Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Happy anniversary, Jay Wright (and the NAC)!

That's right, it's the pocket schedule again!!

Where were you 15 years ago today? If you were me, you were watching Hofstra's new basketball coach, some guy named Jay Wright, charm the socks off dozens of people at the University Club. Dude seemed to have it all: He was young, good-looking, impeccably dressed, had a headline-perfect last name and appeared willing to put in the grunt work necessary to revive the Flying Dutchmen.

Who knew he would actually be better than advertised? I'd go as far as to say there has never been a more pivotal hire than Wright and a more pivotal day in the history of Hofstra athletics than Apr. 14, 1994, which was also the day the University was accepted into the North Atlantic Conference. Which, of course, begat the America East which begat back-to-back NCAA bids which begat the CAA which begat The Year We Were Freaking Screwed which begat The Year We Were Too Good For The CIT.

The 15th anniversary of Wright's hiring and Hofstra's move to the NAC snuck up on me, but I hope to have a piece or two on the seismic impact of that day in the coming, err, days. I'm also planning to get back into somewhat of a regular routine here. Probably won't post every weekday like in the fall and winter, but I'm aiming for three times a week on a variety of Hofstra topics--men's hoops for sure but spring sports as well. Thanks for your patience the past few weeks and please stop back soon.

Friday, April 3, 2009

In which I provide my long-overdue and long-winded take on the CIT bid, or lack thereof (Or: Feel Like A Number)

Who knows? Maybe the Flying Dutchmen would have gone all the way with the CIT.

Greetings from Connecticut, where I offer you a joke that’s two weeks old but still relevant (to me, anyway): If aliens land in the Nutmeg State while Jim Calhoun is in the hospital, does anyone get a free anal probing?

You should have seen the coverage afforded Calhoun’s absence from UConn’s first-round game against Chattanooga (and can you imagine how badly the Huskies would have destroyed the Mocs if Calhoun was healthy?). The late-night news was led by some talking head yapping about Calhoun while standing in front of the UConn medical center…which, you know, was several hundred miles away FROM WHERE CALHOUN WAS HOSPITALIZED.

Then some vapid sports anchor said Calhoun would probably be glad to trade a day in the hospital in exchange for a tournament win. Oh really? The guy’s had cancer three times. I can’t imagine he wanted to kick back in the hospital. And why would someone whose Huskies squads are 14-1 in first-round games feel the need to sacrifice his health for a Round of 64 victory? Sheesh.

You’ll have to forgive me for getting equal parts angry and nostalgic. After all, the day Calhoun was hospitalized was also the day the CAA basketball season ended. VCU lost to UCLA that night in the semifinals of the Jay Wright Invitational.

(Parenthetical tangent: When do you think Jay realized he wasn’t at Hofstra anymore? When he was able to swap disgusting, overly greasy slices of pizza from Campus Pizza for authentic cheese steaks? When he realized his contract had a perk beyond a car? Or when he got two freaking home games to open the NCAA Tournament? Winning 18 in a row and getting a 13 seed must feel like a long, long time ago.)

Anyway, a night before Eric Maynor missed the last shot of his collegiate career (isn’t that ironic, in that it’s not ironic at all), George Mason continued to pay for its 2006 deal with the devil when Penn State hit a miracle shot to force overtime in a first-round NIT game. The Nittany Lions went on to win the game, and then won four more to win the NIT. Haha Mason. Too bad.

So that was it for the CAA in 2008-09. Thanks for playing, drive home safely. Too bad mid-major teams couldn’t participate in a third or fourth tournament. It would be nice if a young, promising squad had another opportunity to play and an opportunity to compete for a championship, no matter how piddly it may appear to others, and some nice hats and T-shirts.

Too bad there’s…not…something…like…that.

Apparently, there WAS something like that. Multiple somethings like that, even, in which CAA rivals Old Dominion, James Madison and Northeastern participated. Not only that, but ODU won the newer tournament, the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, and got to the championship game by beating JMU in the semis. Northeastern, meanwhile, won a game in the College Basketball Invitational, which is in its second year.

But participating in one of these fledgling tournaments didn’t appeal to Hofstra, even though the team, by any measure, deserved a chance to play in the expanded postseason. The Dutchmen won 21 games (20 against Division I foes). They went 4-2 against the CAA’s CBI/CIT trio (that’s gotta be a record for most acronyms in a single breath). The Dutchmen finished in much stronger fashion (5-2 in their last seven CAA games, including the tourney) than either Northeastern or JMU, both of which went 2-5 over that span.

Yet the decision-makers at Hofstra apparently figured nobody would notice when the Dutchmen “elected” to stay home. When people did notice—the thread on CBI/CIT pairings reached five pages, only the ninth thread to go that long since August 2006, the things I do for you—a letter was sent to Pride Club members explaining that the Dutchmen did not want to play in anything other than the NCAA or NIT. That, in turn, inspired another long thread.

I get turning down a CBI bid. Any tournament that offers a bid and a home game to anyone willing to pony up $60,000 for the right to host, no matter how poor the bidder’s record, is a joke. Of course, Oregon State is in the best-of-three title series (another joke…seriously, single-elimination has been perfect for nearly seven decades, but NOW we need a best-of-three series to determine a champion?), so there you go. Hey, has anyone noted the Beavers’ coach bears an uncanny resemblance to Michelle Obama?

But the CIT was a perfect spot for Hofstra. And let’s be honest: Hofstra turning down a fledgling tournament is a lot like me turning down a reasonably attractive prom date in 1991 because she was the new kid in town.

Sure, there’d be some risk involved. She might have bad teeth and bad breath. She might have a hideous voice and a worse laugh. She might hate various races and religions as well as dentists. I might spend the entire night praying for the clock to move.

Or, you know, she could end up a more aggressive Andrea Zuckerman, or she might want to talk about that one time at band camp, or she might want to recreate Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” sans all that forever stuff.

You take the chance, and maybe you get smoked in the first round. Or maybe you’re the ones holding aloft the CIT trophy.

And let’s be honest here, too: Who is Hofstra—a program that owns two postseason victories at the Division I level—to turn down the CIT?

Playing in the CIT wasn’t beneath Drake, which reached the NCAA Tournament last year, or Bradley, which has won the NIT four times, reached the NCAA Final Four twice and lost in the finals of the first CBI. It wasn’t beneath Old Dominion, which made the NCAA Tournament twice and the NIT Final Four once between 2005-07, played in last year’s inaugural CBI and was ecstatic to win the CIT.

Maybe Hofstra didn’t feel beneath the tournament at all. Maybe, once again, this was all about the nickels and the dimes.

It cost teams a reported $28,000 to host a CIT game. The administration was probably worried about making back its investment, given the minimal attention paid to the CIT, but couldn’t the school have accepted a road game in the first round and hoped a victory would build a little bit of momentum and interest for a quarterfinal game at the Arena?

Old Dominion drew less than 3,000 fans to each of its three home CIT games. But is it so difficult to believe Hofstra could not have drawn 2,000 fans at $15 a pop? Hell, 1,500 fans at $15 a pop is $22,500, and I’m confident Hofstra could net $5,500 in concessions and what not.

Here’s what rankles me when we get to the nickels and the dimes: Men’s basketball is The Sport at Hofstra. (just ahead of men’s lacrosse—oh, and let’s get this out of the way right now: Football fans, I’m actually quite fond of you and the sport and the team, but if you want to insist otherwise, the email address is defiantlydutch@yahoo.com.)

The men’s basketball program makes money. It gets the most press, traditional and otherwise. It performs well on the court and does not embarrass the University off it. It has a coach who embraces his role as a spokesman for the University and is willing to kiss as many babies and conduct as many grip-and-grins as needed in order to spread the gospel.

So it looks bad, for the school as well as the CAA, when the University refuses to participate in a postseason tournament. Men’s basketball sure as hell is not The Sport at Northeastern, where the Huskies play their home games in a hockey arena that looks and feels a lot a 19th-century theatre. Yet the administration there thought enough of the program to send it out west for a pair of games in the CBI and to risk a potential home game if the Huskies got any farther.

I don’t think men’s hoops is The Sport at James Madison, where the football team was ranked no. 1 for most of last season. But the administration recognized the value of rewarding a team that exceeded all expectations by having its best season in a decade

The Flying Dutchmen were one of only seven 20-win teams that failed to participate in a postseason tournament. Only one of those other schools (Wright State of the Horizon) came from a conference ranked above the CAA by Ken Pomeroy. The others came from the Sun Belt, Southland and Big South. Not exactly the company the CAA wants to keep.

Tom Pecora has laughably come under fire for the Dutchmen passing on the CIT. Some fans think the Dutchmen turned the bid down because he wanted to hang on to his analyst gig with CBS College Sports Network. That’s hilarious. You think Pecora’s desire to get some face time on a network nobody gets trumps his competitive desires? He’s got a team that’s primed to peak over the next two years and he’d rather talk about the NCAA Tournament instead of get the Dutchmen some more experience? Please.

Some believe that Pecora hinted during an interview on WRHU that one reason the school turned a bid down was the lackluster performance of the seniors. I haven’t heard the interview so I have no idea if that’s true or not, but even if it is, so what? The CIT wouldn’t be about one more lap around the track for Darren Townes or Arminas Urbutis.

It’d be about getting some more postseason experience for the underclassmen—just like ODU (one senior on its roster), JMU (two seniors) and Northeastern (three seniors) did for their underclassmen-dominated teams and just like Pecora wanted to back in February.

“I think it’s a good thing if you do have a young team, like us,” Pecora told the New York Daily News’ Sean Brennan in early February. “We have a core of three sophomores (Charles Jenkins, Greg Washington and Nathaniel Lester) , so why wouldn’t I want to play more games and get my guys more experience?”

Pecora co-signed that letter to Pride Club members, but don’t kid yourself. He’s a smart man, and he knows there’s no arguing with the bosses when it comes to the nickels and the dimes. This decision came from the top and is a big giant insult—to the players as much as it is to the fans.

Maybe it’s a good life lesson for the players. From here on out, you are nothing more than figures on the bottom line to the people for whom you perform. You can exceed expectations, perform your best at crunch time and still get nothing.

The rest of us are used to feeling like a number. Over the last five years, ticket prices at the Arena have more than doubled. In 2003-04, you could get premium season tickets, the Pride Club discount and membership in the Pride Club for $116. Today, that same trio costs you a cool $246. But you get 25 percent off a maximum of four season tickets with a $100 donation!

Yet the administration that thought nothing of dramatically hiking your ticket prices now doesn’t think it’s worth paying $28,000 to reward you with a postseason tournament game. Too bad. I bet it would have been easier to sell re-seating and another price hike if the Flying Dutchmen actually won the CIT.

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com. And join the Defiantly Dutch group at Facebook today!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Life, Love, Death and Basketball

Me and Mom.

Back in the good ol’ days, when I was a compensated sportswriter, I always cringed when my brethren theorized that sports could bring relief or joy or a diversion to people who were struggling with unimaginable grief.

I cringed plenty in the fall of 2001, when, while covering the Mets, I parroted the popular line that the Mets’ post-9/11 run at the NL East pennant helped distract and inspire New Yorkers reeling from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I remain moved by the purity of the Mets’ efforts during those frightening days and weeks following the attacks—I’ll never forget walking through the bowels of Shea Stadium and seeing relief pitcher Armando Benitez unloading relief supplies and stacking them on pallets—but in the years since have wondered: How the hell could someone who lost a loved one in the attacks find any happiness at all in something so ultimately meaningless?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bellowed at television commentators who said the 2006 New Orleans Saints—who reached the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history—symbolized the resiliency of and brought happiness to a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina. How does a football team full of millionaires have any idea of what it’s like to lose every worldly possession? How does watching a football game distract someone who has no home?

But I don’t cringe anymore at the concept of sports as a distraction in anguish-filled times. Not since 5:27 p.m. on Dec. 29, 2008, when my sister called and could barely get the words out in between sobs.

“We got the news on Mom. It’s not good."


My mom was always as bemused by sports as I was passionate about them. She was the one who always said it was just a game, that someone had to win and someone had to lose, and she didn’t approve of people taking it too seriously. I remember how disgusted she was when one of my classmates was throwing his equipment after a tough loss in a Little League game. I didn’t want to be that guy.

At some point, though, she got used to it, at least from me. I remember the 1992 NCAA Tournament, when I did everything shy of kick the cat when my national title pick, Arkansas, was knocked out in the second round. “Look at him go!” my mom said to my dad as I stalked around the living room.

And she always encouraged and cultivated my passion. There were family outings and vacations centered around baseball, even if half the clan couldn’t tell you how many people were supposed to be in the lineup. Mom never threw away my baseball cards, even when my grades went into the crapper and even when my bedroom was papered with cardboard.

She did, though, a few years ago create some more room in the spare room at home by tossing a bunch of notebooks and media guides from my Hofstra days. That made me mad. I told her I wanted to save my play-by-plays of the 1994 football season so that I could refer to them when Wayne Chrebet made the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

She understood, though, why I was mad and apologized profusely. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, she never wondered why, as a pre-teen, I’d spend hours copying standings into a notebook or writing my own stories. She chose instead to marvel at and complement my interest.

In college and beyond, she told everyone how proud she was of her son the sportswriter, even though she surely knew before I did that this was a minefield of a career unlikely to provide any semblance of security, financial or otherwise.

As an adult, my studious copying of statistics has been replaced by blogging. So it was as we spent a quiet day together in late February, she watching TV and me writing this story and this story leading into the Georgia State game, that she wondered what it was that had me typing so fast and working so studiously.

“I could never get you to write your research papers in high school,” she said, “but you’re really into that.”

Well, of course. This isn’t boring. Research papers were.


I began this blog last August to give myself a writing outlet as I continued to search for ways to jump back into the choppy waters of sports journalism. It turned into something much more than that in the weeks following Dec. 29, a day that marked only the beginning of the bad news.

We planned to take Mom to Dana-Farber in Boston, but her condition deteriorated so fast she had to be admitted to the hospital in our hometown. We did get her to Dana-Farber in mid-January, where the doctors delivered dose after dose of crushing news. Her stomach was riddled with tumors that made it impossible to operate on her, so she would likely need to be fed through a tube for the rest of her life. Her kidneys were damaged from the operation that began all this crap last August, which meant most she could not receive most of the experimental chemotherapy treatments.

Every time I heard bad news, the first—and usually only—reassuring thought to come to my mind was: When I get back to the hotel, I can blog.

It provided a momentary diversion from the micro and the macro. For a little while, I could think about something other than my mother dying before our eyes as the rest of us stood by helplessly. I could think about something other than my anger at the idiot doctors who told her for months that this was a good cancer to have, one that was treatable and would not stop her from living a normal life. Connecticut: A great place to grow up, a terrible place to grow old.

And I could think about something other than my anger at God and my unanswerable questions. How can someone who did everything right—who prayed and went to church and ate well and rarely drank and never took drugs and lived by the letter of the law both Biblical and otherwise—suffer so much and at such a young age? How could my mom be teaching kindergarten and going to concerts and tending to her yard and doting on her grandson and generally acting like the most active 60-year-old in town in June and learn, a mere six months later, that she almost certainly wouldn’t make it to her 62nd birthday?

I couldn’t blog everyday—sometimes, I was just too exhausted by the tidal waves of bad news. But while I was in Boston, I was able to compare myself to Drew Bledsoe and managed to milk even more out of the Hofstra debate angle.

And blogging, rather indirectly, even brought a smile to the face of my father, and for that I will be forever grateful, even if the source of the smile was probably the very thing that inspired Tom Pecora to deliver a paint-peeling tirade.

My wife, my father and I went to the hospital Jan. 21 and Dad spent time with Mom while my wife and I split time in the family room listening to the WRHU feed. I went back to Mom’s room at halftime.

“Hey Dad, it’s halftime of the Hofstra game, guess how many points the two teams have scored combined.”

“I don’t know, high or low?”

“Low. Very low.”

He guessed a couple times in the 40s, and then in the high 30s. Finally I said “Thirty-two.” And he smiled—an authentic, ear-to-ear, eyes ablaze smile from someone who’d had precious few things to smile about over the preceding months.

Flying Dutchmen basketball also provided another semblance of family. For the games I could not attend, Sully Ray stepped in with regular text updates (he also frequently lied about catching T-shirts). Every game we attended, Sully Ray and his parents asked how my mom was doing and offered their kind thoughts and prayers.

Blogging and Hofstra basketball also helped provide a diversion to my wife and I as we encountered a different but no less heart-wrenching grief. Shortly after my mom returned from Boston to the hospital in our hometown, my wife’s grandmother learned she had pancreatic cancer. She was gone within a month of her diagnosis. She died the morning of Feb. 18 and my wife and I spent the next few hours trying to figure out whether or not we should go to the Flying Dutchmen game that night.

“I didn’t come out here tonight to watch them lose,” she said as we walked into the Arena.

They didn’t, in one of the most memorable games we’ll ever see. It was times like these we needed a diversion like this, three hours in which we could just throw ourselves into a game and remember why we grew to love sports in the first place and why we get so passionate and irrational about them, even though we know they pale in comparison to Real World stuff.

The kindness of the Mets following 9/11 didn’t stop me from wondering what the hell was wrong with them a mere year later. That the Dutchmen declined bids to a pair of fledgling postseason basketball tournaments matters not a whit, yet it still ticked me off. (More on that soon) And I will always mock George Mason every time the opportunity presents itself.

At times, I felt guilty for having a diversion. After all, living more than two hours away already assured me I was getting the edited version of my mother’s illness. To see her grow weaker by the visit was nothing like what my sister—who lives two miles away from my parents—and my father saw. They were the ones who needed a diversion. They were the ones who got the unedited, NC-17 version of my mother’s cruel and unfair descent from a vibrant, lively, independent woman to someone who was bed-bound and required assistance to complete the most routine of tasks.

But I had this, and maybe it kept me sane. My wife suggested as much when she was trying to explain to a skeptical family member why we were considering going to Virginia for the CAA tournament.

Our collective smarts (OK, fine, her smarts) and our shrinking bank account eventually won out, so we were home watching it on TV when Charles Jenkins’ last shot of the season fell well short of the basket, dooming the Dutchmen to a one-point loss to eventual CIT champion Old Dominion.

In the moments afterward, I stood in the living room, bent over with my hands on my knees in my willing-that-shot-into-the-basket pose, unable to muster up the usual end-of-season anguish. My wife later expressed surprise at my unusual composure.

“There’s a lot worse shit than this going on,” I said.

“That’s why we needed this,” she said, still wishing Jenkins’ shot had somehow fallen through the hoop.

And she was right, and it would have been awesome if the season lasted at last another day. But you know what? This, this season, was more than enough.

Blogging about the Flying Dutchmen didn’t change anything. It didn’t make my mom or my wife’s grandmother any better, it didn’t answer my unanswerable questions, it didn’t make what our families were going through any easier.

But…it did something. I know that. A couple hours a couple times a week, when we either sat in our seats or watched or listened to the game at home, it did something. Every time I sat down and typed the words “Defiantly Dutch” in a new Word document, it did something.

Some people might have wanted more out of the Dutchmen this season—more consistent play, a CAA title, an NCAA Tournament appearance. But for me, and for my wife, the Dutchmen gave us much more this season than we ever could have asked for, and for that we thank them.


Mom was home when the Dutchmen’s season ended, and she seemed to be getting a little better. We all hoped maybe she would beat the odds, and if not beat this cancer, at least survive to see another birthday, another Christmas.

But she got progressively worse over the subsequent few days. She was admitted to the hospital the afternoon of March 13 and she died a little more than 24 hours later, at 11:20 p.m. We buried her 15 days ago, and Sully Ray and his mom were kind enough to come up for the funeral.
I’ve wanted to blog about the Flying Dutchmen a few times since then, but I also wanted to write this first, and penning it has been more difficult than I expected. I know she’s gone, but writing this is another confirmation of it. And it’s tough to find the words to describe what this season meant to me, and what Mom meant to me.

She was always the first person I called with news, good and bad, always the person whose approval I most wanted to earn. Who will I talk to now? Who will be proud of me now?

I hope she can hear me when I talk to her, and I hope I make her proud of me, and I hope she’s at peace. And in case I didn’t let her know enough while she was here, I hope she knows I don’t really miss those football play-by-plays or those assorted media guides at all.

I also hope she knows that any time I tell people about those play-by-plays and assorted media guides, I do so with a smile on my face, because it reminds me that while my Mom didn’t get sports, she got me, which is all a son can ask for and the greatest gift he can ever receive, all at the same time.

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com. And join the Defiantly Dutch group at Facebook today!