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.

The Butler divide

How people perceive sports is something that’s always fascinated me. The NCAA Tournament is not simply a great sporting event because of the thrills it provides; it’s also a look in the mirror for many sports fans.

No university’s men’s hoops team elicits such a wide range of reactions more than the Butler Bulldogs. Their run last year was seen as a cute story. Their run this year combined with VCU’s and the lack of one or two seeds in the Final Four, has many fans very concerned about the state of the game.

Some of us like the so-called “blue bloods,” the traditional elites. Some of us root for the underdog every time. Judging the national pulse on something is difficult but has been made easier thanks to Twitter. As I watched Butler-VCU last night unfold, I saw many comments about how this was “bad basketball” and not what America wants to see in the Final Four. Fans are worried the game has so much parity that the quality has eroded. Michael Wilbon wrote about this before the tournament even began and he was dead right about the parity.

The quality or lack there of, now there lies the rub. We’re in a new era in college sports. Ever since the NBA  declared that every high school athlete needs to wait one year (translation: go to college unless you’re Brandon Jennings and want to take your talents to Europe) before going pro, traditional powerhouses in college basketball have relied primarily on star freshmen such as John Wall, O.J. Mayo, and BJ Mullens. (I’m kidding about Mullens, he sucked.)

The only problem: a star freshman has not led a team to a title since Carmelo Anthony, and he did that before the new rule was instituted. 18 and 19 year olds, no matter how talented, are still learning the game of basketball. The jump from 18 to 22 is significant, and now we’re seeing the teams who recruit the players who actually stick around thrive the most.

This has led to cracks in the armor of the traditional powers. Upsets have always been a part of March Madness, but the runs we’ve seen recently from teams outside the power six conferences are truly remarkable. George Mason made it to the Final Four in 2006, becoming the first 11 seed to do so since LSU, and that was just the beginning. Since then we’ve seen an elite eight run by Davidson, San Diego State earning a two seed, BYU earning a three seed, VCU dismantling teams from five of the six power conferences, and the absurdity of Butler reaching two straight national title games.

This is shaking the foundation of college basketball. Fans are lamenting that the game isn’t like it used to be, and they’re right, it’s not. But that’s not a bad thing.

I happen to fall into the underdog fan category. How can I not…having grown up in Seattle and attended Northwestern University? Frankly, I root against the powerhouse teams at every turn. I want as much chaos as possible in my tournaments, playoffs, and BCS.

Although, I’m not so sure Butler should be considered an underdog anymore. They had a NBA lottery pick last year in Gordon Hayward, and there’s a lot of buzz this year about the pro potential of Shelvin Mack.  Nonetheless, the underdog theme continues in prominent places because some people are hopeless romantics.

Other people are obsessed with advanced metrics and refuse to give Butler any credit, saying that Florida is a better team than Butler….after Butler beat the Gators.

You get the idea…however you may view Butler, it’s an insight in to how you view sports. If they’re bad for college basketball, it means you like traditional, elite programs. If they’re an example about why college football needs a play-off, you really hate the BCS and can’t stop thinking about it even in March. If Brad Stevens is a genius, you think coaching matters more than the players. If Matt Howard annoys you, you probably also hate the Wisconsin Badgers and a certain style of basketball.

My view? I love Butler and think they are a legitimately great team. Comparing eras is impossible so I can’t say whether they could have hung with the old UNLV teams or the old Duke teams or the Fab Five. Frankly, I don’t care. Maybe I don’t pine for the olden days because I’m 23 years old.

All I know is that for this era in college basketball…they’re one of the best programs in the nation. You don’t need a bunch of NBA draft picks to win in college basketball. That’s fine. It’s a completely different sport than the NBA. Watch a college game and then watch a NBA game. The differences are much more immense than simply talent.

My advice to people struggling with the idea of the “little guys” taking over: appreciate college basketball for what it is, not for what it was or what you wish it would be. It’s kids playing because they love the game, not for money or endorsement deals (in most cases…I think). It’s entertainment of the highest order that is still pretty darn good basketball. It’s true parity.

It’s embodied by Butler.