Long Road In the Rearview
Hoops Odyssey is finally in Texas. Apparently, you don't mess with it. A drive through its northern regions are enough to know that. It's perhaps the only state that features its state flag on a roughly 10:1 ratio with the American flag. And just about every pickup truck you pass on the highway has both a lift kit and a bumper sticker that offers up an added exclamation to its license plate.
Hung out at Mavs headquarters today. Things are bigger in Texas.
In an impromptu survey of the locals, we found that 99 out of 100 predict the Longhorns will make the Final Four this year. What about A&M, we asked? After all, we're bedding down in College Station tonight. Oh well, one guy told us. Wouldn't that be a good final? Texas versus Texas A&M? I guess that depends on your point of view. The point of view down here is an unequivocal: Yes. Yes, it would be.
Tomorrow, the Hoops Odyssey will gets its second look at Kansas. They're here in College Station to take on the Aggies. Sunday, we'll be making our way to Austin to get a first glimpse at those Longhorns. I expect by the time the weekend is out, we'll have gotten a good sense of what the Lonestar state is fielding come tournament time. The Big 12 as well. In our swing through the plains, we took in both Oklahomas (State and Sooners) as well as the Wildcats of Kansas State. For avowed football country, there's a pretty rabid basketball scene in these parts.
Don't pet the local wildlife: CSTV picks up a new correspondent.
In fact, Hoops Odyssey has gotten a little big picture in its perspective lately. In these wide open spaces (and in these four to five hour daily hauls), we've got to thinking regionally. And we're a west coast short of the full picture (no worries though, we fly to San Diego on Monday). So where, you might wonder, is the best hoops experience to be found?
As it turns out, hoops is living pretty well just about everywhere.
In that small little spit of land north of Delaware we call the Northeast (and the Hoops Odyssey calls home), college basketball is exactly that: a collegiate affair. Nowhere else in the country have contests been so steeped in the very notion of College. In the utterly overwhelming terrain of New York, New York, a game at Fordham can't help but be a reflection of that institution. Every fan that walked through those gates had not only a Fordham tie but, most likely, a Fordham experience. Students and alumni nodded, shook hands, and cheered in a way that student sections often blended into general seating. In that same way, Temple was Temple. UMass was UMass. And so on.
Going south, the change was noticeable. From that hyper-localized experience of seeing a campus engrossed in their team, the game ballooned out. Suddenly cars, billboards, flags on front stoops announced a person's allegiance. Affinities weren't just personal, they were communal. Long gone, suddenly, was the possibility of perhaps not choosing sides. Everyone had an opinion. Every body had a team. Asked to describe the UNC set, a Duke fan told us, Oh you mean the wine and cheese brigade? You know they reserve their best seating for donors? Well, he'd brag, Duke students own Cameron. Asked to sum up the Duke experience, a Tarheel clad in Carolina blue remarked, Duke? It's just a refuge in the south for yankee scum. These were people on the street. You couldn't escape it. From November to April, the people are living it. All of them.
As Jake will tell you: College Basketball fans down south feel it deeply.
Not all in college basketball is rose-scented. Hoops Odyssey's seen its share of nastiness. Then Hoops Odyssey made the Midwest. No such nastiness goes here. There is a certain attitude of ownership about basketball in the Midwest. There is a deep attachment to the game. From one small farming community to the next, the population brings a stoic grace to fandom. A college basketball game is suddenly almost religious. No longer just an entertainment, the arena is a place to see and be seen, a place to do business, to arrive at early, to depart from late. At halftime, no sign of Coca Cola or McDonalds. The halfcourt shot is sponsored by your local undertaker (as we saw in Western Kentucky). The line for season ticket holders runs five thousands deep (as we saw in Louisville). And every game is an all day event you treat with the same subtle reverence usually reserved for Sundays (as we saw in Bloomington, Indiana). The Hoops Odyssey had a little fun with Carbondale, Illinois earlier in the month (I'm just saying, aim your mid-winter vacations a little farther south) but just as obvious as the weather was the fact that nothing brings those people together quite like a Wednesday night cheering on their Salukis of Southern Illinois. In the Midwest, we drove past ten year old boys shooting hoops in their driveway in sub-freezing temperatures. We saw a downtown absolutely bereft of even the slightest human movement a full hour before tip time (in Bloomington, Indiana). And we saw perhaps the most succinct expression of college basketball's place in Americana: "Jesus Saves. In the absence of Jesus, try Indiana Basketball."
Jake and I did some heavy eye rolling on our way into Kansas and whatever flatness lay beyond. This is football country, right? This is farm stock - eight graders weighing it at deuce, deuce and half- all running backs and frontline. Right? At Phog Allen Fieldhouse, the people beg to differ. Getting out into Kansas, getting into Oklahoma. Coming down through Texas. This is dust-bowl. This is cowboy country. And I've never heard a crowd of wily cowboys whoop it up the way these folks do. It's a party here, that's for sure. Exit the stoicism of their northern neighbors. Enter cowboy hats and war whoops.
The Cowboy Way with a touch of civility.
In an earlier post, I said the roadtrip is the little things. But it's alot of things. It's also just an education in America. We've gotten to the point now where we get to say, Yeah, we started in Boston and here we are, and it means something. We're looking back and looking forward now. West Coast next week. After that, we're flying. In the span of a couple of weeks we'll see LA, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Detroit, Springfield (Mass), Raleigh, San Antonio and a healthy dose of TBD. In the rearview, a whole lot of concrete. One thing we've learned is this isn't any pro league. There's a college hoops scene in just about any American town. I've traveled around a little bit and when I do, I always want to try to get the local flavor. Figure out just where I'm at. It's come as news to me, but I've got a little bit of advice for anyone who's traveling in America come these winter months: Check the schedule. At an arena near you, there's a community gathering, and a basketball game going down.