No Risk

Apr 5, 2021

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It's probably just my bitterness. It might be just me. But I feel like the national college basketball media has been 41% more "college basketball is the greatest!" this year. And after our Loyola loss, I absolutely hate it.

Don't get me wrong. I don't hate college basketball. My whole "hates basketball" thing is just a bit. I'm saying that in a year when my team loses to an 8-seed, I'm really struggling to open up Twitter to see five more "March is forever undefeated!" takes from people who aren't risking the pain that I feel. I can already tell that I'm going to struggle to explain what I'm trying to say. Let's just begin with my weekend.

I watched 0 minutes of the Sweet 16 and 0 minutes of the Elite Eight. Until Saturday night, I hadn't watched a single second of college basketball since the clock hit 0.0 on March 21st. No way could I watch the second weekend when one of the one-seeds was missing. I hate everything.

This weekend, we were in St. Louis. Had a family holiday dinner yesterday for the first time since Christmas 2019. On Saturday night, we had dinner with friends. And while sitting around their back patio in the evening, we looked up the Gonzaga-UCLA score and saw that it was something like 71-70 with five minutes to go. So we went inside to catch the final five minutes (which turned into 10 minutes with overtime). Let me tell you - if you're going to watch only 10 minutes of college basketball the last two weeks, those were the 10 minutes.

I'm lucky to have watched, too, because now I have an answer to "where were you when Suggs hit the shot from the edge of the logo"? I missed 99% of all basketball the last two weeks, but I got to see a 40-foot shot for the win. And I got to see it with my oldest son and my friend & his three sons (ranging from age 16 to 7). Nothing like a multi-generational "OHHHHH" when someone hits a shot like that to win in overtime. College basketball is truly a collective endeavor at times like that.

But it's also an individual endeavor. And with moments like this morning's "hey everyone can you believe we get Gonzaga-Baylor for the title tonight?", I'm back to "I don't think I can watch". Well, that's not exactly where I am. It's more "why do you care so much when you're only watching from the sidelines?". Here comes another I Shall Attempt To Explain.

When Suggs' shot drops, I have two thoughts: 1) what's it like for a Gonzaga fan to win a game like that?, and 2) how can a UCLA fan even get out of bed in the morning? I view everything through the lens of fandom. It means so much to Gonzaga fans because they know they're risking having to collapse to the floor like the UCLA fan. When you invest, there's either a payoff or devastating loss. The more you put in, the more you're risking.

And so when I watch a game like that, I agree with any and all "this tournament is just the greatest" takes, but I know that they don't all come from the same place. To my friend the Arkansas fan and my forced-to-be-an-Illinois-fan son, that shot is amazing but it's filtered through "that could have been us". It's not possible to celebrate the insanity of the moment without the acknowledgement that your team failed to reach a moment so big.

To the national writers praising the moment on Twitter, it's just a performance. They purchased tickets (well, many of them got in for free) to see Phantom Of The Opera and when the guy playing the Phantom hits that high A-flat at the end of Music Of The Night, they get chills. But it's not like they know any of the actors. They don't even have their own theater company they're hoping makes it big. They're just observing from way over there.

For me? I followed this local theater troupe for decades. Watched every single production in regional theater this winter. Saw every drop of blood, sweat, and tears. I was so ready for the show to be picked up on Broadway so they could perform on a world stage. And when they got the news that regional theater was the furthest this show would go, I was devastated. All of that effort and this is how it ends? In regionals? This was the year. This was the show that was destined for Broadway. This just cannot be happening.

So when I wake up to "Tony Awards tonight - can't wait to praise the best musical for being the best!" on Twitter, I get very "what would you know about it?". Here, I'll just show you a few of the tweets I'm reacting to:

And this one was obviously what sent me in the Broadway Musical direction:

But it was this tweet that has stayed with me:

That's the fetish I'm after here. I understand it - people love "did you see that shot?" moments, and to get to those moments, you have to crank up the tension - but does he even realize what he's asking here? Does he know the fanbase pain at risk? Must he speak of this fetish out loud?

Look, I understand all of the "whys" here. I've always used Adam Rittenberg as my example when I talk about this stuff, and that's probably unfair to Adam Rittenberg. But it's the best way I can explain it.

Rittenberg is a college football writer for ESPN. He went to Northwestern and is quite obviously a Northwestern fan. I have no problem with this (besides the fact that anyone would chooses to attend or support Northwestern). It is obvious that Adam Rittenberg is a Northwestern fan because when he tweets about Northwestern his tone changes. In the same way it would be impossible for me to tweet about an Illinois game from a rational mindset, he cannot tweet about Northwestern rationally because, on the inside, he's dying to see Northwestern win. Which is fine!

But he can't say that out loud. I wish that wasn't the case, but he can't. Media members cannot support a single team. If they do, well, obvious correlations will be drawn. If Rittenberg writes "I have Illinois going 1-11 this fall", Illini fans will just say "that's not a measured prediction - that's a Northwestern fan secretly taking a dig at the in-state rival". Even if Rittenberg really did think Illinois was going to go 1-11, if he's "out" as a Northwestern fan, he could never say anything about Northwestern or Illinois without blow-back. So he has to try to keep that information quiet.

I don't have a problem with this. I wish that wasn't how the system worked, and I obviously believe that college sports media should come from a "we" place, not a "they" place, but whatever. If you're going to be national media, you have to take your school affiliation and stuff it in a box. It would be impossible for me, of course, and I've always said it has to be impossible for someone like Rittenberg as well. It will always show itself, like when Illinois is about to beat Wisconsin in 2019 and he credits "Northwestern a few weeks ago" or when he's tweeting about a Northwestern/Ohio State game and says this...

...during a game that Ohio State won 52-3. Again, I do these things all. the. time. I cannot help myself. Neither can he, and it kind of sucks that he has to try to hide it.

Anyway, I always think of stuff like that at times like this. The national media, with either no investment in any team or a hidden investment in one team, rooting for chaos. Cheering for tension. Celebrating "Gonzaga vs. Baylor" because they like watching two talented teams, not caring who wins. I do not (and will not ever) see sports like that - not saying I'm right, just saying that I am - and so their "woooo! go all teams!" Twitter celebrations make me grit my teeth and grumble. Basically, it's this.

Uninvested national media: "Gonzaga vs. Baylor! #1 vs. #2! What a dream matchup! Cannot wait to watch this one - hope it's tied 70-70 with 91 seconds remaining!"

_Overinvested local blogge_r: "NO. It is #1 vs. #3, not #1 vs. #2. If you look closely, you'll see that #2 lost to Loyola in the second round. That fact is both a testament to our play in January and March - media looked at both Illinois and Baylor in early March and said that Illinois was better - and the fan gutpunch of all gutpunches with Baylor making it to this point and Illinois bowing out in the second round. Sure, the Committee seeded Baylor 2 and Illinois 3, but you said "number", and that means AP Poll, and Illinois was #2. And while we're on the subject, please let me know you're at least invested in a team, even if it just comes out in your writing because you can't help yourself. I respect your opinions, and you're all much better writers than I am, but when you dance around claiming how great this Tournament can be with zero at risk - you simply cheer for The Winning Team, not a team - I get very unfollow-y. OK, yes, I never really do unfollow because I need to know what's going on and yes, I'm just bitter because my team - WHICH IS STILL THE #2 TEAM IN THE COUNTRY, BY THE WAY - lost to freaking Loyola in the second round. But please ease up on the fetish stuff anyway because it's gross and I don't understand it and I hate everything."

I don't even know what I'm trying to say anymore. What title did I use here? "No Risk". OK, I'll close by talking about that.

I liked watching UCLA-Gonzaga. I liked sharing it with people. There was a party three houses up from my friend's house, and you could tell they were watching on some cord-cutting service because their OHHHH's would come about 40 seconds after something happened on our screen. So after the Suggs shot, we waited and listed for their reaction. College basketball is fun.

But it's also personal to me. And I find myself needing to know that it's personal for others, too. That party up the street, watching the games together on the back deck during a surprisingly warm April evening in St. Louis - I need to believe they were all invested in some way. The the couple who owned the home, I need to believe that they were were St. Louis University fans and their friends they invited over were Iowa State fans and younger couple with the wife who went to Georgia Tech and a husband who went to a D-III school but grew up in a Kansas household. I don't know why I'm picking these schools (other than to avoid their likely Missouri fandom), but I need to think that their "OHHHH" comes with a sense of "wow, I know what that feels like - on both sides".

When I read these tweets this morning, I don't get the same. I get... a voyeuristic vibe. And as the the "how great is March?" grows louder each year, I get a little more "OK, but who do you pull for? Just the team that wins every game?". Maybe it's just me, but this year seems to be the worst by far. I can probably sum it up this way: Why would anyone take a photo with the NCAA Bracket on the side of the JW Marriott in Indianapolis if their team wasn't listed? I seriously don't understand. You love... brackets?

Yes, I'm bitter. It will likely last through the spring and into the summer. 15 days ago I was absolutely convinced I'd wake up today with an Illini national title game to watch tonight. I'm still struggling to believe that it ended so abruptly.

I guess I'll just say it like this: I'm OK waking up to Baylor and Gonzaga tweets saying "can you believe what is possible tonight?". The nerves, the "what will I do if my dreams come true?", the even worse "what will I do if they don't?".

But I'm apparently not OK with "what a dream matchup tonight!" tweets from the uninvested.


Refugee from Illinois on April 5, 2021 @ 01:30 PM

This is petty. This is embittered. This is childish.

...and I co-sign every last word. Great post. This is what it means to be emotionally tied to a team. It’s the difference between loving something or just taking in a spectacle.

Fin513 on April 5, 2021 @ 03:55 PM

If Gonzaga loses they likely take the 05 Illini claim to best team not to win the championship. We should all be rooting for a Gonzaga victory.

SactownIllini on April 5, 2021 @ 06:54 PM

Or should we root for them to lose because Illinois should be the first team to ever go undefeated since tourney expansion?

By the way, crazy that the 2005 team was like 95 seconds away from a perfect season just in terms of time losing at the end of games that year.

I kinda hear you on this Robert, but I just love the madness in general. I barely watched the tourney for a bit after we lost, but I got pulled back in. It's just too much fun to see these kids pour everything in and make incredible plays knowing the joy/pain experienced by the sides.

larue on April 5, 2021 @ 06:49 PM

Watching the end of the UCLA/Gonzaga game, it never occurred to me what a fan of UCLA was feeling at the finish. I did think about the players, and how crushing it was for them. I believe it's worse for the players in the moment, but they will also move on from it more quickly than most fans will.

Also, I've watched every minute of the tournament that I could, and will enjoy watching tonight's game. No criticism of your different attitude towards it, just not something I can really understand.

Topper on April 5, 2021 @ 11:23 PM

Yup. What he^^^^ said. :-/

IlliNYC on April 6, 2021 @ 11:05 AM

I watched thinking how hard it is to win a championship...Gonzaga has been very good for decades now. They've made the tournament every year this century, with 10 top 4 seeds, a bunch of sweet sixteens, elite eights, etc....and they have the best team in that run--an undefeated team with a few pros--and then last night happens. Gonzaga might really never win a championship. Program building in college basketball is such a combo of skill & luck.

For us, Brad Underwood could totally be the guy (like Mark Few is obviously the guy) and still never win the big one.

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