A Season Inside: A Winter with Northwestern Basketball

 The first college basketball game I attended was a pretty epic one. The battle between the George Washington Colonels and the Charlotte 49ers on March 4, 2006, had tournament implications, culminated in a GW buzzer beater, and was celebrated by a court storm of rabid fans. Then a five-year-old preschooler, I recall a couple things: the big GW mascot, eating crackers all the way in the very top row, and seeing everybody go crazy about sports. 

It took another 13 years before I would see another college basketball game. And I didn’t stop with one — after years of filling out brackets and watching from the comforts of my couch, I had a season on the inside. 

Covering college basketball for The Daily Northwestern has been a surreal and rewarding experience. I was amazed plenty at Welsh-Ryan Arena this winter: by buzzer-beaters, by comebacks, by All-America-caliber players, by Pete Nance’s facial expressions, by court storms, by celebrities, by lacrosse star-turned-point guards, by the rare Northwestern victory and by Benny the Bull jumping off a trampoline just a couple feet in front of me and throwing down a nasty dunk. 

For any year to start attending college basketball, 2020 was a wild one. I heard the stunning news of NU’s upset to Merrimack (a team that had become a Division 1 team only days before) in their first game, saw coaches and players play through the devastation of Kobe Bryant’s death, and watched as the season’s end, the Big Ten tournament, was called off for a global pandemic. It was a season to remember. 

After binging football games every weekend during the fall, I had no immediate aspirations to attend Northwestern basketball games. The team was at the bottom of the Big Ten, NU doesn’t have a particularly fantastic basketball culture, and I would likely be covering another sport during the winter for The Daily. Plus, carving out time to make the cold trek to Welsh-Ryan didn’t seem like the most appealing of activities, even if it meant getting to take advantage of free basketball. 

My concerns seemed validated once Northwestern dropped its first game to Merrimack in a game that was not particularly close, and I had a convenient reason not to be invested in our basketball team. 

I did make it to one game, though — Northwestern versus Radford, my first game covering for The Daily. According to my sports editor Andrew, the sports staff was having each of the freshman get a chance to cover a game in the fall, and my chance came against a mid-major opponent in Radford that had made March Madness a year before, but should not pose much of a challenge to a Big Ten school. Right?

Northwestern struggled and fell to Radford, 67-56. But the real adventure came with the writing. I meticulously took notes during the game, keeping my eyes peeled on the zone defense and noting which NU players seemed to be on hot streaks. Still, I felt anything but prepared when I went with Andrew to the media room for the post-game press conferences. I could feel my heartbeat as I ran through possible questions in my head. When I raised my hand and held the microphone up to my mouth to ask head coach Chris Collins a question, I was shaking. From there, I gathered all of the notes and quotes in The Daily writing room and put together a game recap of the night’s events. Though Northwestern lost in what was by all accounts an ordinary game, I was exhilarated by the writing process and the fact that I covered a Big Ten game. 

I thought that would be the end of covering the men’s basketball team, as there were plenty of older writers on the sports desk that would jump at the opportunity — I didn’t even list men’s basketball among my top four choices for winter sports beats. Late one winter break night, I received a text from one of the sports editors, Charlie. “I think you’d do well on the men’s basketball beat,” Charlie said. “What do you think.”

Suddenly, my winter calendar was booked, and I couldn’t have been happier. Sure, Northwestern probably wouldn’t get to March Madness, but covering basketball gave me a chance to go to big-time events covering a sport I was really passionate about. I read up all of The Daily Northwestern articles about the season thus far, and though I didn’t know everything right away, I’d catch on quick.

The setup of the basketball beat was pretty simple. I shared writing responsibilities with Charlie and fellow freshman writer Gaby, and after each game we’d each choose either the rapid recap, the game story, or the sidebar/column. We attended each home game from the press box, while I’d watch away games from my dorm through online streaming. The time commitment was long — an hour to get situated pre-game, a two-hour game, and two or three hours postgame — but I couldn’t think of much more enjoyable uses of my time than frequenting college basketball games.

On the court, the Wildcats were not very good, and it reflected in the win column. Though Northwestern was one of the tallest teams in the nation, it was also one of the youngest, with no returning starters and the most experienced players were just sophomores. There was potential — starting guard Pat Spencer was the best lacrosse player in the nation the previous year before transitioning to basketball, while players like Boo Buie and Pete Nance were highly-touted recruits — but there was no track record and the Big Ten conference was the best and deepest in the nation. 

Northwestern finished the year just 3-17 in Big Ten play, and the losses followed a common formula. NU would take a lead into the second half, then the offense would go home and the more experienced and talented opponent would blow by the Cats in the final minutes. Against Maryland, Northwestern surrendered a double-digit lead in just three minutes. Against Purdue, the Cats allowed two three-pointers in the final minute and gave up the go-ahead points to the Boilermakers with just four seconds to go. NU almost stole games against favored Indiana, Illinois, and Rutgers on the road, but fell short in each of them. The only Big Ten team the Cats could handle was Nebraska, a team that suited up two football players to round out the roster by the end of the year.

Michigan coach and NBA champion Juwan Howard

The cycle of losing must have seemed repetitive and frustrating for the players, and for me as a writer, I had to learn to be creative and use new angles instead of returning to the common refrain “the Cats’ did it again.” After each home game, Coach Collins would give credit to the opposing team, say that it was a process and that his team needed to keep getting to the doorstep, and point out that his team was young and that the schedule was rigorous. I kept to the common sports cliche “just one game at a time” and tried to find interesting ledes and angles to the seemingly inevitable defeats. 

For one of those losses, the angle came from events that transpired off the court. That date was January 26, the day that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash and the whole world mourned. I didn’t know if I could be on my writing “A game” after the news rocked me. But for Northwestern, a team with direct ties to Kobe and learned of his death just hours before tipoff, the game still went on. The Wildcats lost to Ohio State, but afterward the scene was surreal. The devastation evident on Collins’ face was devastating, and seeing players like Boo Buie describe how much Kobe meant to them put his impact in perspective. To weave those overtones into my game story and still be considerate of the situation was difficult. It paled in comparison to what the teams had to go through in playing 40 hard minutes of basketball.

Just as much as I learned from my own writing, I learned from the writers with whom I shared the press box, both good and bad. My sports editor Charlie was also on the beat, and he certainly took the beat seriously — tweeting during every commercial break, getting to the arena two or three hours early, talking to athletics and team officials at the arena — anything to get a story. For someone who had never used Twitter before, I was in a whole new world and in over my head. Twitter was a great platform for promoting content and giving occasional thoughts, but it was also easy to try to compare myself to other writers and stress about being the first one to write or think something. When I saw professional writers from newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, I tried to put myself in their shoes and take notice of how they wrote stories and asked questions. I also learned a lot of basketball X’s and O’s from my roommate Daniel, who worked for the blog Inside NU and contributed plenty of insightful basketball commentary and a ton of hilarious hyperboles to describe just how bad NU seemed to be. These were aspects of sports writing that I never knew about coming into the arena for the first time and I saw how far I had come and how far I had to go. 

Over the season, some of the awe I felt walking into the press box of Welsh-Ryan Arena faded away. I grew more comfortable asking questions in press conferences, nailed down how to craft each of the types of game stories, and stopped taking pictures before all the games. As I grew closer and more experienced, the ideal I had always held of college basketball became a bit more real and less magical. Seeing basketball players around campus was less of a celebrity encounter, though I certainly took note whenever we crossed paths. And still, I loved to watch basketball and tackle the challenge of capturing those shining moments after every game. 

By the end of the season, the glory of the women’s basketball team winning the Big Ten title seemed to further deem the men’s team irrelevant. With every mounting loss, Northwestern seemed to be begging for the merciful end of the season. But the Wildcats ended the season on a pretty positive note, beating Nebraska (and needing an abysmal 8-for-32 free throw shooting performance from the Cornhuskers to do it) and upsetting No. 20 Penn State at home in their final regular season game. The win over the Nittany Lions was the most fun I had at any game all season (I had to root a little bit) and one of the most challenging (I wrote most of the rapid recap thinking the Cats would lose again, only to watch as they finally pulled one out). 

Due to a multimedia journalism project that I had to present on the day of Northwestern’s Big Ten Championship game, I couldn’t be there in person at Bankers’ Life Fieldhouse as the Cats were blown away by Minnesota for the third time during the season. But even then, there was a story. NU played its last game hours before the Big Ten Tournament, and March Madness, was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, making a season that already felt surreal to me given my new status as a beat writer become even stranger and more of an aberration. But for a season that opened on a historical note (albeit a poor one), it made some sense that Northwestern’s season would finish off amidst something without historical precedent.

My first season inside college basketball was certainly one I’ll never forget. The season served many purposes: a source of entertainment, a basketball education, a conglomerate of memories, a journalistic building block. The function I am most grateful for is that it was simply a basketball court, a college sport in full force, and that in some way, I was able to feel like a part of the action. 

One thought on “A Season Inside: A Winter with Northwestern Basketball

  1. I loved it! You did a great job recapping your experience as a new writer for NU’s men’s Basketball team! Sounds like you learned a lot and had lots of fun and great experiences. I’m glad you had this opportunity since you’re going to miss March madness. I’m looking forward to more great articles. GA

    Like

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