NIT fever – or is it a rash? – catch it!
So, has this elitist sports curmudgeon finally come down from his ivory tower and embraced the NIT along with the masses?
You'll never, under any circumstances, get me excited or enthused to put a NIT championship banner in the rafters. It is a tournament of also-rans, big-name also-rans nowadays but NCAA Tournament also-rans nonetheless. However, to many of you something special is happening in Ames, and it's spelled N-I-T.
There are many advantages to doing what God has blessed me to be able to do for a living. As my old boss Bob Dyer used to say, "this sure beats going down a mineshaft with a flashlight." Getting paid to talk about sports, attend sporting events for free, and to get access to your favorite players and coaches is awesome. I won't lie.
Unfortunately, this profession has one drawback.
When I was first starting out at the Des Moines Register, their great basketball writer Rick Brown warned me that the longer I stay in this business, the more I'll lose my zeal for sports as a fan. He warned me I'd get to close to what was going on, and that it would take more than what it takes the average fan to get me excited.
That's an eloquent way of saying you'll become a sports snob.
One of the reasons we've been successful on the radio, despite our spotty employment history, is because we know our audience. Before our show came on the air, nobody covered football/basketball media days, recruiting, and live events like we do now. That unique perspective is why people who detest me and my beliefs continue to listen. Not even I am arrogant enough to believe that we get huge ratings because all those people like me. J
I pride myself on our propensity to have our finger on the pulse of public opinion, and stay one step ahead of it. But in terms of ISU's run in the NIT, I was off. No, make that way off. In fact, I never saw this upswing in interest coming.
Thankfully, the customer is always right. And in radio the customer is the listener. I couldn't ignore the lines at the ISU ticket office, the positive vibe on the message boards, and the passion of the people for this team any longer.
So I figured this space this week was as good as any for me to do something I rarely need to – admit I was wrong.
That leads me to wonder how did I miss the boat on this? How did I so greatly underestimate you people?
I think there's two answers. First, I fell prey to what the cultural elites I constantly rant about on my show specialize in. Basically, that means I cared more about my own opinion and hearing myself talk than what you people think. Webster's defines that as being a snob (there's that word again). Since the NIT wasn't good enough for me – and who died and made me scribe of what is acceptable sport anyway? – then it shouldn't be good enough for you, either. Or so I thought. Please excuse me now while I slap myself for my pretentiousness.
Second, not being a heart-felt, die-hard, lifelong Cyclone like many of you meant I was looking past the trees for the forest. In my mind NIT means nothing but an excuse to delay ESPN's spring and summertime repeated airings of "World's Strongest Man" and "Magic The Gathering" tournaments. It's just trite sports filler. Of course, that perspective didn't allow me to stop and look at what was going on right in front of me.
Right in front of me was a team – both players and coaches – of people that have been through quite an ordeal the past two years. Some of it was self-inflicted, like academic casualties and off-court busts. Yet the major drama they persevered through was not of their doing. And it was major stuff like Larry Eustachy's battle with alcoholism and subsequent moonlighting, Randy Brown's moral fall, and wondering who their coach was going to be.
You fans out there who bleed cardinal-and-gold suffered right along with these guys, and now you're ecstatic that you're getting to see your Cyclones finish strong. It doesn't matter if the initials of the tournament are NCAA, NIT, or CHUD. It's about the people wearing the uniform and the people who root for them, pure and simple. It's about having a relationship with a team, through good or bad.
It's about being a fan.
Sure, the NIT is meaningless. But loyalty is not. And neither is the shared experience this program that was left for dead by most of us 11 months ago is enjoying with each other right now.
A hearty thanks to all of you out there that taught me this important lesson the last two weeks.
Already some of you are wondering which team I'll be rooting for if indeed Iowa State and Michigan hook up in the NIT Finals – out of principle I still refuse to call it a championship game – on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
Let me state unequivocally that I always have been, and always will be, a Michigan man. The Wolverines were my first love, my childhood team, and they'll always hold my heart.
However, the postseason NIT is a unique event. Since I don't think winning it specifically is cause for a lot of pride, Michigan winning it is of little importance. However, in Iowa State's case, given what we wrote about above, this holds some emotional significance.
I don't know Tommy Amaker, but I do know Wayne Morgan. I don't know assistant coach Charles Ramsey, but I do know assistant coach Bob Sundvold. I don't know Daniel Horton, but I do know Jake Sullivan. Thus, in this case, I would love to see the Cyclones win it. That doesn't mean I could possible bring myself to root against the Wolverines, even in the NIT, because even my profit-whoring has its limits.
What it does mean is that at the end of the game if the Cyclones have more points and Morgan, Sundvold, and Sullivan get a moment in the sun at Michigan's expense I'll be cheering along with the rest of you.
It also means that if this were a regular-season game, NCAA Tournament game, or a college football game it would be Go Blue all the way and we'd have to delay our friendship for a few hours.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)