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

5 Comments

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.

————————————————————————–

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.

————————————————————————–

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.

————————————————————————–

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.

————————————————————————–

“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.

————————————————————————–

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.

Washington lands second 2019 verbal commitment

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Leave a comment

With three of its four seniors heading into the 2018-19 season being perimeter players, Washington has some holes to address in its 2019 recruiting class. Thus far Mike Hopkins and his staff have done just that, with both of the program’s commits to date being perimeter players.

The second verbal commitment was received Tuesday afternoon, as three-star combo guard Marcus Tsohonis announced that he will be a Husky. Tsohonis, a Jefferson HS (Portland, Oregon) product who played his grassroots basketball for Seattle Rotary Elite on the Nike EYBL circuit, joins four-star wing RaeQuan Battle in Washington’s 2019 class to date.

The 6-foot-4 Tsohonis, who can play on or off the ball, held offers from multiple Pac-12 programs but ultimately made the decision to make the trek north from Portland to Seattle for his collegiate career. His verbal commitment comes on the heels of an official visit to Washington that was taken this past weekend.

As noted above Washington will loose some key contributors on the perimeter after the upcoming season, with David Crisp, Mathysse Thybulle and Dominic Green all entering their final season of eligibility (big man Noah Dickerson is also a senior). The additions of Tsohonis and Battle should help Washington when it comes to filling those holes and continuing to build upon the foundation laid during Hopkins’ first season at the helm.

Four-star guard becomes LSU’s first 2019 commit

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Expected to be a factor both within the SEC and nationally this season, these are good times for the LSU men’s basketball program. Head coach Will Wade and his staff received more good news Tuesday, as 6-foot-2 combo guard James Bishop (Baltimore, Maryland/Mount St. Joseph HS) announced that he will be a Tiger next season.

Bishop, considered to be one of the top scoring guards in the class, is LSU’s first 2019 verbal commitment. Bishop’s pledge comes just over a week after his official visit to LSU, and just days after a visit to St. John’s. LSU beat out St. John’s, NC State, Marquette and VCU in the race for the Baltimore product, and given the Tigers’ current roster this is an important commitment.

LSU’s 2018 recruiting class is considered to be one of the nation’s best, with point guard Javonte Smart being one of the five-star prospects in that quintet (forwards Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams being the others). Add in sophomore Tremont Waters, who’s coming off of an outstanding freshman season, and LSU could be in a position next summer where its top two lead guards are at the very least testing the NBA draft waters.

Landing Bishop gives LSU another talented option, and some cover should the program lose either Waters or Smart — or both — in 2019.

Calhoun officially named head coach at DIII St. Joseph

Winslow Townson/Getty Images
Leave a comment

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Jim Calhoun has officially been named the head coach at Division III University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut.

The Hall of Famer had already announced he would be taking the job and has been working for a year to establish a men’s basketball program at the small Catholic university, which was an all-women’s school until this school year.

Calhoun also has continued to serve in an advisory role at UConn, where he served as coach for 26 seasons and led the Huskies to three of their four national titles before retiring in 2012.

The 76-year-old will return to the sidelines with a career record of 873-380 when the Blue Jays open the season on Nov. 9 against William Paterson University.

That game will be played at Trinity College in Hartford, which has a gym that seats about 2,200 people, about 1,000 more than the gymnasium at Saint Joseph.

Oregon State announces addition of transfer Payton Dastrup

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tuesday afternoon Oregon State announced that former BYU power forward Payton Dastrup has joined the program as a transfer. Dastrup, who averaged 3.3 points and 1.8 rebounds in just under eight minutes per game last season, has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Oregon State will file a waiver on his behalf in hopes that Dastrup will be granted immediate eligibility.

Should the waiver request be denied, Dastrup will not be eligible to play until the 2019-20 season. For Oregon State’s sake, even with Dastrup’s career numbers he would fill a need for a team that bid farewell to its best big man during the spring.

Drew Eubanks’ decision to turn pro left a noticeable hole in Oregon State’s interior rotation, with senior Gligorije Rakocevic and junior Ben Kone being the most experienced returnees. Those two combined to average 3.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game in 2017-18, with Rakocevic averaging 10.6 minutes per game in 27 appearances off the bench.

In addition to those two the Beavers add three scholarship newcomers to the mix this season in junior college transfer Kylor Kelley and freshmen Warren Washington and Jack Wilson. Dastrup has the ability to step away from the basket, which would give Oregon State a little versatility in the interior to go along with a perimeter/wing rotation led by Tres Tinkle, Stephen Thompson Jr. and Ethan Thompson.

Oklahoma State lands third 2019 commitment

John Weast/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Oklahoma State managed to add another verbal commitment in its 2019 class on Tuesday, as four-star combo guard Avery Anderson III announced via Twitter that he will play his college basketball for Mike Boynton. Anderson picked Oklahoma State over offers from Florida, LSU, TCU and Texas Tech.

Anderson is Oklahoma State’s third commitment in the class, as the Justin, Texas product joins twins Kalib and Keylan Boone. The Boone brothers made their pledge in mid-April, and all three took official visits to Stillwater this past weekend.

Anderson’s commitment is key for two reasons. First there’s the fact that he can be used at either guard spot, and that versatility will be valuable for Oklahoma State once he arrives on campus. Also, while Oklahoma State will be quite young in the front court this coming season that isn’t the case on the perimeter.

Of Oklahoma State’s current crop of guards/wings only two, freshman Isaac Likekele and redshirt sophomore Michael Weathers, are underclassmen. The Cowboys have just one senior in the group, Mike Cunningham, but getting a guard in the 2019 class was key for Boynton’s program.

At this point, all 13 of Oklahoma State’s scholarships for the 2019-20 season have been filled with Anderson’s commitment.