THP #27: The Unicorn

January 2, 2022 – Waterbury, Connecticut
Post University vs. Holy Family University
Men’s Basketball

Sports are the ultimate communal experience.

Games big and small are held in front of crowds, sometimes numbered by the dozen and sometimes by the hundreds of thousands. All operate as unscripted theatrical performances for those in attendance.

And through this project I’ve learned to love these games by myself. I find a great joy in being alone among the crowd. I feel the energy vibrate in my bones, and I dictate everything about my own experience.

There is no friend who showed up late or wanting to leave early. Someone’s being a buffoon near me? I can quietly get up and move someplace else.

I love the nameless friendships I make along the way. Just two people passing through a point in time experiencing it together and moving along on their own path. I’m not myopic about personal friendships, and I hold those close me as close as possible.

I just love being able to not have any requirements. There’s no bullshit icebreaker or forced conversation like at a work mixer or the first day of school. We’re both there for basketball. Nothing more. It’s freeingly honest.

It’s the main reason why I’ve only been joined on four of these stops. My dad came to Bowdoin, my brother to UMass, my friend Paul to URI, and my friend Clayton to Middlebury.

There’s a few more people I want to come along to a stop or two, but I enjoy walking alone. We’re told from a young age the importance of going out and doing things with our friends, and it’s damn important to be social and create stories with other people.

But the kid at school eating by himself is a loser. And people feel ashamed about going solo to a movie. Why? As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized it takes a ton of confidence to go it alone for an afternoon out and about.

And I enjoy running the day myself. I research where I want to go, figure out my timeline, and just go do it. Over the last few months I’ve realized that a lot of my anxieties stem from mentally going to the most catastrophic result for a situation I can’t control. Running the day lets me enjoy the process of making this blog and gives me a respite from the V10 engine that can be the anxiety in my head.

This project has been peaceful from day one and through the pandemic for me. And there’s plenty left to do.

Now, here’s your moment with Bella.

The Good Eats

I try to eat at a place in the city or town where the school is located, but located just eight miles away from Post, in the town of Woodbury, was Dottie’s Diner. Ranked as one of the top 15 diners in New England, it was a no-brainer to take the short drive west and get a meal.

Opened in 2006 with a retro 50’s theme, Dottie’s nails the diner aesthetic bang on.

The bright teal booths and checkerboard tile bring an energy to the room that a more staid palette wouldn’t.

It was breakfast so I kept it simple, the two egg combo with home fries, multigrain, and bacon. And I always add a single chocolate chip pancake at the diner.

It was damn good and well-portioned. When I ask for two eggs I want two eggs, not two big ladles of eggs to make a scramble the size of a football. The eggs were almost dry but still moist, how I like them, and the toast and home fries were crisp.

The bacon was from a nearby farm and was damn fine, and that pancake was perfect. A place will always have my heart when they garnish a chocolate chip pancake with more chocolate chips.

And on the way out I bought four donuts, two chocolate dipped and two vanilla dip for my wife and I to split. The donuts were ranked in the top 25 in the country so I had to try them.

What an awesome donut. It’s a simple food. Light, airy fried dough with a rich frosting on top. I’ve had a whole lot of mediocre donuts in my day (thanks Dunkin) and not many good ones. You can tell why this is a top donut in the country. And for $1.25 a piece I felt like a thief. 10/10, will donut again.

A quick aside about the humble spoon. I love the spoon. It is, in my opinion the most versatile piece of cutlery. I love using it to scoop my eggs and my homefries up with a little ketchup. And yet, I almost always need to ask for the spoon. It’s rarely provided at the table.

The spoon deserves better and far more admiration than it gets. The spoon is capable of more than just for scooping ice cream and soup. I use it for my eggs and when I eat fish and for stews when the meat is so soft it can glide right through. Love the spoon. It’s earned it.

The City

If asked to name the 12 most populated cities in New England no one would blame you for missing Waterbury. Even with a population of 114,000 it flies under the radar.

Waterbury Green

Located 30 miles southwest of Hartford down Route 84, Waterbury has a long rich history but has seen time pass it by in a lot of ways. Known as the Brass City for its manufacturing heritage when it was one of the nation’s biggest producers of brass and clocks, there’s a whole lot of empty storefronts and boarded buildings in town.

Palace Theater, downtown Waterbury

And even against the backdrop of a wet and gray Connecticut weekend, the city’s character still shown through. There was the Union Station clock tower. Beckoning across the city at 240 feet tall, the tower cuts a striking figure in the sky just as it did when it was built in 1909.

The 14th-tallest clock tower in the country, and the 52nd-tallest in the world, it is impossible to miss. It is currently home to the city’s newspaper, the Republican-American.

 

 

 

At the end of the town green sits the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. A beautiful stone building nearly a century old, the basilica can hold 1,500 parishioners.

Just down the street from the basilica was the Mattatuck Museum. Dedicated to artists from Connecticut and the history of the Nutmeg State, it was a chance to have a unique museum experience.

I started on the top floor at the button museum. Yes, a button museum. It had tens of thousands of buttons, made in Waterbury during its heyday as a brass and metal manufacturing hub.

It’s buttons of all types and constructions. Buttons that were displayed at World Expos many moons ago. Buttons for clothes. Buttons for decor. It is a room covered wall-to-wall in buttons.

The second floor was the art museum and featured a little of everything. Janet Maya’s Women/Strength/Beauty was beautiful, and the large gallery featured art across genres including a brilliantly surreal piece by Waterbury native George Marinko.

She, Her, Hers, Aura by Janet Maya
Hypothetical Gallipot by George Marinko

I like art that can stop me. I’ve seen plenty of portraits and plenty of landscapes. It doesn’t matter if the artist is world-renowned or local, they all eventually run together for me. Bright colors. Sharp lines. A piece that tells a story. That’s what I want.

Meant to evoke memories of Sunday dances at the Savoy in Harlem, Faith Ringgold’s Groovin High is kinetic, brilliant, full of things to see.

Groovin’ High by Faith Ringgold

And lastly, there was a special exhibition featuring the muses and work of Norman Rockwell that featured the only photograph credited to him. It was as Rockwellian a piece as I had ever seen.

Done on commission from Eastman Kodak in 1957, the piece was shot at a cottage in the small Long Island hamlet of Quogue from a camera mounted atop a station wagon.

In typical Rockwell fashion, the image is brightly colored and heavy on narrative, in this case, multiple narratives.

Closing Up a Summer Cottage by Norman Rockwell (Art Director)

It was a lovely art museum, and if I had more time I’m sure I would have loved the history portion as well. An excellent museum that is worth a stop if you’re riding through central Connecticut.

And on the way out there was a legitimate one-horse open sleigh. I promise, this will not be the last time Jingle Bells appears during The Hoops Project.

The Campus

Post University is the unicorn of New England college basketball because it is the lone for-profit university that has NCAA athletics in the region.

Founded in 1890 as the Matoon Shorthand School, it became Post College in 1931 and changed to a university in 2004. However, in between that, it was known as  Teikyo Post University in the 90s due to the school’s affiliation with Tokyo’s Teikyo University.

It moved to its current location in 1965.

Torrance Hall, home to admissions and the president’s office

However, on this Sunday it was too quiet. Yes, it was holiday break and it was still pandemic season but it was frighteningly quiet. There were five cars on the main part of campus and three people, including myself.

Add to that, all the buildings except for Torrance felt sterile and forboding.

Some of the dormitories
Post University Tree, a common gathering spot. Added to list of Connecticut’s Noble Trees in 2014.

Even in broad daylight I felt like I had to tiptoe around lest I woke something up. Seeing two people working out on the football field was startling because everything was so still and quiet. I’ve never been on a campus so silent that it bordered on spooky, but that’s what it was on this afternoon.

The Game

A short drive down the hill from the main campus was the Drubner Center, known as The Drub. Despite having the look of a strip mall daycare center, the Drub is the beating heart of Eagle sports.

Main lobby at Drubner

Now, I’d thought I’d long ago found the smallest gym in New England, but Drubner may take that title. With just five rows of seats and four feet between the baseline and the wall, it is as cramped as can be and made for a great place to watch a game.

The free admission certainly helped too.

Before the game I pulled out a chocolate chip cookie I purchased on an impulse as I walked out the door of Dottie’s. Gooey, toothsome, and crunchy on the edges it was my new #1 chocolate chip cookie in New England. Best way to prep for a game.

Part of the Central Athltetic Collegiate Conference, Post is one of two Division II schools in New England to not be in the Northeast-10. It’s the eastern outpost of an all-private league full of mostly religious schools in the Mid-Atlantic. On this day the Eagles welcomed Holy Family in from Philadelphia.

And early on it was a fun one as the teams traded buckets. Seven minutes into the game Post held a slim 14-11 lead. But then Post turned up the wick on both sides of the ball.

The Eagles found ways to open up the Tigers inside and out. By the midway point of the half Post had opened up a nine-point lead.

Post put the game away on the back of a ridiculous press defense that Holy Family simply didn’t adjust to as well as the shooting of junior guard Tyler Small.

After being held to just three points in the first nine minutes, Small finished the first half with 17 and would end the game with an insane career-high of 29 points on 59% shooting as well as 7-11 from three.

As for that defense, take a look for yourself. Small pokes the steal and sends Devonte McCall in for the highlight.

Post led 50-29 at halftime, and the game was well and truly over even before the intermission.

In the second half the Eagles kept pouring it on and the Tigers kept not adjusting.

Led by Small, Post finished with four players in double figures. McCall had 14 points in just 18 minutes of play, David Jasson had 18, and Abdul-Basit Ajia had a double-double with 10 points and 11 boards.

And the Eagles outrebounded the Tigers 56-29 to boot. It was as thorough a domination as I’ve seen in three seasons of this project.

I’ll let Tyler Small play us out.

Post 93, Holy Family 55. Final.
Player of the Game: Tyler Small (Post) – 29 pts, 4 rbd, 3 ast, 3 stl
Time of game: 1:32:44

After a month of adjusting to being a dog owner it felt real nice to get back in the saddle and be back in a gym. While Division III basketball is my spiritual home, I do enjoy the speed of a good Division II game. It’s just a shame that there aren’t many D2 options in New England.

I don’t think I’ll be back down at Post much, but I loved being there to take this little snapshot and tell its story. Not every game is going to be a classic, but every stop is a moment that I’m grateful to document. Thanks for reading.

And with that, here’s one for the road:

 

 

THP #26: Something Different

December 2, 2021 – Nashua, New Hampshire
Rivier University v Lasell University
Women’s Basketball

I take this project probably too seriously. I have a long history of conceiving creative ideas, starting them, and fading down the stretch. I have an advice book 15,000 words deep and a novel I’ve started three times.

I have a feature documentary sitting 90% done that’s been sitting for five years. It’s a deep source of personal embarrassment even if it isn’t a major public thing.

And so with this project, I’ve made sure to invest fully into it. To quote one of my favorite TV characters, Mike Ehrmantraut, no half measures.

I knew it was going to take a long time to complete. As of now there’s roughly 110 or so colleges to get to in New England. I want to go full send and just run wild. Go 15, 20 a season and laser in on putting a bow on this.

But that’s not how my life has gone, and I think it would ruin the spirit of the project which, for me, is one of personal growth and learning about where I live.

And since I’ve started a lot has changed. Got married, bought a house, survived Covid, and now this:

This is Bella, our beautiful new coyote. Having her means I can’t run around New England with reckless abandon but it also means that I have a responsibility I desperately didn’t know I needed in my life.

I’m still on the grind, and I’ll still be at gyms. I’m super excited to keep growing personally and creatively through this project.

And once she’s more comfortable and better trained, you might even see Bella with me at a gym or two. She’s the people’s dog so come say hi.

The Good Eats

There’s a lot of small colleges in New England. One of my driving factors for school selection this season is to get to as many small schools as possible because who knows how many years some of these have left.

The UConns and Boston Colleges of the world will be fine, but small schools a bit off the beaten path? I don’t know. And while Rivier seems to have a solid future everything can change quick so I found myself peeling off Route 3 for my second stop in New Hampshire.

I rolled into Nashua at 6:15 for a game that started at seven. I didn’t have time to sit down and do the wine & dine. That was fine. I love a good meal, but I find most restaurants to be a bit bullshit.

I’d like to think I’m a pretty keen home cook and I can make a damn fine slab of salmon or steak in my own kitchen for far cheaper than a similar piece at a fancy eatery. If I’m going to go out I want to get something I can’t make at home. So I went to Main Street Gyro.

Main Street in Nashua is one of the most underrated food streets in New England. Restaurants everywhere in a city of 95,000 brings out the quality because only the good survive.

A small spot with the spirit of a hole in the wall, it’s exactly what you need when you’re hungry in a pinch.

I kept it simple and got their traditional pork gyro. It was pork off the rotisserie with tzatziki, onion, tomato, fries, and parsley on a fresh toasted pita. At a shade under $10, it’s cheaper than a fast food meal and far superior.

And it came in a paper bag so you know it’s legit.

Yes, it tasted as good as it looked. Down the road was a bougie tavern that brewed their own beer in house and had the dim lighting and “ambience” of a proper restaurant. I can promise, this gyro was better.

The City

Having a new puppy in the house meant there was no time to have a big, expansive journey of the city even if it was a city I’d been familiar with almost my entire life.

I had my 11th birthday at a Nashua Pride game at Holman Stadium. The small 3,000-seat stadium was home to the first integrated team in baseball with the Don Newcombe/Roy Campaneall Nashua Dodgers of 1946.

There’s the football stadium and the high schools that I’d been covering games at for decades. There’s the bars and restaurants I’d had dinner and drinks with friends on and off over the years.

So I walked.

And walking around Main Street in Nashua gave me the opportunity to see the things I had always missed throughout the years. There were the long, wide sidewalks that were perfect for a stroll, and there was art. So much art just out there for people to see.

Every painting a chance to appreciate something new and for myself. Art is subjective. I can look at the painting of the woman in the wave and tell you that I felt that blue in bones. I don’t know what that means but it’s how the piece made me feel.

It was brief but it was lovely.

The Game

Rivier University sits at the far end of Main street, its entrance located on a rotary. A small Catholic school with a shade under 1,000 undergraduates, it’s a bit hidden despite being in a big city.

Walking around, it has all the trappings of a small New England college. Big brick buildings and a brand new science building along with some charming green spaces gives the campus a very un-urban feel despite being in such a large city.

Science and Innovation Center

Founded in 1933, Rivier was a women’s-only school until going co-ed in 1991.

The Game

The Muldoon Fitness Center is the hub of athletics at Rivier. Opened in 2011, Muldoon houses all the offices and training facilities for the athletic program.

The gym itself is small and cozy. Sitting just a few hundred people, every seat is on top of the action.

Once the game tipped the action immediately picked up as both teams found ways to score with ease. Buckets came easily as Lasell took a 22-21 lead after a quarter.

In the second, business stayed hot as both teams found ways to score inside and out.

The pace was blistering as it felt like neither team could miss.

Halftime came and it was Lasell 41-40 after 20 minutes and set up for a chaotic second half.

What made it even more exciting was having Lyric Grumblatt and Meg Carroll on the court. Grumblatt, a sophomore for Rivier, is currently second in all of Division III averaging 25.3 points a game. Carroll, a senior for Lasell, is currently seventh in the country with 23.2 points a game.

At halftime each had 11.

After the break, the game slowed down a bit but the energy remained. Buckets were traded early before Rivier opened a five-point lead in the third on the back of five points from Grumblatt.

But Lasell found a way to flip the script and turn the deficit into a 57-55 lead with 10 minutes to play.

Lasell kept fighting on to hold the lead but the Raiders would not go quietly into the New Hampshire night.

But the fourth was all about Carroll. The Lasers scored 16 points in the final quarter and Carroll put in 14 of them, including every field goal.

A Grumblatt layup in the final minute made it a three-point game. But with less than 20 second left Carroll showed once again why it was her night.

Lasell 72, Rivier 67. Final
Meg Carroll: 28 points, 15 rebounds.
Time of game: 1:37:24

There’s something nice about getting back to a familiar town. Nashua is a place that feels very in hand-in-glove to me. And this Rivier team looks to have a bright future ahead of it. If you’re ever passing through stop in and see a game. This team is worth it.

And, in honor of my new pup, here’s one for the road.

THP #25: Top of The Bell Curve

November 18, 2021 – Providence, Rhode Island
Providence College v New Hampshire
Men’s Basketball

I love this TED Talk by Roman Mars about the importance of design and how we take good design for granted.

When a building is designed well we regularly miss the flow and rhythm of the structure. It’s so good and ingrained that we pass through without much care unless you know what to look for. A well-designed building can quietly be a piece of art.

But a poorly-designed building? Those fuckers will frustrate you from sun up to sundown. Any building that makes you sigh when you’re in it is a mood and a bad one at that.

When it comes to a basketball arena I find that there are a few key things that a building must achieve to be considered good.

1. Every seat must have a good vantage point of the court. No seat should make you ask “really, they charge money to sit here?”

2. Getting in and out of the arena must be easy and common sense. If getting to or from your car is disorienting then there’s a problem.

3. There needs to be a good sound system. If you can’t hear the announcements then the room needs to be smaller.

4. We all know that arena concessions are a con, but at least let me feel like I’m getting something of value and not standing in a glorified bread line.

Now what if I told you that second-largest college basketball venue in New England fails to check all of those boxes? Would be pretty wild, right?

Welcome to the Dunkin Donuts Center AKA The Dunk AKA The Civic Center AKA The Top of the Bell Curve.

But before seeing basketball I needed hot dogs. Excuse me, I mean hot weiners.

The Good Eats

Located in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, New York System is an institution. Sharing a wall with Fete Music Hall, home to some of my favorite memories in professional wresting, New York System is the best.

You can walk in and have a weiner in your hand within 10 seconds. And, in my opinion, you absolutely must order them all the way which entails a steamed weiner (made of a beef/veal/pork blend) in a steamed bun topped with mustard, meat sauce, raw onion, and celery salt.

Just look at these masterpieces.

My order when I go is the special, two all the way with fries, and a burger and diet coke. Considering it was 5:30 and I hadn’t eaten all day it may as well have been the best meal of my life.

And the building is small. You can practically reach over the counter and cook the food yourself. It’s one of the few places where I always find myself in conversations with people whose names I’ll never know. It’s convivial. Familiar.

I’ve eaten at some relatively high-end places on my travels. None of them hold a candle to this. If you’re in Rhode Island or traveling through on 95, hop off and eat here. It’s going since the 40s for a reason.

Getting to the Arena

That’s a new section heading and you’ll never see it again. It’s necessary here because to get to the Dunkin Donuts Center is a herculean feat in its own right.

Situated in the heart of downtown Providence, the best place to park for a game at the Dunk is the parking garage of the Providence Place Mall which has thousands of spots and is only $2. Are there places closer? Yes. But there is no lot cheaper and, more importantly, larger than the one at Providence Place.

Now, parking in a garage to go to a game in a city is a regular occurence. I’ve done it in Boston and Hartford and Worcester and Manchester. However, all of those have one thing in common: you park, leave the garage, and take a short walk up the street to the building. Easy.

But not here. No. That would be too easy. What you can watch below is my eight-minute journey from my car to the Dunk. I promise, it is unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Why is the mall fully carpeted? Who signed off on that? Who is the sparkling thoughtmaker that decided to fully carpet a mall that is more than a million square feet?

The Arena

The Dunkin Donuts Center is big. It can hold 13,000 people for basketball and, when the opponent is a big enough name, Providence fans will pack it.

However, when the opponent doesn’t pass muster, the Dunk can be a sparse house.

The arena also hosts the AHL’s Providence Bruins and events as diverse as pro wrestling and the circus to concerts of all types. And as a multi-purpose arena it just doesn’t really fit anything well. It’s made even more striking because the best college basketball arena in New England is also in Rhode Island.

But being hemmed in by the mall on one side, Route 95 on another, and the heart of downtown on another created an oddly-shaped building that is bad for basketball.

Here’s the view from one of the top rows of the building. Notice how half the jumbotron is blocked by the banners because the roof is so low. The sound system is akin to the teacher from Charlie Brown at those heights.

Now here’s the view from a seat on the floor. This is a real seat that could be yours for $525 for the season.

What a lovely view with a whole side of the court blocked and the endline blocked by a table of media people. To sell this ticket, in my opinion, is the equivalent of theft. At least the seat at the top of the building is a victim of poor arena design. This one is insulting.

The only plus to this seat is that you’re right next to the Providence band, and it’s one of the best in New England.

Underneath feels like a dirge. Even with an $80 million dollar upgrade/renovation in 2005, the Dunk is blah. I’ve been here when it’s at capacity. It’s almost unsafe trying to get through the halls. But at least you can get a tallboy for $10.

And the greatest ignominy of all was the Dunkin Donuts in the arena wasn’t even open.

The Game

On paper it was a pretty straightforward game between a high-major team and a local one-bid opponent. Thing is, despite having a marked size disadvantage, UNH came to win.

The Friars jumped to a 20-9 lead. Rather than fold up, the Wildcats chipped away through the rest of the first half to get back within range. This three by Qon Murphy cut the gap to three.

It became tennis toward the end of the first half as both teams kept answering the other.

Nate Watson was a big ole problem for the Friars. The grad student was a nightmare for UNH to defend on the inside and made sure to keep the Wildcats at bay on the defensive end.

Even getting switched over to a Qon Murphy, Watson still gets back to get the swat.

Murphy would finish with a team-high 15 points for UNH off the bench.

UNH got to taste the spoils of adjusting and bouncing back early in the second half when they took the lead. With 16 minutes left UNH took a 40-39 lead.

Providence quickly retook the lead and blew it up to a dozen, but UNH kept chipping back and staying in it. Nick Guadarrama floated this one in, and he finished with 13 points.

But I did say earlier that Providence did have a size advantage and it showed down the stretch. The Friars finished +14 in rebounds and pulled away late.

Nate Horchler finished with a double-double of 10 points an 12 rebounds. All of his points came in the second half, and he had the honors of dropping the dagger.

Providence 69, New Hampshire 58. Final.
Time of game: 1:50:00

With about a minute left in the game the refs called a jump ball on a tie-up. The fans behind me were incensed with the call and loudly rode the officials for nearly a minute about how horrible the call was. Providence had the arrow.

Maybe they were traumatized by the mascot.

Anyway, that’s the Dunk. Let’s meet somewhere else next time. Here’s one for the road.

 

THP #24: Past Life

November 15, 2021 – Quincy, Massachusetts
Eastern Nazarene College vs Plymouth State
Women’s Basketball

It’s a weird feeling when you remember here but it’s a foreign place.

I used to spend a good chunk of time around these parts. My wife’s first apartment was one town over from Quincy (pronounced KWINzee), and she lived there for 2.5 years.

I spent many a night with her and we drove a lot of the same roads I drove on this day. But it had been years since I’d been back. It was a constant feeling of mental strain as I slowly pieced together the roads and how I remembered them.

We still live in Massachusetts, about an hour away, but even in that short distance so much misses you. So many times throughout the day I felt a vault unlock in my mind as I remembered how I remembered where I was.

The false demon that is nostalgia crept in a lot on this cold November day. I was fondly remembering a place that was a B-side in my life. Sure, my wife and I spent some time in Quincy but she lived in Weymouth. It was putting those sweet memories onto a place that for the most part wasn’t involved. That’s why nostalgia is a demon, it’s a tricky motherfucker.

But there I was, on Wollaston Beach, my feet touching the icy waters of the Atlantic, Boston beckoning to my left, wondering how life would be different if this was my home. I love where we’re at now. I’ll always wonder what other paths in life I unknowingly walked past while marching toward the one I’m on now.

Anyway, here’s some dead presidents.

The City

 

The sign says it all. The second and seventh presidents of the United States were born and raised in Quincy. The houses still stand today, the first stops on the city’s Presidents’ Trail.

They currently are on an intersection across from McKay’s Diner and down the street from the Goodfella’s Barber Shop.

My wife and I had a lovely breakfast one day at McKay’s. It was a spring day and I remember walking out into the sun and seeing a large group gathered in front of these houses wondering what was going on. I casually saw a sign and thought “oh, just another colonial tour thing”.

That day hit me like a truck once I realized that today I was on my own colonial tour. One of my beliefs is that we don’t intrinsically know that time is passing. We only know based on outside queues. We see an old movie on TV. We get a high school reunion letter. We realize what the building across from the diner actually is.

And it all hits at once at the weirdest times “Damn, some time’s passed.” It’s a nice feeling though once the initial blast wears off. Being able to recognize the passage of time is better than the other option.

Across town is the United First Parish Church. It is an active Unitarian Universalist parish and it is the resting place of John, Abigail, John Quincy, and Louisa Adams. The church offers tours of the building as well as the tombs beneath it. And if I had known that tour season ended two days earlier I’d have been there.

The structure though is imposing and striking, especially as modern Quincy, a city of 100,000 has grown around it.

A statue of John Hancock stands in the courtyard next to the church, he was born in what is now Quincy and was then a part of Braintree. But what interested me most was across the way: the Hancock cemetery.

I’ve mentioned in the past how I find a serene calm when I’m in cemeteries. I find them to be peaceful and full of stories lost to time. The Adams’ were initially buried here before getting interred in the church. Many people who fought and lived through the American Revolution are buried here.

So much of the war is basically a myth today. It’s so old as to feel like a fictional story full of cartoonish men in weird hats and wigs even if its effects can still be felt. But many of these stones were just people trying to get by.

I stared at the stone of Betsey L. Nash for a good while. That epitaph is brutal. One word that says everything. I dug around a bit online and found out that she had six children, one may have died as a child. In her listing in the 1870 census her profession was simply “keeping house.”

She lived a long life. Was it good? Did she enjoy motherhood? What are her ancestors doing today? So many questions in a single stone.

The Good Eats

Being a city of just over 100,000 people, good food options are easy to find in Quincy. On this day I went bar fare and stopped at Assembly on Hancock Street.

It was what you would expect from a modern bar atmosphere. Lots of TVs, a big bar, and exposed brick.

As I tend to do, I opened with a Caesar salad. It tasted great and may have made my top four in New England if not for three little things. Can you spot them?

Now, I like tomatoes, but a Caesar salad is no place for them. Otherwise, a quality salad.

For the main I went with the special: baby back ribs with fries and cole slaw.

Had the nice modern plating complete with the slaw in a gravy boat. And it was damn good. The ribs were the perfect point of easily coming off the bone while not falling like snow in a blizzard. I just wish there were one or two more of them.

A quick aside about the humble french fry. A quality fry can elevate an entire dish the same way a floppy, lifeless fry can ruin one. The fries at Assembly were perfectly crisp and salted and made for a better meal. However, in the larger scheme, I believe that a good french fry, when part of the plate, is the engine that makes the meal go.

Sure, people call it a “burger and fries” and not  “fries and a burger” but without a quality french fry to act as the backbone of the meal the burger or the steak or the ribs coast by and are just fine. But a good fry…a good french fry holds it all together. Respect and love the good fries of the world for they do more than we give them credit for.

For a sweet treat I went across town to Fratelli’s Bakery. It was everything you would want in a local bakery.

It was the type of place where everything was fresh.

It wasn’t just baked goods. There were sauces and marinades and salad dressings made in house. And even homemade flavored blends of panko breadcrumbs were for sale. I have never seen anything like that before.

But I was here for the baked goods and, as I usually do, I went with the classic chocolate chip cookie. When done right, it is the perfect treat.

And this was among the best I’d ever had. It was odd. It was a touch cakier than I usually like but damn if it wasn’t a nearly flawless cookie. Perfectly salted, used the good chocolate, and chewy in the best way.

Big thank you to Danielle with the cool green highlights in her hair for selling me on this because it was absolutely worth it.

I also walked out the door with a cinnamon stick for my wife and a box of muffins for us.

Fratelli’s is just down the road from the original Dunkin Donuts. I went there once with my wife. We were 10 days away from celebrating one year together.

I went to Fratelli’s today, seven days before we celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary. Driving by my past life on the way to my present and future wasn’t lost on me as I walked out of the bakery.

The Campus

If I wasn’t specifically driving to Eastern Nazarene College I wouldn’t have known it was there. I was a tenth of a mile from the campus and there was nary a sign that a college was nearby.

With an undergraduate population of just a shade over 600 students, it was easy for the school to hide within the city.

Founded in 1900 as the Pentecostal Collegiate Institute in 1900 in Rhode Island, the college moved to its current location and changed its name in 1919. The Wollaston Church of the Nazarene sits on the campus quad.

I’ve been on dozens of college campuses in my travels. This was the first time I felt like an interloper walking the grounds in the mid-afternoon. A man was walking his dog by the student center and I felt him watching me as I walked around the quad and the Babcock Arboretum on campus.  Strange vibe.

The Game

Like the rest of the campus, the Lahue Physical Education Center, built in 1973, was more brick and concrete.

Lahue is the hub of Lions’ athletics. The basketball and volleyball teams play here and there are locker rooms and batting cages and all the other accoutrements an athletic department needs.

A small lobby features a fetching trophy case showcasing the school’s championships.

The gym itself was in line with many other D3 programs in New England. Bleachers on both sides, little distance between the fans and the floor, and a smell of lacquer permeating throughout. That’ll always be one of my favorite smells.

At the far end of the gym hung the proudest banner in program history: a Sweet Sixteen banner from 2000.

And New England better be ready because this team is going to be a problem. Sure, the NECC is a four-team league but the Lions are a veteran squad that plays suffocating defense and team ball on offense.

Eastern Nazarene led Plymouth 17-15 after the first quarter before opening it up on offense and locking it down on defense.

Everything was more for the Lions. More ball movement. More screens. More open looks. More buckets.

This three put the Lions up seven early in the second and the lead kept growing before they took a 13-point lead into the break.

The Panthers simply had no answer for the variety of looks Eastern Nazarene threw at them.

Now’s the part I’d transition to the second half but I’d be a goon if I didn’t share that it was on this Monday that I witnessed the greatest halftime entertainment in the history of college basketball.

According to the guy in the Sean Taylor jersey, the school has an intramural dodgeball league and this was a sort of all-star game.

In the second half, Eastern Nazarene did more of the same to Plymouth State. The Panthers tried like hell to score, but the Lions wouldn’t break. ENC picked 17 steals in the win and forced 26 turnovers. Take a look at the instincts the players have in the zone. It feels like there’s six or seven out there.

The Lions took it to the final horn and kept the pedal down to blow Plymouth State away. There are some big teams on the schedule this year, a few NESCAC opponents, Brandeis, in-conference rival Mitchell has a strong team too. All of them are going to have a tough time with Eastern Nazarene.

Eastern Nazarene 69, Plymouth State 45
Time of game: 1:30:42
Player of the game: Alondra Jimenez (ENC) – 16 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals

History, whether personal or national, is all a bit of a ruse. The people buried in the cemetery and under the church are just a fraction of the whole tale of the story of Quincy and the myriad names it was known as before European colonialization.

These roads and who I was when I last drove them are a fraction of who I was and who I am today. I’m not sure why I felt a longing while in the car. Maybe it was because time is the true currency and having lived it I can’t live it again. I’d like to. I want to fall in love and grow again with my wife.

Those moments are locked in their own time capsule though, a beloved capsule, still locked away unable to be done again.

Each of these stops makes a memory that’ll be locked away all the same, unable to be done again. Better to have been remembered than be unknown I guess.

Thanks for reading. Here’s one for the road.

 

THP#23: Pain

October 25, 2021 – Smithfield, Rhode Island
Bryant University v Nichols College
Men’s Basketball

Why am I doing this? Why am I firing up the car and making towns for the blog for a third year?

Responsibility.

Sure, this is a personal creative project, but beyond that it’s far more important to me. It is the responsibility of taking something to the finish line. I’ve started so many projects in my life and seen them fizzle to dust.

I have 15,000 words of a book buried in an old computer. I’ve stopped and started writing my novel three times. I have a 72-minute feature documentary that sits on a friend’s hard drive on Long Island because we couldn’t get the financing to finish it.

And that was all true back in 2019 when I conceived of this project. I just wanted to do something wholly my own that I could look back on and say “Shit, I did that.”

And in the intervening years, especially now, this project, like college basketball overall, has been a major anchoring point in my life as I’ve seen my mental health spiral, rebound, and bounce around all over the place.

I’m trawling the websites of every college in New England as early as August looking for any scheduling nuggets. Sometimes colleges post unfinished schedules and I even pull those up too. Anything to find my anchor and right my ship. Something to keep me upright and on course for port.

Keeping the ship upright is one of the major reasons why I keep pushing myself forward with this. Knowing my anchor is there, keeping me grounded, is everything.

And I really, really like the gyms and the vibes and the food and the people I meet along the way. I just want to better enjoy the company of myself. The miles are very real and the majority of these games I’m by myself with myself.

I don’t know what to do to better enjoy the company I have on the ride out to wherever I’m going. I can run from it with music and podcasts and YouTube videos but every runner always needs a drink.

I’m thirsty.

The Good Eats

Being back in Rhode Island brings with it a whole bunch of memories. I went to the University of Rhode Island, and eternally have a soft spot for the smallest state in the Union.

And one of my favorite things is how fucking weird this place is. Being so small, Rhode Island depserately clings onto anything homegrown and pumps it every chance it gets.

“I just finished my hot weiner as I drove by the Big Blue Bug and am going to get a coffee milk cabinet before I get home.”

That’s a real sentence that would perfectly make sense to any Rhode Islander. In any other state it reads as well as Kanji or Cyrilic. The translation is below.

“I just finished my hot dog as I drove past the extermination company’s mascot and am going to get a coffee-flavored milkshake before I get home.”

Which brings us to Newport Creamery.

A small chain with a dozen locations all in either Rhode Island or in Massachusetts towns bordering Rhode Island, the Creamery is an Ocean State institution.

I can’t walk into one and not feel warm and familiar even though I never went to one growing up. There are small chains like this throughout the country. Every one has familiar food, familiar feelings, and good prices.

I kept it simple on what was a cold, gloomy Monday night. Cheeseburger club with fries.

It was damn good. It was homey. It was something I needed on the day.

But at the Newport Creamery you can’t leave without getting an Awful Awful. Made with different flavors of syrup and a proprietary ice milk, the Awful Awful is the star of the show. As it says on the cup, awful big awful good.

I went junior because I just turned 30 and suddenly I don’t vibe as well with dairy as I used to. Still wasn’t going to say no. My flavor was chocolate. Next time I’ll get the chocolate mint.

The Game

Bryant University is the enigma of Rhode Island college basketball. Every other college in the state is either in Providence or in some way connected to the waterfront and beach culture of the Atlantic.

Bryant is in Smithfield, a small town in north-central Rhode Island a good 30-45 minutes from the oceanside. A private university founded in 1863, the current campus is on land that was donated by alum Earl Tupper in 1971.

You might be familiar with his most famous invention: Tupperware.

The Chace Athletic Center is the beating heart of Bryant sports. Home of the gymnasium, the swimming pool, team offices, the works, places like the Chace are common among low-major schools. And it’s a lovely building. Bright, full of energy, plenty of schools would love to have a building like it.

The gym is a cozy 2,670, and would be electric when it’s filled.

Despite being an exhibition game there was still plenty of juice in the room because Nichols showed out. With a strong recent history of success at the Division III level, it was the Nichols student section and cheerleaders that brought the energy early.

The schools being separated by only 26 miles certainly didn’t hurt either.

I will eternally have a soft spot for Nichols. They were the main protagonists in the best college basketball experience of my life, and for that I will always have a place in my heart for the Bison.

And early on, they controlled the game. A few pieces from the Elite Eight team in 2019 still remained, and the uptempo energy punched Bryant in the face early.

It was even throughout the opening segments of the first half. Bryant had the bigger size but the Bison were wily and kept the Bulldogs in check.

Halfway through the first half it was only 20-16 Bryant and the place was buzzing. Eventually Bryant shook free a bit but the lead hung at a dozen late in the half, and the large Nichols contingent was feeling like an improbable comeback was possible.

Now, allow me to introduce you to Charles Pride.

Those ended a run of four straight threes by Pride to cap a 24-point first half. The last one made it 53-31 and the Bulldogs rolled from there. Pride finished 29 points an 11 rebounds. Erickson Bans had 19 points, five boards, and five assists.

Jason O’Regan finished with 18 points and eight rebounds to lead Nichols.

Bryant 107, Nichols 71. Final
Time of game – 2:06:34

Yeah, I knew this would probably be an unbalanced game, but I wasn’t going to say no to basketball so early in the season. And Bryant is looking to be one of the better mid-majors in New England this year so keep an eye on them. Plenty more to come this season. Thank you for reading.

And now, here’s one for the road.

 

 

THP #22: Division II

March 5, 2021 – Springfield, Massachusetts
American International College v Franklin Pierce
Men’s Basketball

There are more than 110 stops on The Hoops Project. Only 11 are in Division II.

Division II basketball is the four-leaf clover of basketball in New England, and the lone league in town is the Northeast-10.

I’ve been around the league as a fan and a reporter for 15 years. I got to follow Bentley’s run at the top of the division many years ago, and I got to cover some of Saint Anselm’s run to the final four in 2019.

The basketball is good, and the league is always top-shelf.

D2 is strange in how it structures its season. The NCAA tournament is built out of eight regional brackets and winning games in region is key. This leads to a final Elite Eight rather than a Final Four like in the other two divisions.

The schools are also a bit of a curiosity in their own right. While Division I is full of flagship state schools and universities with 30,000+ students, and Division III is composed of numerous small state schools and top academic institutions, D2 sits in the middle.

In New England, 10 of the 11 D2 schools are small, private schools. More than half are Catholic institutions.

In my time as a fan I’ve seen UMass-Lowell, Bryant, and Merrimack move from the NE10 up to Division I. It’s a great league, and I’m happy to finally have it as part of The Hoops Project.

Now let me tell you about the dinosaurs.

The City

Springfield is the third largest city in Massachusetts with a population of 153,000 and is about 90 minutes west of Boston.

It’s a city with a rich history and is the hub of culture and commerce in Western Massachusetts.

Downtown Springfield

The Springfield Museums consortium is wonderful. A five-museum campus with two art museums, the Dr. Seuss museum, a science museum, and a museum of Springfield history, it really is a cut above.

Now, this is a basketball blog so what about the Basketball Hall of Fame? There were only certain time blocks I could buy tickets for and I wasn’t able to match that up. The Hall will be visited in a future trip to Hoop City.

But today I found time for the Springfield Science Museum, and it was a delight.

It was a perfect museum. Sure, it didn’t have the scale and gravitas of something like the Chicago Field Museum, but it was an excellent education tool and was a totally fun way to spend an afternoon.

And there was a dinosaur room. Nothing can prepare you for turning through a normal hallway door and coming face-to-face with a T-Rex.

I audibly gasped when I saw it. In my head of course I know a T-Rex is a big, but to see a full-sized replica from ground level was awe-inspiring. The picture does not do justice to its full size.

And right across from it was a replica stegosaurus skeleton. We still don’t know what the plates on its back were designed for.

There was also an exhibit with live reptiles and sea life, both local and exotic. This is what I love about local museums. You can see the work that went into maximizing resources to deliver a memorable experience for everyone who comes through the door.

Boa constrictor
The moose diorama.

Like, look at this obsidian. I love rocks like these. They may as well be alien considering how precise the conditions are to foster their creation, and yet I was able to press my forehead against the glass and see it for myself.

This is why I love stopping into small museums. There’s always something magical hiding in plain sight.

Big chonk of Obsidian

The Good Eats

I’m not going to tell you that The Student Prince is a must-try restaurant but I’m not going to give you a recommendation anywhere else in town.

The German eatery at the corner of Fort and Main Streets has been a Springfield institution since 1935.

Visually, the restaurant is striking for its endless drinking ephemera. Hundreds of beer steins sit above the bar and the tables, and a huge collection of bottle openers are displayed along the walls of the restaurant.

It’s homey without being a cliche.

The bar
A small selection of the bottle opener collection
Even more bottle openers

But every bit of ambience will fall flat if the food sucks, and the food is worth the trip.

For an appetizer I went with the adorable Hurley burgers. Small, bite-sized burgers topped with cheese and atop a ketchup slathered piece of toast.

Those adorable Hurley burgers

They were juicy in a way that only fresh-ground beef can be. For $2 a burger it was a perfect little starter.

But this was a German restaurant. That meant only one thing was on the menu for me: wienerschnitzel.

Now that was a meal. I went with the veal and it was perfectly breaded and fried. You can see the anchovy & lemon garnish that paired beautifully with it. The fries were great too. Bad fries can ruin a meal, but good fries can elevate a dish and boy did these fries pass with flying colors.

And then there was the sleeper hit, the fresh cucumber salad. It’s not like you can get that at most places so I had to try it, and it was great. It balanced that perfect sweet & sour balance while keeping the cucumbers crisp. The parsley garnish added a fresh dynamic to round it out.

If you told me I could go to one of America’s best restaurants and have two courses for less than $35 I’d have laughed at you, but that’s how it goes at The Student Prince. If you’re ever in town, or just passing through, pull off and grab a bite here. It’ll be worth your time and your money.

The Campus

American International College was founded in 1885 as a French Protestant college to serve the city’s diaspora population. Seven years later, in 1892, it became the first college in New England to admit women.

Today, it is a small liberal arts college of 1700 students. The campus itself is quite nice, but the location is strange.

It is wedged between State Street and Wilbraham road, which are both major, multi-lane thoroughfares through Springfield although the athletics facilities are about a mile drive from the main campus.

Despite the odd location, the quadrangle is still quite nice.

Campus quadrangle

The Game

Henry Butova Gymnasium is named for the first coach in program history. Butova only coached the inaugural 1948-49 season and also coached baseball and football for the college.

The most famous coach to stroll the sidelines was Jim Larranaga, who coached the Yellow Jackets from 1977-1979, and a decade prior, Jim Calhoun captained AIC and led them to the Elite Eight.

Tonight though it was AIC taking on conference rival Franklin Pierce.

The one constant this season has been the pregame. The mood’s felt like any other game minus the lack of crowd noise. It’s relaxing.

Despite this being their first, and only official, game of the season due to Covid protocols, Franklin Pierce looked good out the gate, and the game was even early. The Ravens led by a point 13 minutes into the game, and neither could break away.

It had the mesmerizing flow that only the lower divisions can provide. With no media breaks to artificially break up the game, it moves more artistically. The rhythm feels more like an album and less like a series of singles.

It is immensely calming to be around.

The half ended as it started, razor-thin and with a flourish. Xion Golding had the honor of sending the Yellow Jackets into halftime up a point.

After the break, AIC took the game over. The Yellow Jackets started the half on a 17-6 run to open an 11-point lead seven minutes in.

AIC kept pushing and got the lead to 15 points. Sheyheim Hicks finished with 17 points while Golding had 14 and Franklyn Batista had 12.

Walter Covington came off the bench to score 19 points in 18 minutes on 10 shots.

And even with those scorers, the Ravens kept tapping on the chamber door and would not go quietly into the Springfield night. Franklin Pierce kept chipping away at the lead, and this three by Max Zegarowski with just over three minutes left cut the gap to five.

Zegarowski led the Ravens with 19 points and nine rebounds.

However, this was Xion Golding’s night. He had the dunk to close the first half, and it was this bucket with under a minute to go that sealed up the game.

American International 88, Franklin Pierce 78.
Time of game: 1:29:12.

. . .

What a fun Friday this was. A sub-90 minute game is always a treat because it means there was a flow. One day I will find my Atlantis: the sub-80 minute game. Tonight was not that but still quite fun.

And Springfield is great. It gets forgotten amid the New England cities because its so far west of Boston, but it’s only a 90-minute drive on the Mass Turnpike.

Definitely come here if you can. A tight, little gym in a great city with a lot going on. And it’s my dad’s alma mater, so that has to count for something, right?

 

THP #21: AJ Edwards

February 20, 2021 – Willimantic, Connecticut
Eastern Connecticut State vs UMass-Dartmouth
Men’s Basketball

“Whatchu mean walk the earth?”

“You know. Like Caine in Kung Fu. Walk from place to place. Meet people. Get in adventures.”

This is not, nor has this ever really been, a basketball blog. Sure, basketball is the glue that binds it all, but this is a blog dedicated to the fact that there is weird shit everywhere.

I really dislike this ideal pushed on young people in America that in order to have fully lived a life you must “find yourself” somewhere. Inevitably, that “somewhere” involves a flight or two. The destination always changes but the desired end goal is always the same: level up in a way you cannot do at home.

I’d rather stay home and learn where I live. New England isn’t all that big, but boy is there a lot of weird in these six small states. Wherever you are there will always be some weird nearby. Go find it.

Today I found myself in a charmingly named city of frogs. Can’t get much weirder than that.

Willimantic. What a lovely word to say. Located on the historic land of the Mohegans, Willimantic’s name comes from Algonquian meaning either “land of the swift running water” or “place near the evergreen swamp.”

It is currently a part of the town of Windham in northeast Connecticut, and it’s a town that’s got bridges.

The Willimantic Footbridge just looks cool. I’m a sucker for riveted iron bridges and this looks the part. Six-hundred feet long, and built in 1906, it’s the only footbridge in New England that spans both a river…

and a railroad.

But about those frogs. The frogs are a symbol of the city and are immortalized in statues around the town. The main road bridge over the river features two copper frogs at each end of the bridge.

Thread City Crossing

The frogs sit atop spools of thread, a nod to the town’s long textile history. But the frog story is far stranger.

The tale goes that in 1754 the townsfolk of Willimantic were tense and on edge as the French and Indian War had just begun. The people were expecting an attack in the near future.

That year there had been a drought and there was little water left for the frogs in nearby Follett Pond. The frogs began attacking each other, and the noise was so great that the townspeople thought they themselves were under attack and took up arms and all sorts of commotion was made.

There were cries of armageddon. There were people running with guns in the streets. Riders on horseback crested the hill ready for the fight. Nothing.

The next day the town awoke to find hundreds of dead frogs in the pond. The town was ridiculed throughout the colonies and the town seal was made to be a bullfrog.

Today, the apocryphal story is a beloved part of the town folklore and the pond has been renamed Frog Pond.

Weird shit’s everywhere.

The Good Eats

Connecticut food culture is everything New Jersey puffs its chest about, but without brashness. The Nutmeg state lets the pizza and burgers and diners and everything else stand on its own and stand out from the field without a need to tell everyone about it.

And when it comes to diners, Blondie’s is one of the best.

Located about five minutes from campus, it was a quintessential diner and it was a busy Saturday morning on this day.

One of my problems with diners is that sometimes the portions are insanity. I’m a big dude, and sometimes it’s just too much. I want to be able to clean a plate and not feel like death 20 minutes later.

Blondie’s balanced the line perfectly. I got a deluxe breakfast (not sure the name on the menu but that’s what I’m calling it) of a chocolate-chip pancake, eggs, sausage, toast, and home fries.

This is what a diner breakfast is supposed to be. They also had sausage patties, the supreme version of breakfast sausage, which was a nice addition to the plate.

Go to Blondie’s. Eat some food. it’s a good time.

The Campus

Eastern Connecticut State was founded in 1889. It grew from being a normal school and teacher’s college into a university, a status it gained in 1983.

Today, the campus is broken into the sections, North, South, and the sports complex which is about two miles from the bulk of the main campus.

After the game I got to take a walk around North Campus and she was a looker.

Smith Library
Foster Clock Tower
Science Building

On the side of the science building was Windframe, a kinetic sculpture by Tim Prentice that came alive in the wind.

The Game

Geissler Gymnasium sits on the second floor of the Sports Center, which sits a short walk from the library.

The first thing you notice when you get to the second floor is the lobby area. It’s massive. It’s well-lit, and it feels like a Division 1 space in every way.

Geissler Gym sits about 2,000 people when full and is exactly what you think of when you think of a D3 gym. It smells of lacquered wood. The bleachers creak with every step. It’s warm even in the dead winter.

I love places like this.

As you can see, the bleachers were only partially open to allow for the webcasting team to have some space and for the broadcasters to be able to get up top to work.

It also gave me the chance to dangle my feet off the edge of the bleachers while watching the game. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do that again.

Press box

Today the Warriors were hosting the UMass-Dartmouth Corsairs. Even without a crowd, the pregame had a good vibe to it.

Early on the game was fast and fun. The teams traded buckets and UMass-Dartmouth went into the under-12 media timeout up 19-18.

It was college basketball in its purest form. There was no PA announcer. No national anthem. No lineups. No one to read the scorers and the fouls. It was just the game.

During the manic opening I turned on the camera and just wanted to capture some of the game’s flow. What I got was more than two minutes of serenity. Enjoy.

While the beginning was electric, eventually the Corsairs took over.The lead kept growing throughout the half. By the time intermission rolled around, UMD was up 11 points and firmly in control of the game.

And the lead just kept getting bigger. With nine minutes left, the Corsairs had opened it up to 21 points and were taking the game for a walk.

The Warriors were able to close it down a little, but this nifty layup by Adam Seablom but UMD up 14 with 6:30 to go.

And it’s at this point in time that we meet the protagonist of this story, AJ Edwards.

Edwards, a freshman from New Haven, left high school as his program’s all-time leading scorer. However, this afternoon, 30 minutes into the game, he had yet to crack the egg next to his number on the scoreboard.

And then AJ Edwards took the rock and turned the game into his own personal mountain to conquer.

Edwards scored 15 points in the final seven minutes of the second half. And every time he touched the ball he kept escalating.

He even found a way to crossover out of a steal. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in college basketball.

And on the back of Edwards, the Warriors chipped away at the lead. It shrank and shrank some more until a pair of free throws from Edwards put Eastern up a bucket with 19 seconds left.

But UMD did have a shot, and this was the top team in the conference.

Overtime it was, tied at 77. And like in regulation, the Corsairs sprinted ahead, leading by four just over two minutes into overtime.

But only one team had AJ Edwards.

But even Edwards couldn’t get the Warriors to turn the corner. The Warriors trailed by four inside the final minute of overtime and were down 85-83 with 40 seconds left.

And then this happened.

AJ Edwards finds Max Lee for the game-winning three. It was Lee’s only points of the game.

Eastern Connecticut State 86, UMass-Dartmouth 85. Final, overtime.

AJ Edwards: 24 points, five steals, four assists in 24 minutes off the bench.

This is all I ever want from sports. For a few fleeting minutes on a Saturday afternoon nothing else mattered. It was just AJ Edwards, an orange ball, and the entirety of the universe on a hardwood floor.

Four days after beating UMD, the Warriors hosted Keene State. It was another back and forth affair won by Eastern 85-83 in overtime. AJ Edwards hit the game-tying three at the end of regulation. He finished with 24 points.

 

 

THP #20: A Warm Embrace

February 10, 2021 – Keene, New Hampshire
Keene State vs Eastern Connecticut State
Men’s Basketball

Division III basketball is my happiest place. It feels like it’s wholly, and totally mine. Sure, there’s more than 400 D3 programs across the country but nearly a fifth are in New England alone.

The last game I was at before the pandemic was March 7. It was the second round of the D3 men’s tournament, Tufts vs RPI. A great game won by Tufts in front of a packed house. Five days later the country shut down.

There were a lot of tears last March for what was lost. It wasn’t because I had lost money from assignments getting cancelled. It was losing the anchor points in my life. Every March for as long as I can remember has verged on being a religious experience.

It was memories of being in the building to watch a four OT game in the D2 tournament years ago only for it to immediately be followed by a one OT affair.

It was going to the men’s D1 Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight as a high school graduation present and seeing Scottie Reynolds make that dash to beat Pitt at the horn.

So much of my life is marked by college basketball and by March. I enjoy sports, but college basketball is king because it feels like it’s mine. I know that millions enjoy the game, but I feel something in a way that nothing else moves me in the sports world.

And D3 is the small brook down the hidden path in the forest of all sports. It’s only seen if you go looking for it, and once you do you never forget it. This season looked like it would be the first that I hadn’t watched a D3 game since 1997. It hurt.

But then I was welcomed here, to Keene, a city in the southwest corner of New Hampshire surrounded by trees and full of life. And I was grateful to be here because I know many in this time of pandemic don’t get the opportunity.

The City of Keene

This place is a gem. With a population of around 23,000, Keene is the largest city for quite a ways, and the heartbeat of the city is Central Square.

Full of shops, eateries, and everything else a college town needs, Central Square is perfectly New England from the coffee shops to the old mainline Protestant Church as its focal point.

Known simply as The White Church, it rises above the square.

Much of the movie Jumanji with Robin Williams was shot in and around Keene. A short walk from the church is the mural for Parrish’s Shoes, still as vibrant as ever, on the bricks of one of the shops.

The Good Eats

The Stage shares a wall with the White Church and is a quintessential spot for a meal out.

Cozy, warm, and welcoming inside, The Stage is an American bistro that has been a staple in the city for three decades.

I hadn’t eaten much and was ready for a proper meal and I got one of the best I’ve had on my journey through New England.

Called a California wrap & roll, it was a veggie burger wrapped with a dill-infused Havarti, avocado, bean sprouts, and field greens dressed in a carrot ginger sauce. And it came with a tamari peanut sauce.

I got it with a side caesar and fries. It delivered.

In my journey to find the best Caesar salad in New England, The Stage ascended to the top spot. The carrots and lemon were a twist I don’t see often and made the dish. The sandwich was unlike anything I’d ever had, with the carrot ginger glaze tying it all together.

And a sauce that was basically soy sauce and peanut butter? How could that be bad? Add in perfectly crunchy fries and this place truly was excellent.

Oh, and there was a piece of chocolate cake with chocolate whipped cream to put a bow on the meal.

I will absolutely be back.

But the good eats didn’t end there because sharing a wall with The Stage was the Life is Sweet candy shop.

The interior of this place was a pastel bomb.

But they had cupcakes and there was a single cupcake left that had a wafer cookie, nutella, and vanilla frosting left in the case. Luckily, I have a wife that loves wafer cookies, nutella, and all foods vanilla.

It was an early Valentine’s Day treat for a wonderful woman.

The Campus

My god did I miss walking around a campus. The schools in cities like Boston have their own appeal, but walking around a campus has no comparison.

Even in the dark, wrapped against the bitter cold of the New Hampshire winter, the campus was beautiful.

The Mason Library

The first floor of the library is home to the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The center houses the college’s Holocuast and Genocide Studies major, the only one of its kind in the country and acts a resource center for the state, and beyond, and houses 6,000 volumes in its collection.

It became a department at the college in 2012.

The quad
Zorn Dining Commons

However one thing that popped the bubble of enjoying a campus was, of course, the pandemic.

The campus was nearly empty. The college has a population of roughly 3,500 and it was a ghost town. The students were set to return shortly after the game was played, but on that night it was cold, dark, and barren.

Throughout this year I’ve wondered why are we doing this? Being in gyms with cardboard cutouts of athletic department officials, friends, and pets is weird. There’s a baseline energy at a basketball game. The general murmur of people conversing and enjoying the day is the starting point and builds throughout.

But it hasn’t been there this season for obvious reasons. For me it hasn’t mattered until it has. I still find myself getting lost in the flow and rhythm of the game but then you’ll hear the broadcaster make a big call and realize that you shouldn’t be hearing that from the other end of the court.

On the other hand, I know how much college basketball means for my mental health and I can’t imagine how much of a lift its been for the players and coaches around the country. Every person I’ve talked to this season has just been grateful that it gets to happen.

I’m grateful to be a part of it.

The Gym

The Spaulding Recreation Center is both gymnasium and student rec center.

The gym itself is a classic, old box. Even with no crowd it was warm inside despite it being in the 20s outside. I can’t imagine how sweltering it gets when a big opponent comes to town.

One neat quirk that I haven’t seen in any other D3 gym in my travels was the video board. Fully HD, it ran graphics throughout the game.

Another interesting thing was how many different owl logos were spread throughout the building. Sure, the logo on the video screen is the current one but logos long past lived on in wall paintings and on banners.

Pick your favorite.

The Game

The Little East Conference is the lone

D3 league in New England giving it a go this season and started in January with only a handful of teams in the league electing to play.

The LEC is also unique in that the league has D1-style media timeouts four times a half. They aren’t as long as Division 1 but they were still built into the game.

The Owls have a long history of success and a recent history of close games against ECSU. Coming into tonight, eight of the last 11 matchups between the two had been settled by single digits.

On this night it was a sprint of the gates and Eastern led 15-13 at the first media timeout.

But the tide turned quickly. ECSU got the lead up to 19-15 and then the Owls kicked it into overdrive. The Owls held the Warriors scoreless for 7:43 and scored 16 straight.

The Owls kept pouring it on and opened up a 17-point lead at the half and grew it to 26 points two minutes into the second half.

No one was sharper for Keene than Jeff Hunter. The 6’7 sophomore had a huge 23-point, 15-rebound double-double. He wasn’t alone though. Jeric Cichon (14 pts, 10 rbd) and James Anozie (12 pts, 12 rbd) had double-doubles of their own.

And even with all that going right for Keene, the Warriors would not go quietly into the night.

ECSU buckled down in the second half and got the gap down to seven with just over four minutes to play.

Cory Muckle had all 14 of his points in the second half to go with 13 rebounds, and Tyreice Woods had 19 for the Warriors.

But when you are playing a team that has three guys with double-doubles, the night isn’t going to end well.

Keene State 85, Eastern Connecticut State 75. Final
Player of the game: Jeff Hunter (KSC)
Time of game – 1:51

Thanks for having me Keene. I can’t wait to be back.

THP #19: The Mill City

January 16, 2021 – Lowell, Massachusetts
UMass Lowell vs Binghamton
Women’s Basketball

It’s cold and wet and Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, better known as Jack, rests below my feet in the Edson Cemetery at the corner of Lincoln and Seventh.

All the walking paths here have road names. It’s easier to parse through the acres of graves that way.

I’ve never read Kerouac’s work but I know that his influence has touched writing far and wide and it’s doubtful that I haven’t read and enjoyed something that was shaped, in some way by his writing.

The small flat stone sits a few yards in front of a more robust stone with the simple inscription “The Road is Life.” A small Fleurdelisé adorns his grave in honor of his Quebecois heritage.

As a writer myself it only felt right to pay my respects.

I find a sense of peace and calm in cemeteries. They are always quiet. Good thinking places. And I’m always taken by the names. There are millions of names on millions of gravestones around the country. Every one of those names is a story, a life lived.

There was Eugene Haines. He passed in 1881 at the age of 28, a year younger than myself. Who was he? What did he do? When did someone last say his name or think about him?

Just a short walk from Eugene was the Proctor family plot. A family of four was buried there. The last person died in 1925. Gone for nearly a century and the stone that marked their final resting place still looked immaculate.

Nathaniel and Zilpah Matthews lived beautifully long, symmetrical lives. He was born a year before her. She passed a year before him. Both lived into their 80s.

As I walked I thought of  a song lyric from Ron Gallo’s All The Punks Are Domesticated“I will be forgotten in two generations/What will have been my big mark?”

All of these people lived a life as best they could and now they’re here. What was their big mark? I’ll never know. In a tangible sense they are just names etched in stone. In my mind they are whoever I want them to be.

That’s why I like cemeteries: even in death, they are still places to dream.

The University

UMass Lowell is one of the youngest Division I programs, having elevated from Division II before the 2013-2014 school year. The Riverhawks hockey team was the school’s lone Division I program before the department-wide elevation.

Lowell holds a unique distinction as being one of only four programs in New England to have two campus venues for basketball with Northeastern, Providence, and Fairfield being the other three.

The program’s rise to Division I mirrored the university’s rise in overall prestige during the same time. When I went to my first UMass Lowell hockey game back in 1999 the university was a small regional school, and now the total number of students is quickly moving toward 20,000.

Academically, the school has hung its hat on its unique plastics engineering major. One of just seven four-year school’s in the country to offer the major, Lowell is the lone school to offer Master’s and Doctorate programs in the field.

The Good Eats

Suppa’s is a Lowell institution. It’s a greasy dive. It’s a pizza place. It’s a perfect campus spot for a quick bite.

I hadn’t eaten anything and was ravenous. The menu is a calvalcade of greasy goodness. This is not a health food spot. It never will be a health food spot. It’s an indulgence and a damn good one.

I went with the steak stick. This is how it is described on the menu: Fresh shaved steak and mozzarella cheese wrapped in homemade pizza dough, deep fried to perfection.

The Steak Stick

Served with a side of blue cheese, I added a bag of honey mustard chips and a water to wash it down. It was great. It was the type of food that you love eating and know full well you’ll never eat it again.

Worth it.

The Gym

The Costello Athletic Center is the beating heart of UMass Lowell sports. The soccer/lacrosse field and the field hockey field sit across the parking lot from the building. Opened in 1964, it’s the home of the Riverhawks both literally and spiritually.

Recent investment has built out the facilities in the building for its tenants, the basketball teams and women’s volleyball. While it looks very 60s brutalist on the outside, the renovations (where you can still smell the wood lacquer) are modern and sleek.

River Hawk Central, a student lounge.

The actual playing arena is a step back in time. A small, cramped room that is a perfect place to spend an afternoon watching hoops. This season both teams are playing all home games in Costello. In a normal year both would split time between here and the much newer, and larger, Tsongas Center.

The Game

Today was the first of a weekend doubleheader between the Riverhawks and Binghamton. Lowell came into the game 6-2 in the league and contending for first-ever America East title while the Bearcats came in 3-5 in conference play.

In the first half, things went back and forth as neither team could fully defend the other.

However, UMass Lowell, led by a great group of sophomores, put the pedal down in the third quarter. The Riverhawks had slowly built a lead throughout but opened up a 10-point gap after three quarters.

The Riverhawks would hold on with ease thanks to six players scoring at least six points led by sophomore Denise Solis scoring 16 in just 22 minutes of play as she was hampered by fouls and eventually fouled out. Tianha Sears had 10 for the Riverhawks.

UMass Lowell only shot 38 percent from the field but it was enough as Binghamton shot 32 percent.

UMass Lowell 59, Binghamton 49. Final.
Player of the game: Jailena Sanchez (UML) – 9 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals.

THP #18: Huntington

January 4, 2021 – Boston, Massachusetts
Northeastern vs Delaware
Women’s Basketball

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend. Come inside, come inside.” — Karn Evil 9 – First Impresion – Part 2 by Emerson, Lake, & Palmer.

Man, did I miss this. The last time I was inside a gym was back on March 7. I was at Tufts for the second round of the D3 men’s NCAA tournament. The Jumbos held off a talented RPI team to win by nine and advance to the Sweet Sixteen. I was covering the game for the Times Union in Albany.

The gym was packed to the gills. As the final seconds wound down the student section sang along with John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. I didn’t pay it much mind because I was on deadline and the following week was a big one.

I had assignments in Maine, New York, and Connecticut lined up. And then poof. Five days after I saw Tufts beat the Engineers the whole season got chucked in the bin.

I cried when the NCAA tournament was cancelled. It wasn’t even about the basketball. It was about losing an anchor point in my life that had defined every year for me for more than 20 years.

The opening weekend was almost my personal start to spring. Sure, it may have still been 35 degrees outside, but it was opening Thursday and that meant sunny skies and warmer nights were coming soon.

Every March I could tie the dance back to my memories of chaos growing up. TJ Sorrentine hit it from the parking lot when I was a kid. Ty Rogers and WKU blowing my bracket apart and beating Drake when I was in high school. Picking Norfolk State to beat Missouri because I had a hunch Frank Haith would blow another big game.

Every March tied into the ones before and would into the ones to come. But 2020 had no March. It was devastating.

So far this season I had reached out to contacts I had about picking up work, both written and broadcast. Anything to just get me in a gym. Places I’d worked for years either weren’t playing or weren’t welcoming people inside.

It was shaping up to be the first winter since 1996, when I was five, that I wouldn’t see a live college basketball game. I got a gig working the PA at one place. Then I got an email that morning that the game was postponed.

Man, did it suck. As I’ve gotten older, college basketball has become an almost spiritual experience of connecting with the land. I’m a New Englander to my core. Born here. Raised here. Married here. Will die here.

This project has been a way for me to get out and see all of New England. All the small towns and little hideaways tucked in corners that I’d never have thought to look. That’s the greatest joy of this. It never matters who wins or loses. What matters is the journey.

And I thought there would be no miles to log or gyms to see this year. It dragged on me like a weight. But, like the song lyric above, college hoops finds a way (for better or worse) to roll on.

. . .

Northeastern is a hockey school through and through. Nothing matters more to the student body than winning the Beanpot, Boston’s annual tournament to crowd the city champion between NU, Harvard, Boston College, and Boston University.

I’ve always been fond of Northeastern. I grew up going to Husky football. Played on a tiny field tucked away in Brookline far from campus, I saw NU’s best teams ever. A 10-2 squad in 2002 that made the NCAA tournament before being upset by Fordham in the first round was the highlight.

Although being 11 and seeing that loss live was crushing. But what was more crushing was when the team was dropped in 2009. I was a freshman at Rhode Island and was at the Huskies’ last ever game, a 33-27 win over the Rams. John Griffin scored Northeastern’s last touchdown, an 18-yard run with 48 seconds left in the third quarter.

At last year’s Beanpot final the students filled more than half of the upper deak at TD Garden and made a ruckus all night long, capped by a rousing rendition of the greatest song ever after the Huskies beat BU in a thrilling 5-4 game.

Even with a student body that comes out to support the teams, basketball does not have much history of success on Huntington Avenue. The men’s team found great success in the 80s led by Reggie Lewis on the court and Jim Calhoun on the sideline, making six NCAA tournaments and winning three tournament games during the decade.

The women have made just one tournament (1999) , and that was back when the program competed in America East and not its current home, the CAA.

Other than that the best team was the 2015 men’s team that won the CAA and gave Notre Dame a heart attack before losing 69-65 in the opening round.

But even without much history, Northeastern does stand out from the crowd. It is one of just four schools in New England (UMass Lowell, Fairfield, and Providence) to have two venues for basketball.

One is the oldest continuously operating arena in the country. The other is our stop today.

The Hub of the Universe

The Good Eats

With a unique 1 p.m. Monday start time there was a need to grab a quick lunch before tip. Luckily, being in the heart of Boston, there are many great places to bop in and grab a quick bite.

I was feeling mediterranean and Boston Shwarma was open. the fact that there was no line was gravy.

A small storefront just down the road from the gym, it sits about a seven iron away from Symphony Hall. And it’s great. Small, compact, well-priced, and a damn good spot to get a shwarma on the go.

I went classic, a lamb shwarma and chips sandwich. It came with all the fixings so it was meaty and savory and crunchy and messy and perfect for crisp winter day in Boston.

I didn’t realize how much I’d missed grubbing up on the go. Walking down Huntington having a sandwich, feeling the familiar embrace of cold winter air wrap itself in and around me was something I hadn’t thought I’d yearned for.

Covid has taken away so many of the daily smells of being out and about because of masks. Masks are good. It was nice, even for just two minutes, to feel the burning sensation of cold air in my nostrils.

A perfect shwarma

The Neighborhood

Like the other big schools in Boston, Northeastern doesn’t so much have a campus as it’s a distinct neighborhood. Located on the E train branch of the Green Line, Northeastern is in the heart of Boston.

It’s also so close to BU that the banners on the lampposts change from one school to the other and you don’t even notice.

The E train

The Museum of Fine Arts was around the corner from the gym. When it’s open it’s one of the great art institutions in America. My favorite painting, Renoir’s Dance at Bougival sits in the Impressionists’ gallery at the MFA. It’s a wonderful place.

Next time I’m at Northeastern I’ll stop in and hopefully show you what’s on exhibition.

The MFA

The Game

About 30 minutes before tip my friend Brandon called me. I pace when I’m on the phone and I’m glad I did because I wound face to face with Cy Young.

Cy Young

Located between the gym and Churchill Hall there’s a small patch of grass and Cy is looking in on home plate for the sign.

This was the site of the Huntington Avenue Ground, the original home of the Boston Americans baseball team. Today the club is better known as the Red Sox. The Grounds hosted the first World Series in 1903, in which Young led the Americans to a 5-3 series win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Home plate

Now the Cabot Center sits on the sit of the old ballfield along with other campus buildings.

Cabot Center entrance

While both basketball teams are playing at the Cabot this year, traditionally it’s only home to games for women’s basketball and women’s volleyball.

Two things strike you immediately upon walking in: the immense amount of natural light and the gray playing surface.

The natural light is lovely. I can’t think of any other D1 facility in New England with windows overlooking the court. It gives the building a brightness that fluorescent lights just can’t.

The matchup was the first of a back-to-back between the Huskies and Delaware, another former America East program. The Blue Hens have made four NCAA tournaments this century, making it back-to-back in 2012-2013 on the shoulders of Elena Della Donne.

The Blue Hens made the Sweet 16 in 2013.

The game was great in the early going as the teams traded the lead with zeal. Up 15-14 in the first quarter the Blue Hens found a different gear and scored 13 straight points to widen the lead and never looked back.

The Blue Hens rolled. A strong game inside (outrebounding NU 43-35) and a strong game outside (47.7 percent shooting) compounded with timely defense allowed Delaware to win with ease.

The Blue Hens outscored Northeastern 50-19 over the second and third quarters.

Delaware had five players with 11 or more points including a team-high 16 points from Tyi Walker. The Blue Hen bench outscored the Husky reserves 35-9.

Mide Oriyomi had 20 for Northeastern and Stella had a full day with 13 points, nine assists, five rebounds, and four steals for the Huskies. Delaware was just too much.

Delaware 86, Northeastern 59. Final.
Time of game – 1:50
Player of the game – Ty Battle (Delaware) — 13 points, 14 rebounds, 2 steals

One of the more surprising things for me was how familiar everything felt once I got in the gym. Sure, there are no fans and no general gameday buzz, but once I was in the gym I was vibing with the pregame music. It was like putting on your favorite jacket after it spent all year folded up in the closet.

Yes, there was plexiglass surrounding everyone’s seat at the media table but even then couldn’t take me out of the moment. It was basketball. It was familiar. It was home.