Last night, on Thanksgiving Eve, I attended a basketball game at Alumni Gym in Elon, North Carolina to watch the Elon Phoenix host the Radford Highlanders. Of course, we’re treated to a lot of big-time basketball games every Thanksgiving. We have Atlantis, Maui, and, this year, we’ve got the PK80. Those tournaments will feature several early-season matchups featuring the nation’s top teams; previews of Final Four or Elite Eight games to come.
Sure, those big-time matchups provide us with a lot to be thankful for too. But there was something about attending a small-town matchup between two mid- to low-major teams last night that really had me feeling #blessed that basketball is back. Here are a few snapshots of what we have to be thankful for this College Basketball season, no matter who’s playing.
The Beat Writer
Adam Smith does a fantastic job covering Elon Hoops for the Burlington Times-News. I’ve gotten to know Adam over the years. First as an Elon student admiring his work from afar. Then as an acquaintance for whom he’d occasionally fetch a Sprite from the media room. Last night was my first opportunity to sit next to Adam on press row during a game. It’s amazing to watch the guy work. He darts back and forth between his yellow notepad, a Word Document, and his twitter feed. He does all this while watching the game (“that dude’s got a weird looking release on his jumper, but it works,” he observes); keeping an eye on the NC State/Arizona game (“I’m sure Wolfpack Nation will handle this win well,” he says); and greeting any passerby who wants to say hello.
One season ticket holder even took a moment to touch (nay, caress) Adam’s beard as he passed. I ask Adam about the beard (I ask only the most important questions when covering a basketball game). “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever had a beard,” he tells me. “I’ve looked pretty much the same my entire life up to this point.”
At one point during the game, Adam turns to me and says, “the old school sportswriters would tell you to put a star next to that one.” Elon had just buried a 3-pointer to re-take the lead after Coach Matt Matheny called a timeout. “They’d say to star it because it was a made shot coming out of a timeout; a sign of great coaching.”
Adam is one of many beat writers who cover schools like Elon. He’s often the only guy in the post-game press conference asking coaches and players questions. It could be lonely, but instead, he chooses to embrace it by forming strong connections with the entire Elon community. He has established terrific relationships with students, interns, operations and athletics staff, and many others. His example helps tell the story of why I’m grateful for College Basketball.
Whether you’re an athlete, a referee, a coach, a broadcaster, or a fan, College Basketball (especially in North Carolina) runs in the family. At last night’s game, we saw examples of it.
One of Radford’s players, Justin Cousin, is a native of Burlington, NC. As a benefit of playing so close to home, he got his own personal cheering section of friends and family behind the Radford bench. He rewarded them with 15 points, on five 3-pointers.
If you’re an ACC fan in North Carolina, you probably know Jamie Luckie. He’s one of the ACC’s top referees, but did you know his brother, Michael, also referees Division I basketball? He was one of the referees at last night’s Elon/Radford game.
Woody Durham was the long-time “Voice of the Tar Heels.” His son, Wes (an Elon alumnus), is now the voice of the Atlanta Falcons and one of the voices of the ACC Network. Woody’s other son, Taylor, is now the voice of the Elon Phoenix. All three were in attendance at last night’s game. At the end of the game, Woody and Wes went to sit right behind Taylor as he wrapped up his post-game show.
Elon Coach Matt Matheny had his daughter sitting right there with him during the post-game press conference. His wife stood at the back of the room and proudly watched the two of them up there answering questions. Well, one of them answered questions while the other looked mostly pretty bored as her dad waxed on about fouling philosophies, shot selection, and free throw rates. The three members of the Matheny family in that room outnumbered the media members (me and Adam Smith).
College Basketball provides us with a setting where it’s easy to see families in action, appreciating one another, being gracious with one another, cheering each other on. I’m thankful for that “window of good” that college basketball allows us to see through.
This is the final season at Alumni Gym, where Elon’s been playing their home basketball games for 68 years. Even on a night that featured a non-conference foe, with few students in town, and no pep band, Alumni Gym represents so much of what I love about College Basketball. The 1,600-seat stadium allows you to see and hear a lot of what you might miss at most of the larger venues in the area.
There’s Radford’s Coach, Mike Jones, yelling at his team to “WORK, WORK” on defense. We can hear him instructing his players to “hedge” or “switch” on ball screens. We can even hear him shouting at a ref after his team is called for an illegal screen. “That’s okay, but that’s bad. Okay, but that’s bad.”
There’s the Elon bench helping count down the time remaining on the shot clock, a job normally handled by the student section.
There’s point guard Dainan Swoope looking to his coach for a set play to run late in a close game. “Your choice,” says Coach Matheny. The junior point guard has scored at least 20 points in four consecutive games and has earned the trust of his Head Coach.
There’s what almost looks like a “hazmat” sign on poster paper that somebody on the Radford bench holds up during media timeouts.
And then there’s the game itself. A 77-74 Elon win that came down to the final shot, a potential game-tying 3-pointer that missed. Highlights from this game won’t make it to SportsCenter, but for the announced attendance of 1,490, the game was exciting as anything they’d see on ESPN.
College Basketball is magic because of venues like this. It’s another setting that provides us with an opportunity to see a community in action, working for a common goal. I’m thankful for that magic.
These are just a few of the scenes from a mid-major College Basketball game in November. And to be there in person, with friends, family, and a beat writer on Thanksgiving Eve. Well, that’s something worth being thankful for.