Return on Investment
My 800 Games Project writeup of Denver’s win over Middle Tennessee State is now online at the Mid-Majority. Unfortunately, in my rush to submit it last night, I failed to catch some errors, and more generally failed to give it a much-needed final edit that would have tightened up the piece and made it better. So I’m going to republish it here, in full, with the edits I wish I could make on the TMM version. Enjoy.
(Reminder for the uninitiated: @800GP writeups are supposed to be written from the writer’s individual perspective; hence all the first-person language and self-referential stuff. And the stuffed basketballs(z).)
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A lot of investments paid off Saturday at Denver’s Magness Arena.
For me, it was the payoff of the Emotional Investment I made starting in 2010, when I was belatedly inspired by Kyle Whelliston’s Season 6 “investments” essay to adopt Denver as “my” mid-major team, start a blog about the Pioneers, and begin attending and covering their games. Through the roller coaster of the last two seasons, the one thing that was consistently missing was a true college basketball atmosphere: DU is a hockey school, and the students simply do not come out in force for hoops. So even when I’ve seen the Pioneers pull off big wins — over North Texas and Arkansas State last year, over Southern Miss and St. Mary’s this year — they’ve been devoid of that emotional oomph that makes Our Game so great. My investment in the Pioneers was still worthwhile, but it had never led to that singular moment where I thought to myself, “Wow, this is amazing.”
Until Saturday night.
With ESPN coming to Magness Arena for the first time ever, and student leaders staging an unprecedented coordinated push to make the game a can’t-miss event at the heart of a big weekend sports party on campus, the student body finally decided that DU basketball was worth supporting in a big way. As you can see in the video above, they came out in force to an extent previously unimaginable for a Denver basketball game.
For the coaches and players, meanwhile, Saturday was the payoff — or at least, *a* payoff, the latest and greatest payoff yet, hopefully foreshadowing more and even greater payoffs to come — of years of hard work, from the recruiting trail to the practice court to the far-flung arenas of the Sun Belt Conference. “That was unbelievable! The student section was unbelievable!” said co-captain Rob Lewis, barely able to contain himself. Lewis, a fifth-year senior who was Joe Scott’s very first recruit to Denver, said emphatically he’s never seen anything like it at DU.
Saturday was even a reward for ex-players whose investments of sweat and tears helped build Denver toward this crescendo. “This is something that we’ve worked hard for for years,” DU alum Kyle Lewis, last year’s point guard and senior captain, told me after the game as he waited near the locker room to congratulate his former coach and teammates. Lewis had watched the game from a few rows behind the Pioneer bench. “It’s just great to see that finally we get the national exposure that this school has deserved, and not only that, but a great win while we’re doing it.”
For administrators and alums, Saturday was the payoff of vision, hard work, and, well, literal investments, i.e., lots of money, that went into turning Denver into a Division I program, building this fantastic arena, and having faith that — like in Field of Dreams — if they built it, success would come. “People dreamed about this,” said a ebullient Peg Bradley-Doppes, DU’s Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation. “You saw Dan Ritchie and Joy Burns come out on the court at the end — they built this facility 12 years ago, and we became Division I in all sports, and for them to see this type of crowd and this energy and the kids singing the fight song and rushing the floor — it was great.”
But now I’m getting ahead of myself, and I’ve spoiled the ending. Let’s take a step back: all the way back to January 11, in fact.
January 11 is when the Worldwide Leader announced that it would televise the Denver-Middle Tennessee State game. It would be the first-ever basketball broadcast from Magness Arena on the ESPN Family of Networks.
At the time of the announcement, Denver was 13-3 overall, 3-1 in the Sun Belt, and ranked #17 in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25. Middle Tennessee was 15-2, 4-0, and ranked #7 in the mid-major poll. DU vs. MTSU looked like a battle of mid-major heavyweights and conceivable at-large contenders; this would be sort of like an in-conference BracketBusters game.
Since the ESPN announcement, MTSU had improved to 10-0 in the league and gained national attention with a close loss at Vanderbilt. (They likely would have been ranked in the national Top 25 polls if they’d won, which they almost did.) Denver, on the other hand, had gone 3-4 (1-4 on the road) in the weeks that followed the announcement, falling out of the Mid-Major Top 25 and off the national radar. The Pioneers’ slide hit its nadir in a heartbreaking, referee-assisted 8-on-5 defeat at Louisiana-Lafayette’s Cajundome on Thursday night, some 40 hours before tipoff of the Middle Tennessee game. In short, Denver was limping into the spotlight, and it wasn’t entirely clear if Saturday’s game would live up to its original billing.
It also wasn’t entirely clear, for a while, if the game would even happen. At the very moment that Denver was losing to Lafayette (and, simultaneously, Middle Tennessee was beating North Texas in Denton), snow was beginning to fall in Denver, the beginning of an expected 36-hour snowstorm that would ultimately break records in the metro area. I took a time lapse video of the storm from our house, using Timelapse Camera HD on my iPad:
By Friday morning, a ton of snow had already fallen (don’t be fooled by the relatively paltry accumulations in the foreground on the video above; those ledges are on my front porch, largely shielded by the roof and the wind direction), and much activity in the Denver area was shut down, moreso as you got closer to the Eastern plains. Yet both Denver and Middle Tennessee were scheduled to fly from Dallas to DIA — which is out toward those plains — on Friday morning.
Lots of flights into Denver were being cancelled due to the weather, and I was worried the teams wouldn’t make it. I fretted that a postponement of the game would likely mean a cancellation of the ESPN broadcast, as I suspected that Denver’s aforementioned slide meant the Worldwide Leader would not go out of its way to work a rescheduled matchup into the lineup. The snowstorm, I feared, could wipe out Denver’s big moment in the national spotlight, relegating the Pioneers to ESPNU and/or ESPN3.
Thankfully, the Pioneers and Blue Raiders were on one of the lucky Denver-bound flights that managed to take off — and I do mean “one.” The two teams were on the same flight, much to the surprise of both. As ESPN’s Andy Katz and others watched and tracked the situation via Twitter, the teams boarded Flight 1087 and, with lots of legs in the aisle, took off. “I couldn’t believe it was happening,” said sophomore Chris Udofia of the discovery that they’d be sharing a flight with the next day’s opponent. “It was definitely an awkward situation.” The team members were interspersed throughout the flight; Joe Scott had a middle seat in between two of MTSU’s star players. Heh.
Even after the teams landed safely at DIA on Friday, one had to wonder if the turnout at Magness Arena on Saturday — which I had expected to be quite high after I saw the big crowd at the Arkansas State game — would suffer because of the storm. Asking people to attend a basketball game in the midst of a storm that’s dumping more than a foot of snow on them (upwards of two feet in drifts) is asking a lot.
Thankfully, by midday Saturday, the snow had stopped falling and the sun had come out, starting the melting process. Local roads remained treacherous in spots — the entrance to the alley that leads to our garage, and a couple dozen others in our neighborhood, was virtually impassable due to all the slush and walled-in water from snow melt — but major roads were fine. My drive to Magness Arena was a breeze once I escaped our alley. I put on some Petty for the drive, and wondered whether it was a good or bad omen that shuffle play landed on “Even the Losers” just as I was pulling into the Magness parking lot. (Was Tom calling the Pioneers “losers,” and if so, did that mean they’d “get lucky sometimes” tonight?)
After an obligatory Ballz-at-Magness photo tweet that surely drew some confused stares from some of the dozens of people streaming into the arena as I took it — hey, at least I’m not alone in this silliness — I walked into the Ritchie Center. (Incidentally, for those unfamiliar with DU’s campus, Magness Arena and Joy Burns Arena are both housed within the sprawling, beautiful Ritchie Center. Hence the reference earlier to Ms. Burns and Mr. Ritchie as having “built” the arena.) I promptly ran into Andrew Fielding, a.k.a. @skyvan, a DU senior and photographer, who advised me to head back out of the building, toward the campus green. There were “hundreds of drunk kids” out there pre-gaming, he told me, adding: “They built a snow castle.” I promptly set off to check it out.
They had, indeed, built a snow castle:
This was all part of a coordinated effort by student government, fraternities/sororities, and the student spirit committee to really build up this game, turn it into a must-see event, and encourage students to attend. They essentially made it the middle piece of a three-part DU sports weekend, sandwiched in between the Friday-night and Saturday-night rivalry hockey games against Colorado College.
Anyway, I only caught the tail end of the festivities on the green, but they were still a sight to behold. Here’s a video taken by the DU Athletic Department, showing how things looked a bit earlier:
“This is @DU_MHoops??” I tweeted as I took in the scene. “I think there may be an actual student section today…”
Oh — and there was actually a scalper. For a DU basketball game. And I saw him successfully complete at least one transaction. Incredible.
When I returned to the Ritchie Center and finally walked into Magness Arena proper, I was impressed that every seat in the lower sections had a pom-pom. I was even more impressed with the student section, which immediately confirmed my tweeted suspicion that it would actually exist. Boy, did it ever exist.
One of the day’s most memorable moments happened when the Pioneers emerged from the tunnel to take the court for warmups. They ran by the student section, which erupted into cheers, amplified by the band promptly breaking into the fight song. Denver’s basketball team never, ever gets an opportunity to make an entrance like that. I have no connection to this school beyond a self-selected Emotional Investment, but I’m not gonna lie: I got goosebumps at that moment.
The players would later tell me it was special for them, too. “It’s something that really has never happened before, so that was really cool,” said Rob Lewis, before adding another “Unbelievable!” Udofia also appreciated the students’ enthusiastic welcome, calling it “heartwarming.”
As tip time approached, it became apparent that the overall game attendance was actually somewhat less than at the Arkansas State game, as the upper sections were largely empty — probably due to the snowstorm and a lack of “Rising Stars.” (Officially, attendance was listed as 6,006, which probably translates into a real total between 5,000 and 5,500 out of the arena’s 7,200 capacity.) But the excitement and energy of the student section, and of the lower sections generally, made up for the empty seats ten times over. “Hot damn, it’s a real college basketball atmosphere!” I tweeted.
At this point, I should probably go ahead and post a few of the pictures I took of the scene, starting with the one that was retweeted by the Associated Press, featuring ESPN’s broadcast team, Dave Flemming & Sean Farnham, and DU co-eds behind them, getting some TV time:
That’s Joey Leon in the bottom picture, taking a photo of the student section with his camera phone. Joey is a DU senior and co-chair of the student spirit committee, and also a pep band member. He played a big role in organizing all the student events to encourage this tremendous turnout, and was clearly soaking it all in. That’s another “investment” that paid off Saturday.
“I think it went really great,” Leon would tell me after the game. “I bet we had 400 or 500 kids out here. Students absolutely loved it. There was face paint, people had signs, everyone got gameday shirts. And I think, hopefully, especially with the win, people will come back next time, and it will get bigger and better from here.”
“Bigger and better” would be a tough standard to meet. I already posted a video that includes (starting at the 2:30 mark) the opening tip and the student section reaction to Denver’s quick basket to take a 2-0 lead. I’m not saying it was Cameron Indoor or anything, but for DU hoops, it was pretty damn awesome.
After watching the beginning of the action from the perspective of that video — the baseline near the student section — I returned to my “home base” on press row, on the opposite end, to tend to my live-tweeting, and also try and observe the game action with greater focus.
What quickly became clear was that this was a very competitive game, and also very “aesthetically pleasing,” as Matt Zemek would put it. Both teams were performing at a high level, and it did not appear initially that either would be able to pull away from the other.
What also became apparent was that sophomore star Chris Udofia was a beast. He had 11 points in the first half, and would finish with a career-high 27 for the game. At some point, it occurred to me that the student section would go absolutely nuts when Udofia got around to throwing down one of his trademark #OMGDUNX. In the photo below, he had an opportunity to try for it, but on that particular play, a layup was the safer choice — and so, being a Joe Scott player through and through, a layup is what he did:
(Eventually, Udofia did get a dunk — several of them, in fact — and the crowd did indeed go wild. I’ll have a video of one such moment a bit later.)
Late in the first half, I opened ESPN3 on my laptop, to view the live feed of the game I was at. I was amused to see ESPN displaying hockey banners, presumably talking about how DU is a hockey school just now starting to embrace hoops. Yup.
I was also far too amused, as I always am, by the lag between real life and the ESPN3 feed — or, as I like to refer to it, the rift in the space-time continuum whereby I am watching a basketball game IN THE FUTURE. (Yeah. I’m a nerd.)
Anyway, the score at halftime was Denver 34, Middle Tennessee 31. Amazingly, Denver was shooting only 1-for-5 from #superhoop land, and yet they led by three points over this excellent, almost-ranked opponent. For a team that prides itself on three-point shooting, this was a really good sign. “Now imagine what happens if they get hot from 3,” I thought to myself.
As it turned out, Denver would only actually get two more 3-pointers all night — but they were huge ones. After MTSU rallied from 38-33 to tie the game at 38 with 17:32 left, a pair of 3s by Brian Stafford and Chris Udofia at 17:08 and 15:53 gave Denver a 6-point lead. They would never trail again.
A bit later, a pair of old-fashioned three-point plays — for which I proposed, and used, the hashtag #YeOldeSuperhoope — first by Udofia at 5:10 and then by freshman Royce O’Neale at 4:28, helped Denver put the game away for good. Here’s a video showing the first of those plays, and the student section reaction:
And here are two photos of the second and-one play, as O’Neale watches the ball hang on the rim, and the crowd goes wild after it falls in:
While we’re at it, here are a few more crowd reaction shots from the final minutes:
As the clock wound down, Joey had some words of wisdom for me: “If we win, you’re going to want to be on the other side of the court, because we’re going to f***ing rush this s**t.” Oddly, this possibility had not occurred to me before, but as soon as Leon said it, I realized that of course it would happen.
(Later, I would learn that this court-storming had caused some choice reactions from People On The Internet With Opinions. Let me just say this: I don’t know if Denver’s court-storming adheres to the “rules” for such things, but I do know the overarching rule is often expressed as, “Act like you’ve been there before” — and that rule just doesn’t apply here. Denver HAS NOT been here before: on ESPN2, in a big national game, shellacking a respected opponent, in front of a large student section going wild. The overwhelming sense of giddy excitement in that building lent itself perfectly to a court-storming; it felt completely natural. If it was wrong, then dammit, I don’t want to be right.)
Once I realized the court-storming was going to happen, I had a decision to make. At first, I followed Joey’s advice, and headed to the opposite sideline, all the better to photograph the oncoming rush. But then I realized, wait, DU Bally needs to be here for this. That’s right: I was thinking first and foremost of my stuffed basketball, the one who’s been with me through this whole project, from the beginning of the Emotional Investment. It just wouldn’t be right for DU Bally to be stuck in the corner of the press table on the opposite baseline during Denver basketball’s greatest moment of national TV triumph. So I went over and got him. I briefly put him near the Denver bench…
…and pondered what exactly to do. Finally, with less than two minutes left, I decided there was only one course of action: I must rush the court with the students, and take Bally with me.
Just as I arrived in the court-storming staging area, the killjoy rope-holders also arrived. That’s right: a rope. They were going to stop the inevitable, imminent surging mass of humanity with…a thin yellow rope? Riiiiight.
It truly was a fool’s rope: the thing obviously stood no chance of stopping the rush, but it could very easily have caused injury. Indeed, during the early moments of the court-storming, I briefly fell down, as did several girls behind me, precisely because the rope was making things far more chaotic than they needed to be. People ahead of us had to slow down to get under the rope, while people behind us kept pushing forward, creating a trampling risk that wouldn’t have been so acute without the rope. For a split second, I found myself in the uncomfortable and slightly scary position of the rope pushing against my forehead, or rather against Bally who was against my forehead, as I tried to slip under it while others pushed and pulled. The court-storming, by itself, was not particularly a safety hazard; the rope made it one. I guess that’s another example of how DU “hasn’t been there before.” Here’s a hint: next time, NO ROPE.
In any case, rope or no rope, the students rushed the court, and Bally and I rushed with them. Here’s the video. The rush starts just after the 1:10 mark.
(Shortly before the court-storming, I’m pretty sure you can hear students chanting “S-B-C! S-B-C!”, as in Sun Belt Conference — an amusing reference to the famed “S-E-C!” chants in football. Granted, it’s a rather nonsensical reference in the context of a conference game where both teams are from the SBC. Still, I laughed. Note also the “olé” chant. Heh.)
[UPDATE: I’m told the crowd was not chanting “S-B-C,” but rather “F*** CC,” referring not to the Federal Communications Commission, but rather, ironically enough, hurling a televised epithet at DU’s archrival in hockey, Colorado College, against whom Game 2 of the weekend’s home-and-home series was at that point less than three hours away in Colorado Springs. Thus proving that, even at its moment of basketball triumph, this is, after all, still a hockey school.]
This is the second time I’ve stormed the floor at a basketball game. The first time was last March, in Greeley, when Northern Colorado beat Montana in the Big Sky title game to advance to its first-ever NCAA Tournament. I extensively live-tweeted that event too, and after the court-storming, I wrote: “I will say this. @midmajority is right about emotional investments. This was fun. But it’s NOTHING like how I would feel if it were Denver. This was parachuting into someone else’s celebration, and having a grand old time with it. But it’s not like following a team from the start.”
I can’t compare apples to apples, since Denver obviously didn’t advance to an NCAA Tournament on Saturday — they just won a big conference game that happened to be on teevee, in front of an unusually big, loud crowd that came out because the game was on teevee. But having said that, the feeling was definitely different. The Northern Colorado experience was epic, but it wasn’t the culmination of anything for me personally. This was the culmination, at least thus far, of my emotional investment in Denver basketball.
When I got home and my wonderful wife, who watched our three daughters all afternoon and took them to a friend’s birthday party solo so that I could attend the game, asked me whether I’d had a good time — saying words to the effect of, “I hope it was really awesome, because I’m exhausted” — I told her that, yes, it had been awesome: really, really awesome. Hard-to-put-into-words awesome. Why? Because it was my emotional investment paying off.
To an outsider, beating Middle Tennessee State at home may not seem worthy of all this. But if you were there, if you know the circumstances, if you know the history, if you’re invested in this team, then you understand. Everyone I spoke to Saturday, when I shed my court-storming fandom and resumed inhabiting the role of the Fake Journalist, certainly understood.
“I mean, it was beautiful,” said Kyle Lewis, the alum ex-captain. “It was a great thing for the University of Denver, a great thing for the 12 or 13 guys in that locker room…It’s been a night-and-day change from last season with students, fans, everyone — there’s some excitement around the University of Denver. It’s great to see, and I think people are starting to understand it, and they’re starting to join the program and come along as we move forward.”
Head coach Joe Scott, asked by the Denver Post’s Irv Moss if it was the best atmosphere he’s seen, said: “At Denver? Oh, yeah.” He added: “We’ve had good crowds all year, but in terms of our university engagement and our student involvement and our university community involvement…it was huge.”
Scott said he’d told his players that “sometimes in life, you only get one shot,” and “for our guys to step up to the plate today and perform at such a high level, with that one shot here, with the students and everybody watching — we showed everybody who we’ve been all year long…and now our students have seen it, and maybe that can sort of galvanize our student body.”
No one was more excited or emotional than Bradley-Doppes, the vice chancellor (essentially Denver’s athletic director). “It is amazing what [the student section] did today,” she said, “being the sixth man on the court, but also branding our university on a national platform. That’s what makes DU so special is the kids, and their energy, their passion.” Bradley-Doppes was so overflowing with joy about the occasion, she extended our interview after I had asked my last question and was starting to walk away, pulling me back to add one more thing. There was no question this was a years-long investment that she was seeing pay off before her eyes. She’d help build it, and finally, they were coming.
That said, okay, maybe there was one person more excited than Bradley-Doppes: Rob Lewis, the senior co-captain. Lewis was plainly beside himself with glee over the crowd. After giving typical measured, slightly monotone answers to most of the regular basketball-related post-game questions, his eyes lit up and his voice took on a completely different tone when asked about the atmosphere. He said the word “unbelievable” four separate times. “They were huge,” he concluded, referring to the students. “That was really cool.”
It was really cool. In fact, it was amazing. And this time, I got the full high.