Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I found something sacred, something sacred I’d lost



The first sign this Hofstra basketball thing might be more than an activity to merely pass time on campus between baseball seasons appeared on Dec. 18, 1993.

It was the first Saturday following my first semester and I was back home in Connecticut. I should have been doing what any 20-year-old was doing upon returning home from college—it’s been a long time since I was 20 years old, but I assumed it involved nursing a hangover suffered the night before, when I partook in copious amounts of underage drinking while yelling “THIS IS HOW WE DO IT IN THE 11550!”—but instead I was perched in the living room watching MSG, which was broadcasting the Hofstra-Manhattan game from Nassau Coliseum.

The game, which was part of the ECAC Challenge, unfolded like most Hofstra games that year—the Flying Dutchmen lost 75-59 in front of a crowd that could generously be called sparse—but my Dad called from the gym during a second half rally by Hofstra, the details of which I breathlessly recited to him.

It was the first time I realized that my default setting for Hofstra basketball was unbridled optimism. It didn’t matter that the Dutchmen were on the fringes of Division I and in a five-way tie with the remainder of the East Coast Conference—a league that I may or may not have concocted entirely inside my head—as the least likely team in the country to reach the NCAA Tournament, never mind win it. When the Dutchmen went on a run, I believed anything was possible.

“You sound excited,” Dad said, and I was. I mean, here I was in Connecticut, two hours from Hofstra, watching the Flying Dutchmen play IN an actual tournament, AT Nassau Coliseum, ON the Madison Square Garden network!

I was 20 years old, I was new to Long Island and I was absolutely sure nothing got bigger than playing in an arena that houses a professional sports team and on a network that airs games played by professional sports teams.

Two decades later, that wonder and innocence has been replaced by realistic cynicism.

Nassau Coliseum is a dump that cannot be torn down and replaced soon enough. Its professional sports tenant, the Islanders, were seven months removed from a trip to the conference finals in December 1993. They are now 20 years removed from their last postseason series win.

Hofstra no longer needs the ECAC’s assistance to fill out its non-conference schedule, which usually includes neutral site games that involve traveling out of state instead of across the street. And nobody gets excited about being on TV anymore, not with an alphabet soup of regional sports networks all searching for inventory and every non-televised game available for viewing online.

In 1993, I was in the midst of that wonderfully youthful, na├»ve and impossible-to-replicate part of life in which you root for student-athletes who are also your peers. We laughed upon seeing them at the bar or hearing about their foibles that wormed their way through the pre-social media grapevine, which is what happens when we are all of the age in which we are not fully appreciative of the opportunities we have been afforded and proud of getting away with stuff we probably shouldn’t be doing.

You start pushing 40 and you start wishing everyone was like Charles Jenkins, who became the best player in school history and still appreciated the privileges of college in a way you wish you could have emulated.

And when you realize that the guys wearing the Hofstra uniforms are half your age and doing stuff that’s 100,000 times as dumb as the stuff you and your peers did as collegians, well, you start to think about what Long Islander Jerry Seinfeld—a best-selling author 20 years ago this fall—said about rooting for laundry and wondering if there’s a better outlet for your passion.


That’s where I was last March, when the depleted Dutchmen concluded one of the worst seasons any Hofstra program has ever endured. When Mo Cassara was fired 13 days after the CAA Tournament loss to Delaware and replaced 19 days later by Joe Mihalich, I didn’t join the chorus of those looking to a brighter future, even though Mihalich immediately struck me as a good choice who, much like his predecessors, would “get” Hofstra.

Initially, my silence—or, as a good friend whose passion for Hofstra sports extends even further back than 1993 put it, my “disengagement”—was out of respect for Cassara. I know what it feels like to be fired after imperfectly trying to make the best out of an imperfect dream job, as well as the loneliness of being on the outside looking in at former co-workers and friends in the industry all moving on without me. It stung, and I wasn’t going to contribute to those feelings for Cassara, even in an unintentional manner.

Days turned into weeks turned into months and took with it the proper period of radio silence. Yet I remained disengaged. Mihalich brought aboard Speedy Claxton as an assistant coach and signed a bunch of promising recruits, including five transfers. And my response – offered not entirely in jest – was that at least Hofstra didn’t screw it up with Speedy and I didn’t want anything to do ever again with transfers.

Even as the season approached and I began to feel a bit of the familiar itch in embarking upon annual customs—renewing season tickets, immediately memorizing all the dates of the home games, planning road trips that’ll probably never come off even though George Mason alums are presumably no longer actively trying to kill me and daydreaming about the Dutchmen following in the footsteps of an unexpected championship contender (this year it’s the Red Sox) in pro sports—I wondered how much of it was just muscle memory. Would the passion still be there?

It began flickering Nov. 7, when I mentioned to my Dad that Hofstra’s season would tip off the next evening.

Dad has never been to a Hofstra basketball game, but he took an interest in the Flying Dutchmen along with his son in the winter of 1993-94. He’s not a gambler, but as an old-school guy, he’d scan the America’s Line (GOOGLE IT CRAIN) in the newspaper (GOOGLE IT CRAIN) the morning of a Hofstra game to gauge how they were expected to fare.

And the next morning, the first thing he’d do is look in the newspaper to see how Hofstra did. When I was home for Intersession or the random winter weekend, he’d wake me up by telling me whether or not the Dutchmen had won. This is how I learned I was going to see Bryan Adams at the same time the Dutchmen would play for the ECC title in Buffalo on March 6, 1994. No. I’m still not over it.

That first year at Hofstra featured almost daily calls to my Dad’s office, an unspoken acknowledgment on both of our parts that he was having a tougher time than anticipated adjusting to his firstborn leaving the house and going to an out-of-state college.

Our nightly phone calls 20 years later are much different. Now Dad is a widower with legs that are all but shot due to nerve damage, so he spends most of his days limping around alone in the house he once shared with my Mom, surrounded by memories that comfort him as much as they remind him of what he has lost.

These calls, too, are filled with unspoken acknowledgment, this time of how much life has changed for all of us since Mom died. But a little shred of long-gone normalcy pops up when we talk sports, just as we’ve done for as long as I can remember.

“How they looking this year?” he asked me about the Dutchmen.

Before I knew it, 10 minutes had gone by. Other than a smattering of Tweets buried beneath an avalanche of 140-character hiccups about baseball, football, hockey and general slapdickery, I hadn’t written about the basketball team or about the upheaval within the CAA.

But I’d apparently managed to absorb enough to talk his ear off about the five returning players, the four newcomers who could play right away, the three transfers who would sit out a year, the two teams Hofstra was going to play over the weekend and the CAA in a pear tree.

My anticipation built throughout Friday. I figured it was a good sign when I walked to my car in my mother-in-law’s apartment complex and saw a truck from “ECC Construction” parked next to me.


In case Litos thinks I'm making up construction companies now, too.

My wife and I spent the car ride to the Arena quoting “Major League” in reference to the new cast of characters awaiting us. During the game, meanwhile, we helped each other figure out who was who.

“Four is Jenkins, right?”
“Right.”
“So the grad seniors—11 is Upshaw and three is Nesmith?”
“No, other way around.”
“Got it, thanks.”

We also realized that while our wonder and innocence regarding college basketball is gone, we can still experience those sensations through our Molly.

Not only was Molly subjected to a whole lot of depressing home games in her first few months, but she had to watch them from the confines of the car seat in which we carried her. At the home opener, though, we learned immediately that she was coordinated enough to sit in her own chair and snack on her Cheerios.

Once the game started, we learned she could slide into a standing position, lean on and bang the chair in front of hers and gaze intently at the action taking place on the floor. And you can imagine the parental pride we felt when Molly followed suit as the cheerleaders raised their hands prior to a Hofstra foul shot.


"I hope Daddy's a better writer than he is a photographer," Molly said.

Meanwhile, as Molly ate and clapped, Hofstra jumped out to an early lead over Monmouth as her Daddy lapsed into familiar habits.


The Dutchmen ended up losing 88-84. But at some point that night, I realized that while it’s impossible to replicate the wide-eyed delight that accompanied our initial introduction to Hofstra sports, we could still get to know a Flying Dutchmen team in the type of organic and surprising way we did in our first year on campus—which, of course, for me was 1993-94.

As Hofstra newcomers 20 years ago, we had no expectations of a team full of strangers but already knew we were naturally invested. And with no idea who would coach the team the next season—or if Hofstra would find a real league in which to play—we were able to enjoy the moment without worrying about what was ahead.

The future is considerably less clouded today. There’s a little of Butch van Breda Kolff to Mihalich, whom I could see living at Twin Oaks, if only there was still a Twin Oaks. But Mihalich is just saying hello 20 years after VBK’s season-long goodbye. And we also know a year from now that Hofstra will be in a league with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Yet with our new approach to transfers—get excited about ‘em when they suit up and not a moment before—we can view next season as a present we haven’t peeked at, or even shook for a hint at what’s inside.

And with grad transfers Zeke Upshaw and Dion Nesmith playing vital roles this year in their one-and-done seasons—and no expectations accompanying Hofstra, which was picked last in its conference for the first time since joining the NAC in 1994-95—there’s a purity and a certain this-will-never-be-repeated-again vibe to the season that we felt when the Dutchmen were competing in a temporary, piecemeal conference.

The full circle continued arcing outward two weeks ago last night. I was at the Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum as Hofstra played defending national champion Louisville in the first game of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tipoff, which is a tournament Hofstra participated in back in 1993-94.

This time, instead of recapping what I’d seen to my Dad, I was trying to get information on what had just happened via the Coliseum’s familiarly awful wireless. Joining me in my efforts was an Islanders media relations intern, a Hofstra student who may or may not have been born yet in December 1993.

We knew Hofstra was down by more than 20 in the first half, but by just 15 at intermission. And the Dutchmen were getting even closer, judging by the Tweets that managed to sneak their way through the force field surrounding the Coliseum early in the second half/second period.

Finally, she got an up-to-the-second report.

“We’re down 59-54,” she said.

WE’RE DOWN 59-54?! Twenty years later, I was as excited as that kid in the living room in Connecticut—except this time over Hofstra threatening LOUISVILLE. No matter how you measure it, this is progress.

Now, like then, I got some funny looks from people when I expressed my enthusiasm over Hofstra’s comparatively meek fortunes. I yelled the score to a writer friend one row in front of me.

“Dude, they’re facing LOUISVILLE,” said the writer whom I thought was my friend.

Still: This, too, qualifies as progress for a guy who headed home after his first year at Hofstra and bragged to his UConn friends that Hofstra won a conference that I may or may not have made up.

As you know, Louisville immediately became LOUISVILLE and buried the Dutchmen with 17 straight points on its way to a lopsided victory that counted as a loss, as far as the wise guys in Vegas were concerned.

“Hey Jer,” my Dad said in picking up the phone a couple hours later.

“We covered,” I said.

“I know,” he said. Twenty years later, he still checks the America’s Line in the morning but keeps track of Hofstra via the modern version of the agate page: The scrolling ticker on ESPN.

A season that began with no engagement and no expectations has morphed into one filled with interactivity and optimism. There were plenty of fist pumps from my recliner over the previous eight days as I watched the Dutchmen lead wire-to-wire at Richmond before losing in overtime, edge Hartford in the final minute (no line in The Hartford Courant for that game, per Dad, but there was an article the next day) and lead giant slayer Belmont for more than 23 minutes in a 10-point loss.

The final two games were played in Connecticut at the Mohegan Sun Arena, the home of the WNBA's Connecticut Sun. That’s right: I am now excitedly watching on Long Island as Hofstra plays games in an arena in my home state that houses a professional sports team.

And as the smattering of fans at Mohegan Sun learned Saturday and Sunday, the undermanned but high-scoring Dutchmen are fun to watch and should, at the least, avoid the basement in a CAA that looks like a former top 10 TV show whose best-known actors have all left for movie gigs. And the Dutchmen are building chemistry and cohesiveness while at least four of their league rivals—James Madison, Delaware, William & Mary and Towson—have already suspended a player.

I’m trying not to fall completely back into old habits and start daydreaming of someone I didn’t even recognize three weeks ago flinging the ball skyward at the buzzer as the 17 Hofstra fans that made their way to the CAA Tournament storm the court at Richmond, err, Baltimore and begin celebrating the Dutchmen’s first NCAA Tournament trip since 2001.

But when my wife bought us tickets last week to see Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden on March 21, you damn well better believe my first thought was there’s an obvious scheduling conflict. That’s the Friday of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. And guess what city is among the hosts?

Buffalo.

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

2 comments:

john frew said...

Jerry, Welcome back! To the eternal optimists club and I agree, something special is brewing in Hempstead!

Jack Styczynski said...

Just getting around to this now. That was a great post. I was actually at the Manhattan game at the Coliseum in '93...it was a doubleheader with St. John's and Fordham in the nightcap...as well as the Hall of Fame Classic in Springfield the next week. I still have post-game audio with Butch on tape to prove it.