My college didn’t have a basketball team.
Well, it did: The Loyola New Orleans men’s squad of 1946-46 actually won the national championship, back when the NAIA was king, and took a run through the NCAA championships three times during the 1950s.
And it would: Loyola had no teams when I started, but a couple years after, a club program blossomed into an NAIA team that played its games in a regular gymnasium, without the benefit of bleachers or concessions, or even, really, fans.
Across Freret Street, the Tulane Green Wave men’s team was sitting out a five-year suspension for a 1985 point-shaving scandal — they’d been making cash payouts to players, too, which didn’t bother me then and doesn’t bother me now. Back then Ihad a work-study job at the college, for which I got a nice little monthly check. I didn’t see why athletes shouldn’t enjoy the same allowance.
So, I learned sports journalism by covering the Tulane football team. My professor showed me how to keep my own stats, organize my notes, type away at the game write-up during regulation play so I could add a lede and a kicker, drop in a couple quotes from the press conference and be at the bar 30 minutes after the last whistle blew. And he taught me a fundamental sports-writing rule: No cheering in the press box.
This led to a position as sports editor at my college newspaper (I sucked at it) and then to the only job I could land in the New York metro area in the summer of 1993: stat clerk at SportsTicker. Remember those red scoreboard runners that used to hang in bars? That.
I’d answer phones, drop scoring updates into the database and read newspapers — using none of the skills I had already learned — for $7 an hour. I was making five times that tending bar.
College basketball came back into my life when I moved to Greensboro and was advised I’d have to pick a side in the great ACC debate between Duke and Carolina. I chose neither, pledging my ACC loyalty to Wake Forest which, I figured, was the only Triad school in the conference.
And then I started writing about it.
North Carolina is a basketball fan’s paradise, with top-notch teams across the entire state running compelling regular-season schedules, an ACC playoff tradition that has become embedded in the culture, and then much love when it came time to schedule the early rounds of the Final Four tournament — some might say this is because it gives those two, blue-clad NC basketball stalwarts a home-court advantage, but it works for me.
I’ve been able to cover high-stakes college basketball in the Greensboro Coliseum, the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the PNC Arena, perhaps not loving every single minute of it but certainly enjoying the novelty of sitting on Press Row.
I always started with the worst seat in the press section — behind out-of-town, daily newspaper reporters covering their teams; radio guys doing lone spots on single mics; crews of TV reporters — rarely the on-air talent, who stayed by the sidelines or lurked in the media lounge eating all the popsicles, but staffers who had to actually watch the games; PR crews from competing universities breaking the cardinal rule of the press section; and, always, some local media who got credentialed just so they could watch the games.
But I liked to go longform, chronicling the entire tournament through every game, my seats in the press section getting better with each round as teams got knocked out. By the end, I’d always be sitting up front. And then I’d hole up for a couple days and drop five or six thousand words on the whole experience. I did one whole story about rooting against Duke and Carolina throughout the ACC tournament. I spent the 2012 NCAA Tournament scouring the Greensboro Coliseum for a true Cinderella story, and I found one in Lehigh, a 15-seed who beat 2-seed Duke that day 75-70. I still remember the looks of the Duke fans in the crowd, scowling, arms crossed across their chests. And I remember how, after the game, the national media flooded Duke’s locker room to find out what went wrong, while I went to the Lehigh locker room to find out what went right.
There I met the player of the game, CJ McCollum, who scored 30 points that day and went on to play in the NBA — he’s currently a shooting guard for the Portland Trailblazers — and point guard Mackey McKnight, who put up 11 points, 3 steals, 2 rebounds and 3 assists. McKnight, who would go on to play professionally in a European league, was a New Orleans native. He told me his mother went to Loyola.
See how life works?
And then, after the passage of HB 2 in 2016, North Carolina went dark as far as college basketball was concerned. The “Bathroom Bill,” as it was known, instigated an NCAA boycott and the rounds of the men’s tournament scheduled for Greensboro got relocated to Greenville, SC; then our beloved ACC, after plundering some of the Northeast teams from the Big East, relocated the tournament to, of all places, Brooklyn, NY, where they don’t even know the difference between Greensboro and Greenville.
I’ve been out of the sports-writing game myself, aside from a few short features and a profile or two in the six years since Triad City Beat has hit the scene.
But now… it’s all coming back.
We’ve had the women’s ACC Tournament running all weekend. Another Wolfpack — this one NC State — won for the first time in 29 years. And starting this week, we’ve got the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, with games running from Tuesday through Saturday night — the bracket literally just came out while I’m writing this piece. And then we’ve got a couple rounds of the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament later in March. That’s the big dance.
And I just can’t help myself.
I’ve got credentials for both men’s tournaments, along with photographer Todd Turner. We’ve pledged to cover the hell out of these games, dropping photo galleries and a column every night of gameplay.
We’ll post everything on the website every night, and send it out in an e-blast to the people who like that sort of thing.
To add to the fun, we’ll be running a Final Four bracket pool — free! This is not gambling! — with a $500 prize awarded to our First Place Finisher.
Maybe it seems like overkill to build a whole promotion around one man’s basketball jones. But that’s what we’re doing.
So, don’t try to call me this week; most texts and emails will be ignored. You can find me near the hardcourt in the Greensboro Coliseum, or in the media lounge trying to wrangle some of the popsicles away from the ESPN crew, perhaps in your inbox after I’ve filed my dispatches, and definitely every night of tournament play at triad-city-beat.com.
Enter the Ray Self Storage/TCB Basketball Jones by clicking here.