When worlds collide

My buddy Lars (left) and I at Alaska Airlines Arena, home of the Washington Huskies.

More than 2000 miles separate Seattle and Chicago.

I made the flight last Thursday for a NIT game. As my dad told me, “You are probably the only person in the country who is doing this.”

Well, I wasn’t the only person, but I may have been the only one not affiliated with the Northwestern Athletic Department.

Washington vs. Northwestern in the second round of the NIT was more than just a basketball game. It was my two worlds colliding. The schools have squared off in recent years before, in softball, in golf, but not in football or basketball.

This would be the first game of men’s hoops between the two schools in my lifetime.

I grew up in Seattle as a Washington Huskies fan. Granted, professional sports carried a bigger weight but UW football and men’s basketball meant a lot to me. I still remember the devastation of Richard Hamilton’s improbable fade-away shot to beat UW at the buzzer in the NCAA Tournament like it was yesterday. Rooting for UW basketball generally ends in pain. The farthest they’ve gotten in the NCAA Tournament in my lifetime is the Sweet 16.

Of course being a Huskies fan pales in comparison to rooting for Northwestern basketball. Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament in my lifetime. In fact, they’ve never made the NCAA Tournament, period. NU is the only team in one of the “power six” conferences to have failed to go dancing.

So the NIT has been as good as it gets for the Wildcats. This marked the fourth straight season they’ve made the NIT. Last year they made it to the round of eight before falling at Washington State in OT to the Cougars.

That game between the ‘Cats and the team I loved to hate growing up: the Cougars, was exciting enough. But this year’s NIT battle raised the bar.

Being a passionate Northwestern fan is beyond infuriating. The lack of bowl wins and NCAA Tournament appearances is one thing; I could deal with that alone. However, it’s the national perception that really gets at me. Because we’re a so-called “smart school” our fans and athletes don’t get the respect other schools’ fans and athletes get within the world of sports. Our fans are viewed as less passionate and our athletes are dismissed as curiosities. We perpetuate these myths ourselves because every now and then an idiot freshman Daily Northwestern columnist will advocate us moving to the MAC or something absurd like that. Never mind that NU football has won the fourth most Big Ten titles since 1995.

But I digress. Respect is something I crave and NU athletics gets none. (“At least you have women’s lacrosse” is a taunt I often hear.) This is especially the case when it comes to my friends from high school. Most of them went to the University of Washington and they think very highly of their Dawgs, as they should. However it often comes at the expense of my Wildcats. I always hear from them how much NU sucks. They do it mostly to bother me and it does, a lot. All I ever want is for the teams I root for to become champions and all the teams I root for do to me is laugh in my face as they find new and increasingly devastating ways to disappoint me. (The 2001 Seattle Mariners remain the most egregious offenders of leading me on to think I’ll actually see a title in my life). With Northwestern my expectations are lower for now, all I want them to do is win a bowl game or make the NCAA Tournament, but sadly the last time they won a bowl was during the Truman Administration and the last time they made the NCAA Tournament was in a dream I had the other night.

It’s hard to compare athletic programs without teams actually playing each other regularly so it’s been a Cold War between my friends from Seattle and I over the years.

Washington football has been terrible in recent seasons. They’ve won a total of 27 games since 2006, the year my friends and I started college. Meanwhile, NU has won 40 games since 2006. Neither win total is impressive, but at least I have bragging rights in that category.

In basketball, there are no bragging rights for me. The UW men’s team has been consistently at the top of their (increasingly lousy) conference and NU men’s hoops has been consistently around eighth or ninth place in the Big Ten.

So this second round NIT game between the two schools meant more to me than any NIT game will mean in the foreseeable future. It was finally a chance for the two schools to do battle in one of the two major collegiate sports.

Around 200 members of the Northwestern Alumni Club of Seattle went to the game. The Executive Editor of the Seattle Times wrote a column about how he would be rooting for his Wildcats over the Huskies. So there was quite a bit of excitement among NU alums in the area.

There was no such excitement coming from the UW team or their fans. In fact I’m not sure the friends I went to the game with would have gone if I hadn’t come back to town. Making the NIT this year was especially annoying for Washington because they’d won the regular season title in the PAC 12.

My buddy Lars got us tickets near the NU bench right by the “Dawg Pack” which is the UW student section. I had obtained a sign that read simply “Go Cats” from the Alumni Association before the game. Lars decided that it’d be more fun if we stood in the Dawg Pack than sit in our assigned seats. (This is a traditional of ours, whenever we go to sporting events we always sit somewhere else besides our ticketed seats. For example, we’ve sat in the front row on the infield of the lower deck at Mariners’ games many a time over the years.)

I started waving my “Go Cats” sign around near the start of the game and an usher came up to me and told me that only UW students were allowed in the Dawg Pack. I would have to leave. By leave he meant literally step across the aisle and sit in my ticketed seat. There had apparently been some fights between opposing teams’ fans and the students in the Dawg Pack over the years so they’d cracked down on outsiders like me. I negotiated with the usher and explained to him the situation: that I was here with friends, not to make trouble. He finally let me stay as long as I put my “Go Cats” sign down since in his words: “at least you are wearing purple.”

My two purple worlds collided and only UW’s world remained intact. After a slow start they blitzed Northwestern with their superior athleticism. There were some monster dunks, blocks and fancy dribbling that basically humiliated the poor Wildcats. John Shurna, NU’s all-time leading scorer, was really the only NU player who truly showed up as he poured in 24 points in his final collegiate game.

The details of the 76-55 defeat are hardly worth mentioning though. This game got to the heart of what I love about sports. The deeply rooted nature of fandom is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t follow sports but it’s a passion that goes nearly unmatched in our lives. Here I was, more than 2000 miles from where I normally watch my beloved Wildcats play basketball, yet I was also home.

Seattle is where I spent my entire childhood. It’s where I developed my love of sports and maybe one day I’ll return permanently. But for now, I simply can’t return that often. In order to achieve my goal of becoming a major league baseball announcer, I must go where there’s a job to be had. Luckily one of the first stops on my journey happens to be only an hour and a half from Northwestern. I feel a strong connection to both the city where I grew up and the school where I learned so much. In Seattle I would broadcast make-believe games in my driveway. At Northwestern I refined my broadcasting ability by calling actual sporting events thanks to the great student radio station: WNUR. Broadcasting NU sports and getting to know the athletes who play them gave me a deeper understanding of collegiate athletics and made me care about every game that much more.

I have friends in Seattle who don’t get why I love Northwestern so much. I have friends from Northwestern who don’t get why I love Seattle so much. Then I have friends and colleagues in Joliet who don’t get why I like Seattle or Northwestern so much.

It’s a bizarre combination of fandom that doesn’t often result in actually winning a whole lot. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Because I know in my heart that one day Northwestern will get that bowl win and that appearance in the Big Dance. I know one day the Mariners will win the World Series and the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl. I know one day the Sonics will return.

I know…or maybe I hope…these things will happen while I am still on this earth. I’m only 24 but the losses continue to pile up.

There’s still a lot of time for both my worlds to finally be happy. And when these things do happen, no one will be happier than me.

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3 Responses to When worlds collide

  1. David says:

    Nice piece, Aaron! Go, ‘Cats! Go, M’s! Come back, Sonics!

    • gary phillips says:

      Aaron. We miss you here in the N.W.. Enjoyed the article very much. Can’t wait for your job interview with the Mariners in a few years!

      Cheers! Gary Phillips. (a.k.a. Mr.Lars’ Dad)

  2. wso download says:

    Rattling nice style and superb subject matter, practically nothing else we require : D.

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