Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Opening Post

Here it is, the first post. It's an article I wrote for a literary journalism class I'm currently taking here at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Before you read it, here's a little backstory...

I spent the better part of the last 6 months covering the Marist men's and women's basketball teams. This included broadcasting almost every home game on the college's campus television station, MCTV (Marist College Television) channel 29. I did every job imaginable: director, producer, play-by-play, color commentary, sideline reporting, cameraman. In addition, I announced three of the men's road games for the campus radio station, WMAR (all in all, I attended more than 30 basketball games, including 20 out of 29 men's games).

The season culminated in a trip to the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC, for those of you who might not know the mid-major scene too well) Tournament in Albany, New York, where a few of us got the opportunity to cover both teams' magical runs at a championship. The women's team took home the conference crown for the second time in three seasons while the men's team lost in the semifinals to the eventual champions, the Gaels of Iona.

This article was written in the aftermath of the final men's game of 2005-2006. It centers on the post-game press conference where Head Coach Matt Brady and three of the Red Foxes addressed the media for the last time that season. I took a slightly different angle than you might have seen in the Poughkeepsie Journal the next day. Hope you like it.

The End of a Season

Marist head basketball coach Matt Brady walked on to the stage and sat behind one of four microphones to address the media, his five-year-old son Logan in his arms. The boy was sucking on a lollipop, his lips a bright red from the candy he was noticeably enjoying. Following Brady and his son were three Marist players, whose gray sweatshirts and pale faces starkly contrasted the bright red on Logan’s face.

The Red Foxes had just dropped a 100-84 decision to the Iona Gaels and seen their run at a Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference championship come to an end in the semifinals. The players looked dejected. Hell, I was dejected. Brady, however, did not.

When you cover a team for six months like I did, you get to know the players and coaches pretty well. Seeing them lose that night made me feel like I had lost too. I’m still recovering.

And so Coach Brady and his players, Juniors Will Whittington and Jared Jordan, and Sophomore Ryan Stilphen were ready to speak with the press. In a room that could have seated 75, there were about ten media members. Everything in the bowels of the Pepsi Arena seemed dreary and gray, except for Logan and his lollipop.

Now, I’ve seen a few press conferences where Brady has been a little more than upset. It’s not so much that he yells, but he sometimes has an agitated tone in his voice, and he certainly does not smile. Tonight however, Brady was not on edge as he gave his opening statement. There was something calm about the coach’s demeanor, something that threw me off as I listened to him speak. It wasn’t at all what I had expected.

Rather than attribute giving up 100 points in just 40 minutes of basketball to poor defense, he credited Iona’s senior guards Steve Burtt and Ricky Soliver who combined to score 61 of the Gaels’ points.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shooting performance like that, and I’ve seen a lot of basketball,” remarked Brady. His players just nodded with blank stares on their faces.

“I told my guys at every timeout, in every huddle, that eventually they were going to miss some shots,” he continued. “You know guys (he was talking to the writers), if you leave someone all alone in a gym to take 15 shots, that guy’s bound to miss three or four of them. But for Iona tonight, their drought never came…it was something else.”

The statistics certainly support the coach’s remarks. The Gaels shot an incredible 16 for 23 in the second half, good for 70 percent from the floor. As Whittington later said, “They came out guns blazin’ and we eventually didn’t have an answer for that.” The straight-shooting Texan has a way with words. He is the team’s vocal and emotional leader, but seemed void of emotion as he fielded questions from the two or three writers in the room.

Something then caught my attention. I saw Jared Jordan, the stoic and shy Red Fox point guard, do something he almost never does. Jordan smiled. He was smiling because of Logan and that lollipop. The kid was just acting like a silly five-year-old, but it finally dawned on me as to why Brady often brings him to the press conferences. He seems to be there to remind the players, as well as Coach Brady himself, that there are things that are more important than basketball.

Even for me though, this is something that is hard to remember right after the season ends. The other writers in the room still wanted to talk about basketball, too, damn them. It was only the beginning of March, and in the world of college basketball, things are supposed to be heating up, not coming to a cold, dead stop.

As I listened to Jordan say “I hate to lose,” or Stilphen recite the now infamous cliché, “this isn’t something you ever want to feel again,” I began to lament the end of a terrific season. The Red Foxes had won 19 games and I wished that I could watch just one more. I got the sinking feeling that every kid gets when his team loses, the feeling when “next year” offers no comfort.

For Jordan and Whittington, “next year” will be their last. They have one more chance at winning a MAAC crown and advancing on to the NCAA Tournament. When you play for Marist or another small Division-I school, that feeling is as good as winning a National Championship. It’s a feeling many thought they would obtain this year. Instead, they will have to wait until their senior season, their turn to shine, just like Soliver and Burtt had to for Iona.

It was getting late. The game didn’t end until after 10 o’clock and the press conference didn’t start until about 10:45. The bus ride back to Poughkeepsie would only be about an hour and a half long, but it would seem like an eternity. Brady gave shorter answers and then, with a little smile said, “Thanks guys,” to officially end his final press conference of the 2005-2006 season.

The gray Foxes stepped down from the stage and headed towards their bus. Logan, however, was as bright as ever. He was enjoying this chance to stay up late and eat candy with his dad. To me, I didn’t need anyone to try and comfort me. Logan somehow let me know, like he had let Jordan know moments ago, that everything was going to be alright.