I have been working on a sports-only website, Hopeless Fanatic, and this was meant to be the first post. The site isn’t ready, but here’s the post. Hopefully it’s not too long.
When I was a kid, Reggie Miller was a god. He was everything that I thought of when I some said the word “basketball.” To me, sitting on my knees on the floor 3 feet from the TV, jumping up screaming every time he made a 3 pointer was what life was really about. The happiest sports memory from my childhood was Reggie’s 8 points, 18.7 seconds game. We had a big family gathering at my house for my First Communion, complete with Honey Baked Ham and deviled eggs, and the Pacers vs. Knicks was on every TV in the house. When it looked like the game was over and the Pacers lost, I was in bad, bad shape. I left the sun room in tears, and ran out into the backyard to chase bees or something. I hated when my team lost. It hurt, a lot. You see, to an eight-year-old Neale, the worst things in the world were watching Zack Morris not win over Kelly Kapowski, watching Tommy the White Power Ranger leave the show even though he was finally dating Kimberly the Pink Power Ranger, and watching the Pacers lose to the Knicks. But! Starting the long tradition of sports teaching me to never stop watching a game early and to never think it’s over, whatever it is, the Pacers came back. I inched my way towards are screen door to our basement, and I saw Reggie hit the first 3. I ran inside, and saw the second 3. No more tears, Mom. After the free throws, I was fine again. We won. After the game, all the men in the family (and a few women) played basketball in our driveway, and I legitimately hit several 3 pointers with my pint-sized basketball against them. It was heaven.
As an eight year old, my sports world was being shaped right then and there. Later that year, Jim Harbaugh would become “Captain Comeback,” make his way up on my wall in poster form, and the Colts would just miss reaching the Super Bowl. Jim and Reggie would dominate my sports scene for quite some time. But it was at this time that I started to watch the Indiana Hoosiers - I remember cheering for Andre Patterson, for who knows what reason. It took a long time for the Hoosiers to get on the same level as the Pacers and Colts and I think this had a lot to do with Reggie not playing for them. But Patterson, Michael Lewis, and AJ Guyton, they started to change that. Over the next few years, watching the Hoosiers mattered just as much as watching Reggie.
By my sophomore year in high school, the Hoosiers were the real deal. We were good. I knew it, my dad knew it… and that was about it. I had the team photo up in my locker, printed on overpriced photo paper on my overpriced photo printer, and I was a believer. I was also going through all the things high schoolers go through – I didn’t have a girlfriend, I wanted one, and I wanted my driver’s license. Because if you had a girlfriend and no car, what would you do? But all of that kind of didn’t matter that Winter. IU was a 4 seed in the tournament, and I was in Drivers Ed. Those two things came together on March 21st, 2002. I had a class during the IU-Duke game. WHAT? Luckily, we listened on the radio when the teacher would leave the room. I only missed the first half, and apparently that means I didn’t miss anything I would have liked. I got home, and finally saw firsthand what it was like to have happiness during March Madness. The Hoosiers, on the back of AJ Moye’s block, beat #1 Duke. That photo in my locker? It was a badge of honor. No one really cared, but it meant a lot to me that my team, not someone else’s, finally was the cool one. And I was there first. I knew something before anyone else did. It was like I belonged. Which, at least for me, is what I wanted in high school more than anything. And it didn’t stop there. The Hoosiers kept winning. Tom Coverdale and Kyle Hornsby kept hitting 3 pointers, and I could debate all day long with Purdue fans about whether or not we could keep going. We beat Kent State, then Oklahoma. And then, it ended. We lost to Maryland. I cried. A lot. I wanted it, so bad. I didn’t understand how we lost. We just couldn’t hit our shots, and it all seemed to go wrong when it was supposed to go right. So, it was back to high school. Back to trying to get a girlfriend, trying to be friends with everyone, trying to do well enough in school to not be a disappointment, and just trying to not mess everything up.
I am going through all of these thoughts and emotions because that’s what high school is. High school is a minefield, a maze. You know where you are supposed to get to, graduation with lots of friends and happy memories and then college, but you have absolutely no idea how to get there. You don’t want to do anything that makes everyone laugh at you. You don’t want to do anything that makes your parents mad at you. And you don’t want to feel like everyone else is having fun when you aren’t. I say all of this as a kid who went to a nice school, had pretty great grades, and really had no other commitments. Think about your high school experience. What was it like for you? How stressful was it to look at colleges, look at your grades, and wonder how it will turn out? Now, while you are stopping and thinking about that time in your life, put yourself in the place of a kid being recruited to play high major, Division 1 basketball.
Social media, it’s amazing. You can see what anyone is doing at any time, provided they make a post about it and allow you to see it. On Facebook, you can see grandma’s cat’s new bow tie. On Instagram, you can see Robert Mathis’ twins asleep in the car. And on Twitter… oh twitter. On Twitter, you can see everything. If you’re a fan of college basketball and you’re on Twitter, it’s possible you might easily be approaching a new level of obsession that many, including myself, find themselves in. You can follow every local sports reporter, hundreds of national experts, coaches, scouts, and players themselves. And, of course, the recruits. You know, high schoolers. The kids that have YouTube videos posted showing them doing things like this. Or this. Or… you get the picture. These recruits are super heroes, and we know this because we can see them do things we used to try and do in NBA Jam. And we fight over them. “So and so has more UK followers than IU followers. We have to change that!” “Did you see what so and so said today? You think that means he’s cutting his list?” “I heard Coach didn’t go watch so and so, and now he’s pissed. What are we going to do? We NEED him!” This happens every day. There are message boards filled with conversations fueled by who-said-what-where. And we eat it up. Every single day. And then, when the day comes that a particular recruit cuts a school from his list, watch up. The anger that spills out from that fan base, it’s scary. Sometimes, it’s horrible. When Kyrie Irving cut Indiana from his list, the things said to him were awful. Friends of mine, people who use Twitter professionally in some cases, were taunting him. And why not? He just made the biggest mistake of his life, didn’t he? I know I wanted to say something. He was supposed to be our guy, the one to make us great again, and he just walked away. And this happens every single day, all over the country.
I used to follow all the recruits. I thought it was fun to see how excited they got about offers, about upcoming campus visits, and about a particular coach coming to a particular practice or game. And it was the fastest way to find out any breaking news – if they decided where they were going, they probably said it on Twitter. If you were a guy that wanted to be the first to know, you had to follow these kids on Twitter. But one day, I saw something I never would have expected. One highly sought after player from Indianapolis began tweeting all these other highly sought after players from Indianapolis about his birthday party he was planning. I first thought, “Oh that’s cool. He’s friends with all these other guys he plays against.” Then I sat back and realized something a little deeper. This kid is 16 years old. He’s on Twitter, asking all of his friends – also 16 years old – to come to Buffalo Wild Wings with him for his birthday. This kid is in the same place in life I was when I was 16 years old. And he has 8,000+ Twitter followers watching every single thing he says, every single day. He has people sending him hateful messages because he isn’t looking at their school. He has people treating him like a god because he scored 15 points last weekend in a game they didn’t even see. If he has a bad game, everyone knows. If he gets mad and has to sit out a game due to suspension, everyone knows. He has to worry about keeping his grades at an acceptable level. He probably wants a girlfriend too, and he has to worry about getting his driver’s license just like we did. And he’s trying to get his friends come to his birthday party at Buffalo Wild Wings.
That’s when I started to really figure it out. The guys we watch playing on the court, they’re incredible athletes. They do amazing things. Victor Oladipo can do things I can’t ever hope to do. And there is an article in the Wall Street Journal about his text message conversations with his twin sister. And another one on Yahoo Sports about his relationship with his father. And remember, he’s 20 years old, in college, and is going through the same things you did when you were 20 years old in college. You may have heard before, “the guys on the field, they stay the same age as we get older.” Yeah, that’s true. And it can be hard to accept, that you’re getting older and the days where you could hope to be like that are gone. But remember the other side. Those guys and girls out there, they’re not just athletes. They have good days and bad days, birthdays and exams, heartbreak and stress. They had First Communion parties where they cried when their team almost lost. They had a time where their team almost won it all and it hit them hard. They’ve loved sports their whole lives, but that’s not their entire life. They had all this other nonsense just put on their shoulders. They had 40 year old men harassing them because they didn’t feel comfortable at a certain school. Cut them a break. If you had put me out on the court my senior year versus a team I absolutely hate for purely un-athletic but very deep reasons, I can’t tell you what I would have done, even if I had all the talent in the world. I probably wouldn’t have had a put-back slam that made everyone at my school go from hating me and booing me when I come on the court to loving me and everything I do in a 2.5-second time span. (Side note, I will love you forever Tom Pritchard.)
Tonight’s National Championship game between Michigan and Louisville has lots of story lines. The one human story you’ll hear a lot about, Kevin Ware, isn’t the only one. Every kid out there has something going on in his head. And the oldest player is 24. Don’t forget that. You’ll appreciate it on a much different level.
In no particular order
- The Indigo Duck (Franklin, IN)
- Cerulean (Downtown)
- Recess (SoBro/Broad Ripple)
- Taste (SoBro/Broad Ripple)
- Black Market (Mass Ave)
- Pizzology (Carmel, IN)
- ‘Za (Broad Ripple)
- Napolese (Meridian-Kessler)
- Twenty Tap (SoBro/Broad Ripple)
- Jazz Kitchen (SoBro/Broad Ripple)
- Saffron Cafe (Downtown)
- The Bosphorus Istanbul Cafe (Downtown)
On October 6th 2003, Peyton Manning led the Colts back from a 21 point deficit - in 4 minutes - to beat Tampa Bay on MNF. For the next 7 years, I never doubted his ability to do anything; nothing was impossible. Peyton Manning taught me to never give up and always believe good things will happen if you work hard enough. Children of Denver - watch and learn. You’re in good hands.
I’m not going to lie, I tear thinking about this. I miss Peyton so much. I like Andrew Luck. I think he’s got “it” - the it that Peyton has. The team is growing on me and has the same spirit. But it still hurts. Watching tonight - and all I can think is, we fired this man. Fired him. That is so, so stupid. Peyton Manning is so good, you wouldn’t trade him for anything in the world. So we didn’t - we just fired him. Terrible, guys.
Miss you Peyton. Take care of Denver.