Guest Essay: “Support This Team, Dammit”
As mentioned in my post about Denver’s 60-53 loss to CSU on Thanksgiving Eve, I had the pleasure of attending the game with Scout.com columnist Matt Zemek, a.k.a. @MattZemek_CFN (for college football & basketball), a.k.a. @mzemek (for tennis & pro sports), a.k.a. @RealHowardBeale (for intelligent progressive politics with a Catholic bent).
We jointly live-tweeted the game; you can view the results of that endeavor at Storify or at the bottom of my post. Matt was also kind enough to do a write-up of the game for this site, which I am presenting below as a guest post.
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Basketball Prophets With Honor
Guest Essay by Matt Zemek
A fellow named Jesus – you might have heard of him – was not as accurate or precise in his public statements as you might first think.
The carpenter’s son from Nazareth uttered many controversial statements in his day, one of them being, “A prophet is without honor in his hometown.” How disappointing it must be to realize that a spiritual pioneer of the highest order could not quite capture reality in all its fullness and actuality.
The Denver Pioneers, you see, ought to register their disagreement with that other pioneer from the Middle East. They might not realize it, mind you, but the Pioneers bathed themselves in honor on Wednesday night, when I was lucky enough to observe them from an upper-level press booth at Magness Arena on the DU campus. Denver lost on the scoreboard to the Colorado State Rams, falling short in a 60-53 defensive grinder, but my takeaway from the night’s proceedings was that the Pios are very much worth rooting for, a team that a different sort of pioneer proclaimer, Walt Whitman, could appreciate.
We know what Jesus meant. Prophets – voices of a countercultural message – are uniquely uncomfortable in the place where they grow up. Familiarity within a given landscape makes it easier for the populace to take the prophet for granted. If that prophet preaches an inconvenient message, resistance or withdrawal become the prevailing responses from the masses. Acceptance only emerges when success emerges in all its materialist splendor and media-fueled color. “It’s a process” – the mantra of Denver head coach Joe Scott – is not the sexy song that Denverites are inclined to welcome with hosannas and high-volume season-ticket buys.
Brendan Loy, the creator of the Mile High Mids basketball blog and its accompanying Twitter handle (@MileHighMids), welcomed me to Denver on Wednesday. Along with Mike Kennedy – DU’s media relations director for men’s basketball – Brendan hosted me on Thanksgiving eve for the DU-Colorado State game. On the drive to Magness Arena – the same building where two wanna-be prophets, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, told Americans all sorts of things they wanted to hear a month and a half ago – Brendan shared with me the finer points of life as a member of the DU basketball community.
For any coach, player or fan who carries the University of Denver name, the view from the Mile High City is not defined by a bright light flowing over the horizon. It is instead dominated by the truly Rocky Mountains, those massive structures – cold, jagged, steep, dark – that are so hard to climb. Denver, as a city, dances to the tune played by professional sports. On the DU campus, hockey is the elite program, the product whose success is substantial enough to draw interest from the student body and the general public. Denver might have found a more natural geographical fit in the Western Athletic Conference after making annual March treks to Hot Springs, Ark., for the Sun Belt Tournament, but the reality of Denver Pioneer basketball is that its process is not being seen by many members of its native community.
On Wednesday, Colorado State fans claimed most of the seats at Magness Arena and created an even larger share of what little noise filled the building. CSU fans raised mighty shouts of exultation (and, on occasion, disapproval) after various bang-bang plays near the basket ran their course, but when possessions began to take shape at the top of the key or any spot on the floor that was at least 15 feet from the basket, the arena – both fan bases, not just Denver’s – was quiet. The vibe was so odd, and what that meant for the homestanding Pioneers was that they had to face one of the toughest challenges in big-time competitive athletics: They had to generate their own energy from within.
The Pios couldn’t ride on the wave of adrenaline created by the crowd… because there wasn’t much of a pro-Denver contingent to speak of, and because the DU fans in attendance weren’t able to create a buzz whenever Colorado State had the ball. When an arena or stadium is flat, an athlete can’t access the electricity of the outside environment… because there’s no tension, nothing to create friction or any attraction of opposite forces. The opposite of love, remember, is not hatred, but indifference. Love and hate are both manifestations of caring; it is apathy, the absence of caring, which represents the true polar opposite of love.
One can see with even greater clarity that Jesus was wrong. His life as a prophet, a teller of an inconvenient message, was met with hatred more than indifference in his hometown. He wasn’t quietly ignored, but fiercely resisted. Yes, the lack of acceptance remains the common thread in contexts defined by either indifference or resistance, but in many ways, it’s the indifference which cuts deeper. You know this, Mid-Majority readers.
You know this when Butler or George Mason or VCU or Northern Iowa or Saint Mary’s or Davidson or any of several other schools become the pesky lightning-rod team that irritates the hell out of the Big Boys. You know this when Powerhouse University is forced to share the stage with a smaller school, forced to have to give its attention to a school without a Brand Name, an institutionally or culturally accepted presence within the media-industrial complex. You know this in the realm of politics, when a person on the periphery of politics continues to gain attention from power brokers and opinion shapers, even if that attention is almost entirely defined by withering scorn and relentlessly negative coverage. If they’re paying attention to you, you’ve won. You’ve forced Big Media or Entrenched Power to account for you all the time.
It’s indifference – being ignored – which manifests a lack of cultural heft and political leverage. Americans so frequently make the mistake of thinking that the best way to get back at an opponent is to unleash hateful or disparaging speech at the person or group they want to defeat in the public square. In reality, the most damaging thing that can be said to a competitive opponent is simply this: “Who?”
That’s the mountain Denver Pioneer basketball is trying to climb. It is trying to get past the “Whoville” stage and transform the size of a city’s – and a campus’s – heart. A night of quiet possessions – and loud post-basket eruptions from Colorado State fans – showed that DU basketball is immersed in a world defined by indifference. The Pios are surrounded by… well, their surroundings don’t amount to much.
Here’s where the whole narrative gets turned upside-down, however… and the conclusion of this essay arrives.
Up to now, the situation facing DU basketball has been explained, analyzed and dissected on a linear political level. Phrased differently, the previous words and sentences you’ve read have dealt with the entity known as horse-race analysis – where a person or team stands in relationship to competitors of all kinds. The paragraphs preceding this one have attempted to show how much of an uphill climb DU basketball must make to win acceptance, to change the hearts and minds of a city populace that prefers pro sports and of a campus population that gravitates to ice hockey. Politically and economically – as a member of a frail WAC and as a program bereft of an enduring basketball tradition – Denver appears to be without honor in its hometown… and not as a hated team, but as an ignored team, making the sting of quiet Magness nights even more acute in a counterintuitive way. The fact that Denver has a losing record with a young team in a rebuilding year only adds to the sense – the linear, political, horse-race sense – that the Pioneers’ wagon has broken down and won’t be repaired anytime soon in what could legitimately be called a college basketball wilderness area.
However, one point I have always emphasized in my life as a chronicler and fan of sports (this holds true in my approach to politics, religion, and life’s much bigger questions as well…) is that while horse-race analysis has its place, the family of human beings – with or without a press pass – must (not should, MUST) devote most of its time to a different sort of analysis: recommendation-based analysis, advocacy-rooted analysis.
Horse-race analysis tells someone where three horses stand at the final turn of the Kentucky Derby. Horse-race analysis tells you which candidate is leading in the polls. Horse-race analysis tells you which college basketball programs inhabit prosperous or poverty-stricken situations. Horse-race analysis tells you if a certain team in a certain city and conference is likely to gain a foothold with the ticket-buying public and win enough games to make the NCAA tournament. Horse-race tells you that Denver Pioneer basketball is the prophet without honor in its hometown.
Recommendation-based analysis – analysis of things not as they are, but as they can and should be – is the kind of analysis Robert Kennedy… and Walt Whitman… and that guy named Jesus would want more of. Recommendation-based analysis tells people where they can go in their lives if they dare to dream, what they can create if they dare to invest. Advocacy-rooted analysis tells you not where Denver Pioneer basketball stands on a political level, but where the Pios stand on a soul level. Advocacy-rooted analysis tells you not that Denver basketball isn’t catching on with the public; it tells you that this is a team the public should support. This is a team worth cheering, a team worth admiring, a team worth a very affordable price at the ticket window.
Remember what was said several paragraphs earlier about the difficulty of creating your own energy as an athlete inside a flat arena, an environment without an electric charge. Denver, despite playing in a sparsely-occupied home building in front of fans mostly clad in Colorado State green, DID in fact create a lot of energy from within. The Pioneers limited Colorado State to 41.5-percent shooting from the field. They forced 14 turnovers while coughing up only seven. They collected seven steals while surrendering only three. The Pios, despite being outsized and outweighed in the paint, blocked four shots compared to only three for CSU. The Rams returned multiple starters – core players, too, not just role players – from a group that made the NCAA tournament last March, and Denver held them to 60 points. Keep in mind, too, that the 60-point total was inflated to a considerable degree by the free-throw-and-garbage-bucket parade known as “endgame basketball.” Denver’s defense, adjusted for natural game flow, allowed a low-to-mid-50s point total to Colorado State. The Pios busted their tails for 40 minutes on Wednesday, and they summoned every ounce of energy they had in order to do so. They didn’t draw upon outside energy from the crowd… because there was no energy to speak of.
Let’s sum things up quickly and neatly: Just like Don Cheadle’s character – the federal drug agent – in the movie Traffic – and just like that Jesus guy you might have heard of, the Pioneers put forth a maximum amount of effort in the face of politically or situationally discouraging horse-race circumstances. They did not allow odds or percentages or the emotional reality of outside indifference to detract from their commitment to their craft, their pursuit of finishing the task they were called to perform to the best of their ability. This is the life of a prophet, the person who speaks truth precisely when said truth is inconvenient or feels so insubstantial compared to the prevailing political tide, the dominant attitudinal setting of the masses. This is the life of the person or group who goes forward with resolute strength precisely when the road is either invisible or colored by an enveloping darkness.
This is the path of the honorable spiritual warrior. This is the path of the wisdom person. This is the path of a life lived well. This is the path followed by men and women in full.
The punch line to this essay is that Jesus was, of course, entirely right in his Gospel statement. The prophet is without honor in his hometown… but that’s true in the horse-race sense of the expression. Jesus knew that human beings react to prophets, to inconvenient workers, to persistent whistleblowers, with anything but acceptance. (Sometimes, indifference is the response; on other times, hatreds do emerge.) The point of what Jesus was saying, of course, is that in terms of recommending or advocating for a better way of carrying oneself through life and all its challenges, the prophet must realize that he or she is going to be met with this lack of acceptance. The prophet must find true steel within his heart and soul, true fortitude in his bones and marrow, to carry on when the horse-race crowd tut-tuts about everything that’s wrong.
Let that not be the focus; let that not be the main takeaway; let that not be the defining idea you gain from this appraisal of the Denver Pioneer men’s basketball program.
Let the main message be this: The Pios carry themselves with great honor. They work hard under difficult circumstances, meriting a maximum of trust and the fullness of fidelity in an age when so much of big-time athletics – played at state universities and in the professional ranks – offers nothing but corruption, disillusionment, stolen paychecks, and exploited athletes.
This is a team that isn’t being supported. That’s the accurate-enough horse-race analysis of DU basketball in November of 2012. Fine.
Forget the horse-race analysis, though, and focus on the recommendation-based analysis: Support this team, dammit. It exhibits everything you could possibly want in a team, everything you have always wanted to trust with your investment of time, money and passion.