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When March Madness is more than just a game: Remembering a friend

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Four years ago today.

March 31st, 2010.

I woke up at 6:00 am to my phone ringing. By the time I got to it, the ringing had stopped. Three missed calls. All from my mom, the first coming at 4:15 am. She had left a voice mail saying to call her immediately, it was an emergency.

That’s never good.

So I called.

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I’ve always loved sports.

When I was little, I used to clear off the floor of my family’s living room to stage games with the football figurines I collected. I would grab a handful of quarters from my parents change bucket to design plays on our kitchen table. The walls of my old bedroom in my parents house in Connecticut are still covered with pictures that I cut out of SLAM and SI and ESPN the Magazine. Hell, I played strat-o-matic baseball. A lot.

I’m a die-hard hoops head these days, but football was my first true love. A Connecticut native, I’ve been a lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan because my mom got me a Joe Montana costume for Halloween one year when I was about five. My dad “wanted me to have my knees” when I was older so the only time I ever donned shoulder pads and a helmet was when I was Joe Montana.

I tried my hand at baseball. I wasn’t bad, either. When I was nine, I was moved up to the “minors” in the Max Sinoway Little League in my hometown. That’s the first level where they allowed the kids to pitch. I still remember my first game. Ed Prokop, who was three years older than me and would eventually sprout to 6-foot-5, was pitching. He was a hard-throwing lefty. In each of my first two trips to the plate, I got hit with a pitch. That was the end of my baseball career.

So basketball it was.

By the time I reached high school, my entire life revolved around hoops. My family scheduled vacations to avoid missing practices. I was on the varsity team in high school for three years. I played AAU ball with a pretty good team, the CT Gold. We had a handful of Division I players during my tenure, sending a couple guys to Atlantic 10 schools. Tim Abromaitis, who played at Notre Dame, came from the same program four years later.

Personally, I was slightly above average. I was never much of an athlete — I couldn’t actually dunk until my junior year in college — but I had a quick release on my jumper and range for days. One of my coaches in those days said I had a high-major jumper and Division IV athleticism. And while I shot a higher percentage from three than I did on layups, it was enough that I got a lot of interest from D-III schools in the Northeast.

I ended up going to Vassar College, a small Liberal Arts school in Poughkeepsie, NY, a city now better known as Snooki’s hometown. I made the decision to play college basketball — or at least attempt too, I only managed two and a half years on the team and a whopping two starts — because of my love for the game. I wanted to say that I had been a college basketball player. No one could ever take that away.

Growing up in Connecticut, we didn’t have a pro sports team after the Whalers bailed on us. There was always that constant struggle between the Boston fans and the New York fan, but regardless of where your allegiances lied, those teams weren’t ours.

The UConn Huskies, however, were.

Nothing brought me more happiness than watching college basketball, which is why I ended up starting a blog, called Ballin’ is a Habit, seven long years ago. I grew up idolizing Ricky Moore and Doron Sheffer. I still remember bargaining with my father about whether I could stay up to watch the end of the Big East Final between UConn and Georgetown in 1996. I was 11. He said I had to go to sleep if UConn got down by ten points. They got down by 11. I negotiated for another couple of possessions. UConn made their run. I got to see Ray Allen’s miracle floater live.

The NCAA Tournament? That was the best. The first weekend was the highlight of my year. Still is. That first Thursday and Friday is a holiday for me. I haven’t gone to school or work since junior high — more than a decade ago — just so I would able to soak in every second of the Madness.

These days, I get paid to do it. I’m not complaining.

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Building true friendships is not an easy thing to do. Finding that similarity of interest, mutual respect, and level of trustworthiness in another person is like chasing an inside straight. The smart play is to fold. The odds are stacked in the wrong direction, and risking more by chasing the longshot is a fool’s errand.

But when that longshot hits, the winnings are huge. Having a friend, a confidante, that will always be an ear to listen or a shoulder to lean on is a terrific feeling.

It’s not an easy thing to cultivate, however, especially when the distance that needs to be covered is 4,500 miles.

I come from a big family, particularly on my mother’s side. My mom is one of five kids and her mom is one of five kids. Ever since I was little, we would gather the family together for massive reunions every year. It was great. I have a relationship with relatives that live far enough away — places like London and Texas — that I probably never would have known them if it weren’t for the insistence that we put family first. I’ll forever be thankful for that.

My mother’s older brother moved to Alaska. He happened to have a son, Lew Allen IV, that was just a year older than me. Naturally, every time the family got together, we were locked at the hip. As we got older, we only got closer. He was starting a career as an MMA fighter at the same time that I was playing college basketball, so the summer rendezvous’s became week long training sessions. Hill sprints in the Rockies, four mile runs on the Delaware beaches, endless push-ups and sit-ups and pull-ups.

Lew became my confidante. When I had girl problems, I’d call him. When I had issues with a coach or with my workload, I’d call him. Hell, if I couldn’t figure out which pair of shoes to wear, I’d call him. Sometimes we’d talk every day. Other times there would be a month in between.

Didn’t matter.

It doesn’t when you have a friend like that.

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It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was never going to be able to play professional basketball.

In high school, I didn’t get a single letter from a D-I school. If that didn’t tip me off, the fact that my handle bordered on terrible and that I was 6-foot-3 was a pretty clear sign. Getting kicked off during my junior season — I was an idiot in college — certainly didn’t help matters, either.

But I loved the game. Everything about it. And I always knew that I wanted to be a part of it. Coaching high school ball didn’t strike my fancy. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher. College coaching didn’t appeal to me, either. I would have been a terrible recruiter.

My first job out of college was with a lobbying firm that represented the interest of foreignly owned companies operating in the United States. I sat at a desk. I answered the phone. It was miserable. I would actually get excited when they would task me with stuffing 1,000 envelopes to send out to our members. In my down time I started a blog, and the more I wrote, the more I realized I loved it.

So I quit that job, started waiting tables and bartending to earn some cash, and set out to make it as a writer covering college hoops.

That was in 2007. I haven’t had a single regret since.

Sure, I questioned the decision when it was 4:00 am in the middle of January and I still had 1,500 words to write before heading to work at 10:00 am for the lunch shift, but I can honestly say that trading sleep-deprivation in the pursuit of something I love to do is 10,000 times more rewarding than being miserable and cashing a steady paycheck.

Call me crazy, but that’s the truth.

It’s also true that the Madness of March isn’t just the action on the court. I learned pretty quickly that covering conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament is a grind. The basketball is played for more than twelve hours a day. There are people that not only want constant updates on the action, but that want to read reactions to the outcomes. Quotes need to be taken. Stories need to be written. And all this happens while the next game is tipping off.

And that’s just in your location.

Sleep is a luxury. Praise and gratitude? Those are non-existent. You’re more likely to be ripped by a fan base that is unhappy with the way you worded a sentence referring to a sophomore that plays eight minutes a game than you are to receive a “thank you” from a reader for giving them a brief respite from whatever menial task their boss has them doing that day.

Sportswriting is not a glamorous profession. It requires a lot of hard work and sleepless nights and time spent away from loved ones. It doesn’t pay all that well, especially when you’re an independent blogger.

And I loved every second of it. Still do.

It’s what got me through that first March after my mom’s call.

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“Your cousin Lew killed himself last night.”

No.

That was the unfortunate message my mom had to pass along to me.

He was 26 years old. He was married, the father of two kids and the step-dad to two more. He never ended up going to college. It wasn’t because he lacked the intelligence. An education is secondary to a paycheck when you have mouths to feed, and Lew stepped up. He worked two and three jobs at a time just to pay the bills.

And despite that, despite the issues that he was going through and the pressure that he was dealing with, he never stopped being a loving and attentive father. He never stopped answering my phone calls. He managed all that even when his job as an electrician required him to spend weeks at a time on “The Slope”, a petroleum-rich wilderness the size of Utah in the northernmost portion of Alaska where the nights never ended and he spent his “days” battling frostbite and mean little arctic foxes.

That’s what hurt the most.

His kids would never know what kind of man their father was. They wouldn’t know how hard he worked or how caring he was or how much he loved them. They wouldn’t know that he could perfectly replicate Jim Carrey’s smile in The Mask, or that he was able to do Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean dance in its entirety, moonwalk included.

When I got the call, it was the Wednesday of Final Four week. I was boarding a plane for Indianapolis in 50 hours. I made the decision to get on that flight. I knew Lew would have been pissed at me had I not gone on his account.

It was the best decision I could have made. Preparing for that Final Four, experiencing that Final Four, writing about that Final Four. A healing process, it was not. A pleasant distraction to keep my mind off of losing my best friend?

Absolutely.

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The following season, for the first time ever, I did not look forward to the month of March. I dreaded it. I knew what was waiting at the end of the month.

It didn’t help matters that my birthday is now one day after the anniversary of Lew’s death.

But like the Final Four in Indianapolis, what got me through the month — hell, the year — was college basketball. It was March Madness. It kept me busy. It kept me entertained. It kept me distracted.

Most of all, it kept me happy.

And therein lies the beauty of sports.

In the long run, they don’t matter. Sports are a game. We play them for fun. We watch them for our enjoyment, and if the stars are aligned right, for some excitement. We watch sports because the young men and women that are competing are incredible at their craft. Because they have the kind of athleticism most of us only dream of. We pay absurd amounts of money to go to games because there is nothing more beautiful than a well run fast break, or a perfectly turned double play, or a well timed fade route. We cheer for our favorite teams because, for one reason or another, we have a special bond with that team. When they win, it makes us happy.

But sports won’t solve the conflict in Ukraine. They won’t fix the issues in our educational system. The Super Bowl isn’t going to change anyone’s position on same-sex marriage. The World Series won’t bring the two sides together in South Sudan.

March Madness isn’t going to solve the world’s problems.

And it certainly didn’t solve mine.

But it sure made them easier to deal with this past month.

POSTERIZED: Class of 2016 forward Chris Seeley has a massive dunk on defender

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The Las Vegas AAU events are all going on this week and it’s the final event for rising seniors.

At the Las Vegas Fab 48, forward Chris Seeley of the Splash City 17U team put down one of the best poster dunks of the summer as he skied over a defender for an emphatic finish.

The Class of 2016 forward attends Central High School in Fresno, California as he’s receiving plenty of buzz for his recent play.

 

 

 

Five-star forward Jarred Vanderbilt cuts list to nine

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LAS VEGAS, NV — Five-star Class of 2017 forward Jarred Vanderbilt has been one of the most sought-after recruits in the country since he was a freshman in high school.

The 6-foot-8 native of Houston is beginning to wind things down in the recruiting process as he cut his list to nine schools on Friday. Vanderbilt’s list includes some of the most storied programs in college basketball and plenty of schools from his home state of Texas.

“I just followed my heart. Went with the schools I liked the most and who I have the best relationships with. Thear were the schools I could see myself playing for,” Vanderbilt told NBCSports.com.

Regarded as the No. 13 overall prospect in the Rivals.com national rankings, Vanderbilt is currently recovering from a broken fifth metatarsal in his left foot.

Vanderbilt will see a doctor in three-to-four weeks as he’s currently in a boot to help his foot heal.

Report: Michigan State and Penn State will play at the Palestra

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 10: Head coach Patrick Chambers of the Penn State Nittany Lions looks on against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the second round of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 10, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has previously expressed a desire to coach a game at the legendary Palestra in Philadelphia and it appears he’ll get his chance in a Big Ten game this season.

According to a report from Brendan F. Quinn of MLive, Penn State will use the Palestra as its home gym for the Jan. 7, 2017 Big Ten game against Michigan State. It is the only time the two teams are scheduled to play during Big Ten season and Penn’s home gym will offer a unique setting for the game.

Since the capacity of the Palestra is 8,722, it should make for a fun atmosphere for both programs since this will be a game both fan bases will likely want to attend.

With Nittany Lions head coach Pat Chambers making Philadelphia a major recruiting priority for his program, a game like this in Philadelphia makes sense while Michigan State has always been open to playing games in unique settings such as aircraft carriers.

The Palestra has been a college basketball mainstay since it was built in 1927 as it hosts all Penn home games and, in the past, hosted a lot of Big 5 Philadelphia college games between La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova.

Overall, a fun idea that should make for an interesting experience for both programs. It’s not often that a team will change its home venue for a conference game, but it could be the start of something we see other schools look to do.

 

OSU officials: Coger died after 40-minute outdoor workout

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 18:  Head coach Brad Underwood of the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks reacts in the first half against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on March 18, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) Oklahoma State basketball player Tyrek Coger died after a 40-minute team workout on the football stadium stairs in hot weather, university officials said Friday.

Coger, a 21-year-old forward who had recently transferred to OSU, did not appear to be struggling during Thursday’s workout at Boone Pickens Stadium, OSU spokesman Gary Shutt said Friday at a news conference. Afterward, Coger sat down and when the team went to check on him, they noticed there were issues.

The team called 911 and paramedics arrived at 5:08 p.m. Coger arrived at Stillwater Medical Center at 5:48 p.m. and was pronounced dead at 6:23 p.m., Shutt said.

The temperature at 5 p.m. Thursday in Stillwater was 99 degrees with a heat index of 105 degrees, The Stillwater NewsPress reported.

Oklahoma State basketball coach Brad Underwood broke down Friday as he remembered Coger, noting that he was in Las Vegas on a recruiting trip when he learned of Coger’s death and that the past two days have been the most difficult of his coaching career.

“This is the hardest couple of days I’ve ever experienced in my coaching life. You say goodbye to players when they graduate and that’s one thing,” Underwood said, pausing to wipe away tears with a towel. “Making that phone call to a mother is – there’s no words.”

OSU athletic director Mike Holder says the team will thoroughly examine its practices following Coger’s death. The NCAA’s Sports Medicine Handbook does not provide specific guidelines for when teams should avoid practicing in extreme temperatures.

The handbook says heatstroke is the third-leading cause of sudden death in athletes, and that athletes should be gradually introduced to activity in warm temperatures over a “minimum period of 10 to 14 days.” Coger had been in Oklahoma since July 5, the school said.

The NCAA handbook also provides a list of signs and symptoms of heat injury, notes that heatstroke is most likely to occur at the start of preseason practices and says that some athletes with certain health conditions or athletes who are not adequately in shape can be more susceptible to heatstroke. It was not clear whether that was the case with Coger. In an interview with the Stillwater newspaper published earlier this month, Coger spoke of frequent headaches that plagued him during his high school days. He said he underwent surgery several years ago to drain fluid from around his brain.

“At the moment, I’m thinking `Basketball is over,”‘ he told the newspaper, recalling his feelings at the time of the surgery. “`I gotta think beyond basketball now.”‘

Coger, a native of Raleigh, North Carolina, said in the interview that he recuperated from his surgery then started his college career at Eastern Florida State College. He transferred after one season to Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he played last season. The 6-foot-8 player then initially signed with Ole Miss last fall but opted for Oklahoma State after the Southeastern Conference ruled he was ineligible because of rules on junior college transfers.

Shutt also said that under NCAA rules, basketball teams can meet for eight hours a week during the summer – time that can be broken up as two hours on the count and six on strength and conditioning, or all eight on strength and conditioning. NCAA spokesman Christopher Radford confirmed that was the case, and noted that staff members are allowed to conduct and supervise that activity.

In 2012, Coger played a friendly game of one-on-one with Washington Wizards star John Wall, who posted a photo of the matchup on Instagram following Coger’s death. Wall wrote: “Rest in Peace to the lil homie who always had the competitive spirt.. you will be missed Tyrek.”

Coger’s death is the latest tragedy for OSU. Last fall, a driver crashed into a crowd at Oklahoma State’s homecoming parade, killing four spectators and wounding dozens. In 2011, women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke, assistant Miranda Serna and two others died in a plane crash in western Arkansas. And in 2001, 10 people died in a Colorado plane crash, including two men’s basketball players and six staff members.

Associated Press writer Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.

CBT Podcast: Michael Porter Jr., George Washington and non-conference scheduling

Father Tolton Catholic's Michael Porter, Jr. (1) celebrates after sinking a basket and drawing a foul during the first half of the Missouri Class 3 boys high school championship basketball game against the Barstow Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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In today’s podcast we spend quite a bit of time discussing the three major topics of discussion from the last week: The Washington Post’s story on Mike Lonergan and George Washington basketball, Michael Porter Jr.’s commitment to Washington and non-conference scheduling and how it is affected by expansion, both in conference realignment and by the number of games that are played in league.

As always, you can either click “play” in the Soundcloud player below or listen via iTunes or the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe in Audioboom.