I’m 19 years old and I find myself seated on the very first row of the oddly named Alumni Hall in Annapolis Maryland. A perfect spot to watch a Patriot League championship game. The jersey I wear is almost identical to those of five of the players on the floor—the crimson and grey polyester of the Colgate Red Raiders—but my number 35 is obscured by a clumsy-looking warm-up jersey, the type you would expect from a high school team in upstate Minnesota, not a Division I basketball team vying for it’s first trip to the NCAA tournament since the days of Adonal Foyle. This is a pretty standard spot for me. I’ve only played in 14 games all year, tallying 49 total minutes, 11 rebounds, four blocks, one steal, and a paltry 4 points. Bench-warming is my job, and business is excellent.
Seated next to me is my friend Chris. He doesn’t play either, but he doesn’t play for a much different reason. While Chris is a much more talented player than I will ever be, his body hates his basketball career. A typical game sees him at my side, my partner in fan-ridicule, but a typical practice sees Chris’s long hair flopping away as he half-heartily pedals his exercise bike through the distance of another Tour-de-France, his practice time cut short by another shoulder injury. While I was relatively new to the bench-warming game, Chris, a junior, was a veteran. Legend has it that Chris once ordered, paid for, and consumed an entire hot dog while on the bench of a game in which he was medically cleared to play. Bold would be a good description for Chris. Bold, and big, and hilarious.
During the regular season, Chris and I are model cheerleaders. We congratulate each bench-bound player with a handshake, shout encouragement when our team trails, and take part in raucous celebrations when our team is victorious. Even though we play sparingly and have little direct impact on the game’s outcome, wins are good for us too. They sometimes lead to days free from practice, decreased devilish conditioning drills, or the permission to listen to headphones on the bus ride back to snowy Hamilton, NY.
But back in Annapolis, we find ourselves acting peculiarly. When our team scores, we rise, solemnly, and applaud in a lackluster manner, as if under contract to root for a team we care nothing about. When the opposing team scores, or when our team errs, Chris and I exchange clandestine fist pounds under the seat, or slap hidden low-fives, with extra skin. Traitorous as we are, we feel neither guilt nor shame for our behavior. We have a dog in this fight too.
This scenario can end in two ways—two alternate realities if you will. If we win, we proceed to the Patriot League championship game where we have a chance to play for the opportunity to participate in the NCAA Tournament. Many would envy this opportunity, maybe even maim for it. But in a scheduling kick to the testes, the championship game doesn’t occur until the following weekend. Normally, this would be inconsequential, just another week of basketball and classes and suicide-inducing gloomy weather, but this year, the week between the games is Colgate University’s spring break. Additionally, there is no guarantee that we will win that championship game. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Nine times out of ten, we slog through a week of practice on an empty campus, hop back on the bus for another six hour ride to Annapolis, just to be beheaded by the #1 seed in the season’s final game.
If we lose, we spend the evening watching Chris try to finish an entire Papa John’s large pizza, while some of us finalize our trips home for Spring Break, and others, like me, excitedly call our parents to tell them they won’t have to postpone the flight we had riskily booked before the tournament even began. The next day, the kids whose parents don’t live close to Annapolis, and haven’t already absconded with their children, take a joy-filled, coachless bus ride back to Hamilton, where they will go their separate ways for a week of leisure and heavenly basketballlessness.
And so, we root against our team.
It sounds like Chris and I are bad teammates. And that might be pretty accurate. We are traitors, team cancers, saboteurs even. But for a 19-year-old student athlete like me, who isn’t used to being away from his family for so long, (and who has had only one opportunity to see them—a quick three day jaunt home for Jesus’s birthday— since his freshman year began back in August) the thought of missing one of the two trips home for an almost hopeless bid for a Patriot League Championship I had nearly nothing to do with, is almost too much to bear.
For someone like Chris, and for all of us to some extent, the realization that the glory of being a Division I athlete isn’t nearly as glorious as we thought it would be is the real unmotivating factor. Colgate’s 3000 seat Cotterell Court is rarely even half full and never as raucous as any of our high school games had been. Nobody recognizes us at parties, or buys us drinks at the bar. No television exposure, unlicensed leases on luxury cars, or sorority girl BJs. And while all of these expectations are exaggerated and unrealistic, we did expect somebody to care. And besides the team, and the families of the players who played, nobody really did.
But we aren’t bitter. We just aren’t fools. We realize that a trip to the championship game of the Patriot League tournament will probably be a little underwhelming as well. Much more underwhelming than the end of the basketball season and a full week off to spend with our families.
In the end, we lose the game. Chris finishes that whole Papa John’s pizza. We enjoy the bus ride home. And I am very happy I don’t have to cancel my trip back to Kansas, where I look forward to some home-cooked meals, a clean toilet, and some peaceful rest in a room that doesn’t have an ill-tempered Mathlete sleeping directly below me.
Maybe Chris and I just don’t have the heart, or the drive, or the need to be great. And maybe that’s why we didn’t go to a better Division I school in the first place. But we can’t change who we are. And in this situation, after a grueling season that saw a lot of personal disappointment, the drive to spend time with our families and to be done with basketball this year greatly exceeds any drive to ‘compete’ in a Patriot League Championship game. And so as the game ends, and as we shake hands with our counterparts on the Bucknell team, we send out a wordless look of acknowledgement at their plight; a “Sorry dude” to all of those non-participants, forced to endure another week of practice for the League Championship game, or the NCAA Tournament, or God forbid, the NIT. And as Chris and I walk off the court, if you watch us very closely, you can see me giving him another low-five, with extra skin.