pub and The Swamp Buck. At the latter I got a Caesar salad that ranked as one of my personal favorites in New England. Never thought to add red onions to a Caesar but they work wonders.

Aside from the delicious Caesar, the Swamp Buck is a down-home burger, steak, and sandwich spot that will satisfy.

And when in Acadia one must buy a box of ploye mix. A local delicacy, ployes are a tweener between a crepe and a pancake made from buckwheat flour.

The University

Maine-Fort Kent is not an NCAA institution. It is a member of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association which is a national governing body for college sports at small colleges and community colleges. It actually allows schools to be dual members of the NAIA and NCAA Division III along with the USCAA.

Another quirk of Maine-Fort Kent is its schedule. The men’s team is slated to play 30 games this season. Only six will be at home.

With a roster that features three players each from Oregon and California, the Bengals have grown into one of the better programs in the USCAA despite the remote location. Oh, and they got a starter named Zeke.

Their home gym, simply called The Sports Center, is just that: a gym. With a capacity of around 1,400, it does the job.

The Game

It was an excellent game. Fort Kent’s opponent, Husson College, is a D3 school in Bangor, but it was all Bengals early. Fort Kent led by 14 at half and led by as many as 17 in the second half before the Eagles chipped away and had a chance to tie.

In the end, Fort Kent held for a 70-65 win, and if there was a box score online I’d have dropped some stats in right here.

Time of game: 90 minutes.
Attendance: ~150

Thanks for being stop one Fort Kent. Consider me a Bengals fan for life.

Up next: International Intercollegiate Shebangaroo

The Hoops Project: Some Places I’ve Been

Day one is around the corner for me. This journey across New England begins this coming weekend all the way at the top of Maine.

Before I start logging the thousands of miles and getting eye-rolled by my friends and my fiancee for traipsing around for basketball, I need to look back.

Of the nearly 125 college basketball venues in New England, I have already seen games in 21 of those gyms. Additionally, I’ve been to four venues without a full-time college basketball team.

As the Project gets set to begin, I want to take a look back at where I’ve already been, what places I’ve liked, what I haven’t liked, and why you should go visit these places.

Ryan Center – University of Rhode Island
Kingston, Rhode Island

I start at my alma mater and arguably the single best college basketball venue in New England. Built in 2001, the Ryan Center replaced 3400-seat Keaney Gym, which now hosts the URI volleyball team.

The Ryan Center sits 7500 and pushes to 8000 for big games, and there isn’t a bad seat in the building. It’s loud when it’s half full and deafening when sold out. An absolute must-see for any basketball fan in New England.

BEST NEARBY EATS: Tilly’s, Peking Tokyo, Simply Thai

Stoutenburgh Gym – Saint Anselm College
Manchester/Goffstown, New Hampshire

Perched on a hilltop splitting two cities, Stoutenburgh is a matchbox of a gym. The Hawks fill it up regularly, and the men’s team has found consistent success since the turn of the millennium including a run to the Final Four in 2019.

It’s the type of place where you can smell the wood lacquer when you walk in, and for five bucks it’s definitely worth it to see high-level Division II basketball.

BEST NEARBY EATS: The Foundry, The Copper Door

Hammel Court – Merrimack College
North Andover, Massachusetts

A Division I program effective at the start of the 2019-2020 season, Merrimack was a successful Division II program in the Northeast-10 for years.

Now, with the move to the Northeast Conference comes a bigger stage and bigger opponents. Although, for now, a small gym remains. With a capacity of just 1,200, Hammel holds fewer people than some of the local high school facilities, but its small size makes for an intimate atmosphere when the Warriors take the court.

The move to Division I has already brought about a new football stadium to the college so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Hammel looks much different in the near future.

BEST NEARBY EATS: Harrison’s Roast Beef, Lee Chen, Tripoli’s Bakery

Cousens Gym – Tufts University
Medford, Massachusetts

Boston is a hub for great Division III programs and there are few better than Tufts. It’s women’s program has been ranked in the top 10 for much of the last decade, and the men’s team has consistently been atop the NESCAC.

Cousens is small, homey, and a great place to see a game. Parking can be a bit difficult but not too stress-inducing. Just a short drive from Boston, stop by Cousens for a fun, breezy day of hoops. And you can’t beat the free admission.

BEST NEARBY EATS: Nijiya Sushi, Tenoch, Salvatore’s, Colleen’s

Chace Athletic Center – Bryant University
Smithfield, Rhode Island

Returning to the Northeast Conference, the Chace Center is a perfectly serviceable place to see a basketball game. Part of a larger recreation building on campus, the Chace sits 2,700 people.

With only a single postseason appearance since moving up to Division I in 2008 (the 2013 CBI), the Bulldogs don’t have much history or tradition to fall back on. Regardless, a fun little spot to see a game.

BEST NEARBY EATS: Parente’s Restaurant

XL Center – Hartford, Connecticut
University of Connecticut

I was lucky enough to cover the NCAA tournament here in 2019, and the seating bowl is one of the best in basketball. The walls of people on the side bring a level of noise unmatched by similar venues of this size.

The downside of the venue is that it’s old and feels its age. Parking options can fill up quickly for big games, and the venue isn’t the most accessible for people that are disabled or have chronic pains or injuries.

You see the seats why high up on the side? The only way up is a steep staircase from street level. That’s it. I walked from the floor to the top of the seating bowl. It was 136 steps, which roughly equates to 12 stories up. So if stairs are hard for you this isn’t the best place to see a game.

BEST NEARBY EATS: Vernon Diner (Vernon, CT)

Lavietes Pavillion – Harvard University
Allston, Massachusetts

Yes, I wrote Allston and not Cambridge. That’s because this tiny gym, like nearly all of Harvard’s athletic facilities, is on the other side of the Charles River.

Renovated ahead of the 2017-2018 season, Lavietes is one of the best places in Boston to see a basketball game. The cozy confines make it loud, and the success the men’s program has found since Tommy Amaker took over has brought crowds in numbers.

You won’t see basketball at this quality this close to the action.

BEST NEARBY EATS: Tasty Burger, Insomnia Cookie, Lulu’s

Dunkin Donuts Center – Providence College (MBB)
Providence, Rhode Island

It’s alright.

The Dunk has all the amenities of a major venue and is accessible from numerous places. Parking is great as well as you can park in the garage at the Providence Place Mall and then walk through the mall, the connecting hotel, the convention center, and then land right in line to enter the building.

Home to the AHL’s Providence Bruins, the building is pulled between hockey and basketball sightlines and just misses the mark ever so slightly. For instance, some seats high up at the end of the arena can’t see the jumbotron because they’re blocked by banners.

The band brings it hard every game though.

BEST NEARBY EATS: It’s Providence. There are too many to pick.

Muldoon Gymnasium – Rivier University
Nashua, New Hampshire

Rivier is a small Catholic university in Southern New Hampshire with academic focuses on teaching and nursing. The Crusaders, both men and women, have little to no history of success on the hardwood. The most successful sport at the school is men’s volleyball.

Located in the Granite State’s second-largest city (population 87,000) Rivier recruits heavily from Southern New Hampshire and Northern Massachusetts

BEST NEARBY EATS: Stella Blu, Surf Restaurant, Martha’s Exchange

Hart Center – College of the Holy Cross
Worcester, Massachusetts

This is one of my favorite spots to catch a game in New England. With the ability to wedge 4,000 people in for big games, the Hart Center doesn’t have a bad seat in the house.

While parking can be difficult because the campus is on top of a steep hill, it is absolutely worth it to catch a game here. The second-most populated city in New England, Worcester is a great basketball town with a great hoops history.

And that begins with the Crusaders. With banners hanging for an NCAA title in 1947 and an NIT crown in 1954, added in with famous alums like Tommy Heinsohn and Bob Cousy, Holy Cross was New England’s first great college basketball dynasty.

Get out to Worcester and up the hill to the Hart Center and breathe the history in.

BEST NEARBY EATS: Buck’s, Smokestack, Bocado Tapas Bar

Up next: North. Like, really, really north.

Being a Sports Media Professional

The sports media industry is massive. With sports becoming more connected across the globe, more outlets are bringing people in to cover fans’ favorite teams.

While every sports fan has at least watched SportsCenter or read an online post in their life, few know what goes into the day-to-day life of a sports media professional.

With that in mind, I reached out to people across the world of sports media to take folks behind the scenes of what the life is like for the people that get to cover the big game. These people come from across the world of sports in America, from team employees to national organizations to sport-specific sites.

I asked all of them the same set of questions and have only edited the responses for clarity.

The following people took part in this project. They were asked to answer the questions as long or as short as they felt comfortable with. I would like to thank them all for taking the time to be a part of this. I have linked all of their Twitter profiles below.

Bryan Curtis: Editor-at-large at The Ringer

Mike McMahon: Senior Writer at College Hockey News

Eric Russo: Digital Content Specialist for the Boston Bruins

Matt Zemek: Copy Editor at CBB Today

Alan Saunders: Beat Writer at PGHSports Now

Jeff Pearlman: Author

Trisha Blackmar: College Basketball/Women’s Sports editor for Sports Illustrated

What inspired you to chase a career in sports media?

Bryan Curtis: Mostly the usual stuff. I was lousy at sports when I was in elementary school, but I was fascinated by sports writers. I remember looking at their pictures in the newspaper when I was a kid and thinking a lot more about them than I did the athletes. Strange, for sure, but it led directly to this career.

Mike McMahon: Oddly enough, sports talk radio. I say oddly enough because I rarely listen to it now, but as a 10-year-old I’d come home from school, put on WEEI and do my homework all afternoon while listening to guys talk sports. It became what I wanted to do. After college I interned at a couple of radio stations and a TV station and ended up working at a newspaper after cold-emailing the sports editor about 100 times.

Eric Russo: As far back as I can remember, I wanted to work in sports. I remember growing up watching the Red Sox religiously and dreaming about one day being the next Don Orsillo or Tom Caron.

As I got older that vision shifted to more of a reporting role, or even something in sports radio (I watched/listened to Felger and Mazz every day during high school and college). But once I got to Everett High and began taking sports writing and journalism classes – shoutout to Mr. Fineran and Mr. McGowan – I knew I wanted to be a reporter. With the encouragement of my teachers (and family), I decided to go for it, despite knowing how difficult a field it is to break into.

Matt Zemek: Listening to Vin Scully call Dodger games when I was a kid growing up in Phoenix made me want to be a sports broadcaster. When I went to college, I realized that writing and not radio would fit my skill set and meet my intellectual needs, but the original desire to work in sports came from Vin at a very early age. I also taught myself to read by kneeling over the Sunday sports pages when I was a little boy.

Alan Saunders:  I started writing when I was in college when I had a writing professor challenge me to get something published. I always liked sports, and it seemed like something I could do. I never really expected it to be a career. It just sort of happened that way.

Jeff Pearlman: I loved sports as a kid, but there was only so far I could go. Ran a year of track/XC at the University of Delaware, but was a mediocre hack. Writing, to me, was something special. You had a voice. You mattered. You could impact people. Inspire change. I was this ignored geek, generally. But the pen gave me life.

Trisha Blackmar: I always wanted to work in journalism in some capacity and I applied at SI at just the right time — about a year before the Nagano Olympics. I had studied Japanese in college and my language ability helped get in the door here.

Who were your top teams to follow growing up? What inspired you to become a fan?

Bryan Curtis: Cowboys, Rangers, Mavericks–the same as they are today. What’s funny is no one in my household was a sports fan. At all. I’m not sure my dad knew which way to run around the bases, but my mom figured that knowing about sports was important, for social reasons, and arranged it so that I’d hang out with other kids who did like sports. Those friends got me into it.

Mike McMahon: The Bruins were my No. 1 team by far. My dad had season tickets so we went to probably 20-30 games per year. This was in the late-90’s, early-00’s. Like most kids, I became a fan because my family was fans. My grandfather was a 50-year season ticket holder to the Patriots, so football as huge in my house. My dad had the Bruins tickets.

Eric Russo: I was all Boston. It started with the Red Sox from a really young age, but the Bruins weren’t far behind. My passion for the Patriots and Celtics came a little later (maybe around 8 or 9), but I have always been all in on the four teams here.

In general, I grew up in a pretty passionate sports family, but my dad would certainly be No. 1 on the list when it comes to whose responsible for my obsessions.

Matt Zemek: Phoenix had only the Suns in the early 1980s when I became a sports fan so I was interested in the nationally relevant teams — Lakers in the NBA, Cowboys in the NFL, Cardinals in MLB, Georgetown in college hoops. Those allegiances changed over the years, but those were my first fan relationships.

I distinctly recall falling in love with sports on my brother’s First Communion day in November of 1981. When we got back from Mass to watch NFL football at my grandfather’s house, the Dolphins and Jets were playing a Sunday late game on NBC in the rain. The players wore these long capes, the Shea Stadium lights creating a dramatic scene. I was hooked.

Alan Saunders: I was a big Pittsburgh sports fan, so I cheered for the Penguins, Pirates, and Steelers. It was something that was a big part of my family growing up.

Jeff Pearlman: Jets-Mets-Nets-Islanders. No one in my family cared about sports but me. Literally no one. But I loved the colors, the sounds, the names, the diversity.

Trisha Blackmar:  Mets and Giants. My mom was a huge fan of both teams so the games were always on in my house. And both teams won titles when I was in middle or high school, so that helped.

What was your first job in the industry?

Bryan Curtis: My first job was as an intern (“reporter-researcher”) at the New Republic. The next year, I went to Slate, where I was named editor of the one-man sports department. That made it official.

Mike McMahon: First paying job was at The Eagle Tribune. First internship was at WBZ NewsRadio.

Eric Russo: My first real paid job in the industry came when I was 18. That’s when I started as a sports hawk at The Boston Globe, working on the desk and answering phones. That led to an opportunity on the high school football beat the following fall, and eventually a bevy of other opportunities covering high school, college, and even professional sports for the Globe.

Matt Zemek: Technically, I contributed to Gator Country — published by Raymond Hines — and wrote articles during the season on the Florida football team. My first really big break in sportswriting, though, was being allowed on the staff at College Football News, where I wrote for 13 years with Pete Fiutak and Rich Cirminiello. That started in 2001 and went through 2013. I am proud to say I created the “Instant Analysis” article series for CFN, circa 2004-2005, and had a lot to do with the development of that site over time.

Alan Saunders: My first job in the industry was covering prospects in the Penguins system for Hockey’s Future.

Jeff Pearlman: I was a food and fashion writer for The Tennessean in Nashville. I was terrible.

Trisha Blackmar: Reporter at Sports Illustrated.

What differences did you notice in yourself as a media professional vs as a fan on the couch?

Bryan Curtis: I was thinking about this question the other day. I’m still a big sports fan, especially when it comes to the Cowboys. I paid to go to both playoff games this year and sit in the stands. But my fandom has become very–I’m searching for the right word–contained.

I still hop up and down for three-plus hours during a Cowboys game. I still hope they win. But whatever joy or anger I feel is very fleeting and tends to disappear about five minutes after the game. I don’t really get mad at bad personnel decisions anymore. I don’t hate players from other teams like I did when I was a kid.

I’m still really invested in being a Cowboys fan. It’s part of my identity and I never don’t want to be a Cowboys fan. But it’s almost like it has become a state of being that no longer relies on wins and losses anymore. Does that make sense? It’s a weird place to be and I’m just beginning to understand it.

Mike McMahon: I tend to not care as much anymore, which is kind of sad. I’ve become a lot more jaded and actually get annoyed by people who are fans of the same teams I’m still a fan of. I find myself taking the opposite point of view simply because I think most fans can’t be practical.

Take the Charlie McAvoy hit, for example. I thought it was clearly a hit to the head. Ninety-nine percent of Bruins fans disagreed. I laugh at [reactions] like that now, whereas 20 years ago I would have been the guy on social media defending the hit.

Eric Russo: I am certainly more level-headed. That comes with being a professional in the dressing room and in the press box, but being around the team as much as I am, you’re able to understand far more what these guys go through on a daily basis. I absolutely still react to certain things as a fan would, but having the insight and access that I do allows me to take a step back and view every situation with a bit more leniency.

Matt Zemek: Great question. I realized very quickly that if I wrote articles from one and only one perspective, in such a way that it seemed I was mad that one team won or lost, readers would notice and call me out on it. I had to make sure I could push aside personal feelings and write a glowing article about a team whose coach I might have had a strong disagreement with. I had to give credit for what actually happened and not project personal desires into my analysis of games.

The next key on this point is that if I wanted to write stories people could trust and respect, I had to start watching games through this prism, asking myself questions in an adjusted mental or intellectual framework.

I had to start processing and wrestling with on-field events (and off) in a way that a neutral observer would do. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a bias — we all have our own biases — but it DID mean that my biases could coexist with an acknowledgment of how actual events cut against my biases, interpretations, or leanings. One thing I always tell readers who are surprised by something I write is that “The results don’t allow me to make certain conclusions. I can’t automatically impose a given view on an event when the outcome doesn’t allow for or warrant that particular opinion.”

Alan Saunders: I was always the kind of fan that tried to approach things more analytically and figure out why things happened, so I don’t think that much changed for me.

Jeff Pearlman: I stopped rooting. 100 percent. No cheering in the press box is something I take very seriously. So no more Mets rooting, Jets rooting. Turned it all off, like a light switch. People say that’s impossible. It’s not. It’s easy.

Trisha Blackmar: It’s hard to watch an overtime game and not think of the writers and editors trying to make deadlines. I also think about all the reporting that is sometimes rendered unusable at the last minute if something unexpected happens.

When I watch college basketball or tennis, my main beats, I’m always looking for storylines or trends in addition to following the action.

Do you still enjoy sports today as a spectator? Does it feel the same as it did when you younger? Why?

Bryan Curtis: Oh, yeah. I enjoy watching almost any big game. I’m much less emotional than when I was younger, though I still pick my spots.

As a kid, sports seemed like this incredibly vivid world of heroes and villains, geniuses and idiots. After you’ve seen a few decades worth of sports, you realize it’s sort of like that but also involves a lot of luck and a lot of moral shades of gray. It’s not exactly the Marvel expanded universe.

Moreover, the genius/idiot-hero/villain cycle repeats itself so often that what happens on a given week no longer seems world-historic. “We’ll never see another QB like Joe Montana” took all of a decade to be proven false. Now, we’re saying the same thing about Tom Brady.

Mike McMahon: No, it doesn’t feel the same whatsoever. In part, when you do it long enough as a job, it starts to feel like work. No job is ever perfect. Even in sports jobs, which most people would kill for, there are good things and bad things. Like I said, I can’t defend guys like Brad Marchand anymore, when 20 years ago I would have like crazy. I think the job has forced me to become less emotionally-invested in my teams.

Eric Russo: My enjoyment is still the same, but I have to admit I’m not as in-tune with things going on in the rest of the sports world. I guess that comes with being an adult and having far more to worry about. But really, my job is to be so zoned in on the NHL and hockey that it takes away from my ability to follow everything else at that level (although, being on Twitter 24/7 helps keep me in the loop). It also doesn’t help that Bruins games often overlap with the Celtics and at times the Patriots and Red Sox.

Matt Zemek: I cover sports in and through TV. I have never had a big travel budget for covering sports. I have been a columnist and commentator, not a beat reporter. So, my life as a “spectator” is through TV, not on site.

I have to admit that while going to a minor league baseball game was a sweet taste of childhood, going to big-time college or pro sports events — while occasionally thrilling — was not something I felt I had to do in my relationship with sports. I enjoy taking in a game from my home, where I can go to the bathroom easily, fix my own (cheaper) food, and listen to great broadcasters. TV is the best way to follow sports. It offers a much lower carbon footprint and is so much less stressful than flying. I hate flying.

Within this context, though, the experience of watching sports on TV has become so much worse over the years. Part of this is that the great broadcasters were from the 1980s and 1990s: [Dick] Enberg, [Pat] Summerall, Keith Jackson, [Brent] Musburger. Today’s broadcasters are competent and professional, but the resonance of the legendary broadcasters isn’t replicated today. Also, 1980s and early 1990s sports broadcasts had much better theme music. There were more times when, late in games, the network showing the game would stay in the arena instead of breaking for a commercial. Those things helped fuel my love of sports, and they aren’t nearly as commonplace today. Sure, we have replay and score boxes, but what we have lost is greater than what we have gained purely in terms of production values. In terms of being able to watch a LOT more games, today is better than 30 years ago.

Alan Saunders: The big difference is that it’s harder for me to just go watch and enjoy a game now. I can’t really turn work totally off. I still enjoy it, but it’s different now. I’m also so busy that I very rarely get an opportunity to go enjoy a game.

Jeff Pearlman: I do, but for me it’s about sitting at an Angels game with my son, chatting over food, walking around the stadium, having quiet time to ourselves. The outcome doesn’t matter 1 percent to me.

Trisha Blackmar: Yes, very much so, especially now that I have kids and can introduce them to my favorite teams. It’s really fun to experience live games with them. It can be hard to truly enjoy a game I’m covering but there are plenty of other sporting events.

What don’t fans understand about working in sports?

Bryan Curtis: Fans have a wonderful way of seeing sports purely through their own eyes. When I mention to friends or my uncles that I talked to a ’90s Cowboys eminence, their first question is, “Did you tell him you’re a lifelong fan of the team?!” Well, no, I didn’t. Or if I did, there was some strategic reason why I did. This isn’t Ready Player One for me.

My friends/uncles can’t imagine leaving that information out, because that’s only the frame through which they see the guy. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I also think some fans (not all) think sports jobs are easy. I have heard a couple of versions of: What’s so hard about watching games all the time? I’d love to do that! I’d never claim my job is particularly hard, but I also hear that rap about play-by-play announcers, as if anybody could walk into a booth announce a game with the smoothness of Joe Buck or Al Michaels.

Mike McMahon: You make no money. Like ZERO. It’s a job a lot of people want, so the big companies don’t have to pay people much to do them. Supply and demand. There was a big bubble that burst a few years ago, and now with almost everyone’s content being essentially free, it’s harder for companies to pay their employees. The general audience got used to not paying for content, and now they refuse to, oftentimes. It’s not as black-and-white as that, but if there are two media outlets reporting the same story, and one is behind a paywall and the other one isn’t, which one gets more traffic?

Eric Russo:  I think fans view it as all sunshine and rainbows. And for the most part it is, but it certainly has its downfalls. The pay is not astronomical and the hours are long. There are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made, and your friends and family aren’t always going to be happy that you’re missing out on holidays and other events. But in the end, it’s all worth it. You won’t hear me complaining about working for my favorite team in my hometown.

Matt Zemek: The most central thing fans don’t understand about working in sports is that writers and commentators have to look at the whole sport, not just the way one team or one athlete views a situation. Fans of a particular team might know more about that team than a writer or commentator does, but the national writer or commentator usually writes or speaks on a broader level.

Phrased differently: Writers might comment about a team or athlete in a not-very-intimate way. That should not be interpreted as having a personal distaste for that team or athlete. It’s just business. It’s not personal.

When a commentator truly has a grudge toward a team or athlete, you will know what it looks like (Skip Bayless toward LeBron or Mark May toward Ohio State football). Usually, writers and commentators aren’t trying to promote this athlete or denigrate that team. They are trying to see and comment on the whole landscape, which is very different from processing situations through the lens of one and only one perspective.

Alan Saunders: A lot. I don’t think fans really understand the mindset of the players and what it means to work in professional sports. They try to compare it to their own athletic experience, but it’s different when it’s a career.

Jeff Pearlman: It’s a grind. A beautiful grind, but a grind. And the whole, “Wow! You get to meet the athletes!” Well, they fart, burp, walk around naked, hairy asses in your face. It’s not—in that regard—what it’s chalked up to be.

Trisha Blackmar: I don’t think fans understand how much time and research goes into the work we do. And we don’t have it in for your favorite team.

After having covered so much, what do sports mean to you now?

Bryan Curtis: I don’t have a great answer for this. I guess I would say, in the least cynical, burned-out way possible, that I see sports more and more as simply a subject. As the small part of the universe that a bunch of us have chosen to cover. A really fascinating part of the universe, but that’s about it. Nothing more or less than that.

Mike McMahon: I’ve rekindled some of that childlike feel watching my kids watch their teams, which is fun. Watching Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals with my 9-year-old, and him exploding off the couch for every goal in a 6-2 win for the Bruins, made me remember what that felt like. Hanging on every second. That’s definitely something I lost, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back. Maybe? But I find myself watching sports more analytically now. When I was younger you watch the game like that 9-year-old kid, so emotionally invested and hooked into every shot, check, save. Now I watch the game and think to myself, “I wonder if they’re going to change their forecheck?” I get enjoyment out of that, and it is still an escape from reality, but in a different way for sure.

Eric Russo: Sports mean everything to me. It’s literally my life. If I’m not working, I’m watching one of the other teams, going to a game, or listening to sports talk radio. I can never escape it. But, as I said earlier, now that I’m working in the industry I view it all from a different perspective.

Matt Zemek: After nearly 20 years of covering sports, I appreciate sports more than I used to. Sports remain one of the few areas of life in which people who would otherwise NEVER want to talk to each other can find something that brings them together over a common interest and a shared passion. Other aspects of life have lost that cohesive, unifying element. Sports hasn’t. Sports have endured in ways other parts of American culture have not.

Sports are also really good at showing people the importance of never giving up. Cleveland won a sports championship. The Cubs won the World Series. The Eagles won the Super Bowl. The Capitals and Blues won Stanley Cups. Virginia won the basketball national title. Leicester City won the Premier League a few years ago. You really never know. This doesn’t guarantee success, but sometimes, hard work does indeed pay off. See what happens when you make an effort in anything. Sports continue to teach this simple but profound lesson.

Alan Saunders: To me, I think the biggest things sports do is bring people together in different ways.

If you look at the crowd of a major sporting event, there will be people of all races and ages, die-hards with face paint, casual fans, grandmothers and babies, rooting for players that might be from any numbers of countries, financial backgrounds, creeds, etc. It’s one of the places where America is still a melting pot.

Jeff Pearlman: Not a ton, to be honest. Mainly they’ve given me a chance to live a blissful life. But the whole live-and-die with sports thing is dead to me. Climate change—terrifying. Mets-Dodgers—good time, then it’s over.

Trisha Blackmar: I don’t know what my life would be like without sports. I’ve played, watched, and/or covered various sports for my whole life.

If you could change one thing about sports media what would it be and why?

Bryan Curtis: This one’s easy for me, but I want to pick two: more jobs and more diversity. At the moment, the sports media sorely lacks both.

Mike McMahon: This is going to sound selfish … but sports media needs to tighten up its access. The reason I think it’s easy for bigger companies to not pay people to do the job is because so many people and outlets are granted access and are giving away coverage (sometimes poor coverage) for free, and the average reader doesn’t know the difference.

Not every fly-by-night website should be credentialed. I’m sorry.

I see this a lot in college hockey, especially. I also see a lot of people in college hockey get credentialed, go to a game, and never provide any coverage. This job isn’t a way to get free tickets. I hate to sound like the old guy who wants people to “pay their dues,” but really, that needs to happen more. Right now anyone can start a blog or website and have a seat in an NHL press box. There’s something off about that. Tightening up access to working professionals limits where the information is coming from, and it might mean that consumers have to pay (subscribe) for that coverage.

Years ago, the industry would provide a select number of people a living wage. Now, the number of people drawing money from the industry has rocketed through the roof, but the money available hasn’t.

So, we’ve gone from providing a select few with a living wage to providing a big group with nowhere near a living wage.

Eric Russo: There are a lot of things I can’t stand about sports media, but I’ll try to brief. I know I’m far from the only one on this, but I can’t stand the headline-grabbing, click-baiting mentality. And I certainly understand that kind of thing appeals to people and generates traffic, which ultimately generates revenue and salaries for the people creating the content. But when it comes to opinion-based content, the industry can be far better. Stop pandering and just write or say what you actually believe. If you’re good at what you do, you can make even the most boring take sound interesting.

Matt Zemek: The biggest thing which needs to change in this business is the worship of Google, which flows from the prevailing business model at sports media companies. Google rules the world as long as pageviews are the basis for the business model at sports media companies.

Every sports media company which might start out with a fresh vision quickly turns into a clickbait-seeking entity because of what Google says, and because of how central Google is in shaping the visibility of links and page placements on the internet. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is so dominant in this industry that sports media companies very easily abandon their original (fresh) ideas and become like everyone else, cranking out stories about the Patriots, Cowboys, Warriors, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, and few other topics.

The industry needs a better model which will make companies less dependent on Google and SEO. Companies need to believe in original content, good storytelling, fresh ideas, and diversified approaches to sports content.

Alan Saunders: Only one?

We need to get back to a place where teams and players value a relationship with the media.

That doesn’t mean we all need to be homers, but it doesn’t need to be an adversarial relationship if everyone understands what everyone else’s job is and how they’re going to go about it.

Bonus one, because I’m a writer and we can’t be helped. We need to do a far better job of distinguishing hard news from analysis and opinion. People don’t understand the difference between the jobs of a columnist, analyst, and reporter.

Jeff Pearlman: Now it’s OK to be cheering for teams. To have rooting interests. That infuriates me.

Trisha Blackmar: More women in positions of power throughout the industry, I think for obvious reasons.

 

 

The Hoops Project: An Introduction

I love college basketball.

It is truly the only sport that touches all 50 states and campuses big and small across America. The tournament in March unifies the country in a way that nothing else in sports can.

I also love New England. Born and raised in the region, I’ve gone around to all six of the states to see college hoops at some point in my first 28 years of life and want to take this journey all the way to the end.

Enter The Hoops Project. This is a project with no timeline. My goal is simply to see a game at every single four-year college in New England at some point in my life. As of this post, there are 116 such colleges and universities in New England and 120 venues (UConn, Providence, UMass Lowell, and Northeastern each utilize two)

From Fort Kent, Maine to Fairfield, Connecticut and up to Johnson, Vermont and everywhere in between, college hoops is a unifying factor in the region. There are rivalries big and small in arenas both spacious and cramped. I plan on getting to all of them.

Just on my own, I have already visited 31 of the arenas in my travels and even a few more that don’t regularly host a college program.

Throughout the rest of the offseason I will be posting about some of the places I’ve been, what makes them good venues for basketball, and why you should make a day to go see a game there.

Additionally, I’m looking for the best things to do in around campus. Whether that be a place to shop, eat (I am a sucker for a good sandwich recommendation), or spend an hour just walking around. I want to fully bake into these communities when I am there and get familiar with what makes the campuses so important for so many.

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with college basketball fans across the country.

Behind the Scenes at the D3 Sweet 16

The first thing you notice about LeFrak Gym when you walk in is the smell of lacquered wood. This place is old and it creaks with the charm of a matchbox that would have stories if it could talk.

It’s here, at Amherst College, that this charming old box is hosting the Division III Men’s Sweet 16, and it has arguably the best pound-for-pound basketball in the country on its night.

Fifth-ranked Swarthmore is playing sixth-ranked Randolph-Macon and the night closes with host, and seventh-ranked, Amherst College hosting 14th-ranked Nichols College. A battle of the two best Division III programs in Massachusetts this year.

However, days like these don’t just happen. At the Division I level there are dozens of people working to make sure that the tournament goes off without a hitch. Press conference interviews are fully transcribed. Coaches and players and TV broadcasters all have managers and handlers to move them through the arena and the sea of people within it. On the court, teams have a slew of aids and trainers and other support staff to aid the team once the ball is tipped.

By comparison, Division III is low-fi, but it’s no less planned and executed. The Division I regionals are announced years in advance and are all at major national venues. The location of tonight’s games was only announced five days ago. In that time, travel had to be booked, hotels had to be secured, and all the trappings of a national tournament had to be put in place.

However, Craig Kaufman doesn’t have an army at his disposal. The Director of Athletic Communications here at Amherst is in charge of it all with an assist from his intern, Patrick McKearney.

“As soon as the call comes out on Sunday everybody sort of jumps into their roles,” Kaufman said as our voices echoed throughout the empty gym before the festivities. “People that do logistics, transport and hotels. People like contest management, tournament management, sports information. Everybody starts turning their wheels, and the gears of a championship start turning.”

Games are in 80 minutes but Kaufman is cool and collected as he and the facilities staff make the final prep before doors open. Amherst is no stranger to hosting these kinds of events. Just last week the women hosted a pod of first and second round matchups. The soccer and lacrosse teams regularly host NCAA tournament games, and the annual football game with Williams draws more than 8,000.

The key is making sure that everything is ready to go long in advance of game time and give the game the respect it deserves. Of the 448 Division III athletic programs in the country, these are four of the final 16 remaining in men’s basketball.

“I get a lot of satisfaction out of it, and I really enjoy it when it’s over,” Kaufman said with a chuckle. “I enjoy hosting. I think it’s really cool to put the experience together and make it as much of a D1 experience as we can. That’s my whole mentality of sports information in general; trying to give student-athletes as professional experience as possible. The same goes for the SIDs too. I want them to feel like they are at a big championship because they are. For what we do this is pretty much as big as it gets.”

It’s 4:07 pm and Allison Hudak is taping up guards. The athletic trainer for Swarthmore is making sure the guys are ready to go for their game that is less than an hour away. It’s what she’s done for more than a decade.

The athletic trainer’s job at times can be invisible. You prep the team before the game, work on any tweaks at halftime, and break it all down after the final horn. To make an appearance during a game means that something has gone wrong for a player.

“Part of what keeps me doing what I do is having a hand in being able to enable our student-athletes to do what they love to do,” Hudak said. “For them these are the goals they set out to achieve. To know they can do that, and do that successfully, and I’m able to provide some peace of mind validates what we do. It’s a lot of fun.”

However, for the team, the trainer is an integral asset. Not just someone trained to help soothe the aches and pains that come with sports, but a confidant and friend that, over time, learns every quirk  of the players on the team

“I think the best that we can do generally speaking just as people is be really good at communicating at what our needs are and doing our best to meet both sets of needs without compromising one or the other,” Hudak said. “And a lot of times as you get ot know the players you get to know their idiosyncrasies. You get to know the ways in which they communicate whether it’s verbally or non-verbally; sometimes you have to read between the lines to see something that’s going on a little bit deeper and ask the right questions.”

She describes her medical kit as something akin to a portable athletic training room. On an ideal night it never gets used.

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Allison Hudak’s training setup takes up a whole table on its own.

Bradley Jacks has been here before. Hell, he’s been to the mountaintop. Jacks was a reserve on Babson College’s 2017 national championship team. He put up points in the national final and was part of multiple tournament runs during his time in Wellesley.

Now Jacks is a first-year assistant coach for Randolph-Macon College and is back at LeFrak after so many battles he had against Amherst during his college days.

“I can relate to what these guys are going through day to day,” Jacks said. “You see things different through the coaches lens than you do as a player. I’m glad I’m with these guys. Being on this side you understand what they’re going through only being one year removed. I try to just help where I can and encourage them each day. You have to play hard. You have to bring it.”

Jacks played a key role in scouting for the Yellow Jackets this season and it has paid off. Jacks said he watches upward of 50 hours of film a week. He is trying to help guide Randolph-Macon, which is 27-3, to equal a program-best 28 wins in a season.

During Babson’s championship year Jacks and the Beavers played here in Amherst. They lost 99-97 in double overtime.

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Bradley (holding folder) giving advice to his team in the first half vs Swarthmore.

It’s 4:52 pm. The gym is about a third full. Hudak is prepping her trainer’s station and making sure water bottles are full. Jacks has changed from a team sweatsuit pregame to a shape blue suit with gold tie for the contest. Kaufman is hunkered down at the main table. Not only is he the lead media coordinator tonight, but he is also the official scorer.

The game tips right at 5 pm and the story begins. There’s a sizable Swarthmore contingent sitting across from their bench. Many are wearing garnet “Swat More” shirts. Randolph-Macon had a loud group of fans at the far end of the gym. One in particular can be heard echoing throughout after most whistles. Not often does a fan punch the ceiling during a basketball game.

 

It’s 5:17. Randolph-Macon has opened up a seven-point lead and seemingly can’t miss. Shots are falling from everywhere. It’s a good basketball here in Amherst.

It’s 5:22. Swarthmore’s George Visconti hits the deck hard. He covers his face in pain and his body tenses as well. Allison’s number gets called.

Out onto the court she goes to help the freshman.  The noise seeps into the wood and disappears for a moment. However, it ends well as she helps Visconti to his feet and guides him off as he leaves the floor under his own power. Onto the table he goes for concussion protocol and further examination.

Eventually he returns, albeit with a bandage over his left eye, and plays 31 minutes, scores eight points, and pulls down six rebounds. The noise reappears as Hudak returns to her post, a job well done.

“Big assist to Allison,” Swarthmore coach Landry Kosmalski said postgame.

Randolph-Macon led 41-33 at halftime

The smoothness of the evening is apparent. The people in charge of running the night have set everything in place so the machine doesn’t stop. Patrick handles the print and TV media while Craig helps keep the head table in order and works with the broadcasting crew.

All of this happens invisibly right in front of the crowd. Good logistics and organization should never be seen by anyone other than the people in charge of it. It should be seamless and smooth. Craig does it all with an expressionless face. The crowd is tense the way only spectators can be. Craig Kaufman is working.

It’s 6:00 pm. Jacks is sitting on the bench, stroking his chin gently. The Garnet are slowly feeling it and have cut the gap to four. 

It’s 6:29. Kaufman has quietly been making sure everything stays in order. Him and McKearney have been on top of everything media-related which has meant the game has run smoothly across the board. Jacks is still coaching although now RMC leads by only three. Hudak has been making sure the water bottles stay filled and everything is right on the Swarthmore bench. She has yet to return to the court. She likes it that way.

The game thunders to a climax. A contest that saw a combined 71 points in the first half won’t even crest 45 in the final 20 minutes.

Zac O’Dell drives the lane and lays it in with 90 seconds left to give Swarthmore a 55-54 lead with 90 seconds left. As people begin to trickle in for the next game the energy begins to grow. Jacks remains stoic on the bench.

Randolph-Macon responds with a three and gives Swarthmore the ball with 35 seconds to go and one last chance.

The Yellow Jackets try. They have no response.

 

Jacks is still stoic. Yes, he’s won a national title but he’s also felt deep stinging losses. He’s the last coach on the court for RMC. Buzz Anthony wraps his arm around teammate Corey Bays, who is in tears, and helps him off the floor. They’ll be back next year.

Hudak holds a good poker face. Kaufman is in his laptop making sure the stats are correct. The crowd is buzzing as the gears turn. Swarthmore 58, Randolph-Macon 57.

It’s 7:09. Hudak’s bag is packed and she is chatting with parents and fans of the team. The smiles flow like wine on New Year’s Eve. Victory tends to do that this time of year. The Garnet are in the Elite Eight.

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Nate Tenaglia

It’s 6:13. Nate Tenaglia sits on the front row of the bleachers with earbuds in. He keeps both hands around his phone lest he drop it. He and his Nichols College teammates are watching Swarthmore and the Yellow Jackets.

Tenaglia has had a hell of a road to get to this point. He will start tonight’s game for Nichols. The sophomore from Tewksbury, Massachusetts is arguably the greatest basketball player Tewksbury High has ever seen. A 1,000-point scorer who put in 38 points in his final high school game and helped lead them to great success.

But he’s most known for what happened in November. During a game at Fitchburg State, Tenaglia was on the receiving end of this elbow in a game that became a national story.

However, this season has been a good one for the sophomore. He has started 27 games and is averaging eight points, two rebounds, and nearly two steals a night. Tonight he will be asked to harness his manic energy in a powder keg of a gym against one of the perennial powerhouses of D3 basketball.

It’s 7:31. Tenaglia picks a steal and goes coast to coast before dumping it off to Matt Morrow for an easy layup. Nichols leads 2-0.

The building is electric. There’s arguably more Nichols fans than Amherst fans here. The Bison have connected with the student body in a way that is almost transcendent. In the conference final two weeks ago, on a neutral court, 3,000 people showed up to watch the Bison beat Gordon College. There are only 1,570 students at the school.

It’s 8:04. Nate only has two steals but he draws a foul while shooting a three and makes two shots. Amherst leads by a point.

It’s 8:07. We are tied at 24. The energy is building. Nichols star Marcos Echevarria is having a tough go of it. He is 15 points shy of 2,500 for his career but can’t find open space to shoot.

It’s hot in here. Actively hot. Not warm. Hot. It’s sub-freezing outside and you would never know it. This place is over capacity. People are standing behind the media table and camped out in corners or on riser steps. Wherever there is a spot with a view of the court there is a human occupying it. Craig Kaufman is in a black suit sitting between the benches with the Nichols students bearing down over his shoulder. 

It’s 8:10. Marcos hits a two at the horn. Tied at 26 at the half. There is no emotion from anyone. This is business, and it feels personal.

It’s 8:36. Tenaglia misses a rushed three. Things are grim for Nichols. Amherst leads by nine with 12 minutes to go.

It’s 8:40. Marcos hits a three. It is his 104th straight game hitting a three. That extends his NCAA record.

The sound fills your lungs when you breathe. No, this game isn’t on network TV. No, ESPN isn’t here. But this is the most important game in the universe right now. Nothing else matters except the events that transpire on this 94-foot long length of wood.

The attendance is announced as 1,900. It feels like 3,000. There are people five and six deep in the corners. There are Nichols students standing at the media table. 

It’s 8:41. Tenaglia gets in on the fun with a three of his own. The noise echoes in ribs. Amherst’s lead is down to five. Craig Kaufman still has his jacket on.

Nate Tenaglia isn’t an imposing person. Listed at 5’9 on the roster, his game is based on hustle, intelligence, and tenacity. He dives into jump ball situations and has to be restrained by teammates when he feels unjustly fouled. The energy he brings is contagious and borders on being too much. But he’s always harnessed it. That’s why he was a star in high school. That’s why he is a starter on one of the top teams in the country.

“He’s our backbone,” Nichols junior DeAnte Bruton said. “He’s our go-to guy. When we need a big play we depend on Nate. He doesn’t care. He’s so selfless as long as he brings the energy on defense. He’s just a warrior.”

Bradley Jacks and Randolph-Macon sit quietly in a corner of the end zone bleachers watching the game. In a room full of energy there is just malaise in this little corner.

It’s 8:51. The noise is incalculable. Tenaglia grabs a jump ball and calls for a timeout. He gets it. Bison lead 49-47 with 5:31 left.

Nichols extends the lead to seven before Marcos goes down from a hard fall and has to go through concussion protocol. Tenaglia leaves with a cramp. He works it out on the bench and then a little more while waiting to check back in. Nichols lead by seven.

Then Nichols lead by five. Then four. Then one. The Mammoths roar back to make it a one-point difference with 30 seconds left. Marcos makes a free throw. It’s 60-58.

Amherst has a chance. The ball pops loose.

It’s 9:12. Nate Tenaglia reaches into the scrum for a loose ball. A jump is called. Nichols possession. Marcos makes two shots right after. Nichols 62, Amherst 58. Final.

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Nate in victory.

The Nichols students pour out onto the court. One turns to the Amherst student section and says “Oh, is this your court? Is this your court?” He laughs as he gets no response.

It is their court, and they just got eliminated on it. The Bison advance to the first Elite Eight in program history. 

The PA announcer implores the crowd to leave the floor. Police officers flank the sidelines. No one wants to leave. No one wants this moment to end. No one in Nichols green & black wants this night to be over.

It’s 10:04. There’s eight people left in the gym. Hudak and Jacks are long gone. Tenaglia and his teammates were happily catching up with family and friends but are now gone too.

The facilities team is cleaning up. The Nichols SID is finishing his work. Another writer and I are filing. Craig Kaufman remains at the head table finishing his duties for the night. Tomorrow he will work a game featuring schools he doesn’t work for in a tournament that Amherst is no longer in.

The tournament stops for no one.