So tonight MSG is airing Game Five of the 2006 Ottawa-Buffalo series. I didn't catch a lot of this game for reasons spelled out below and I since I doubt many of you have seen it since, being early in the DVR-era and all, I figured I would give a live blog the college try. Also, there's no other hockey to comment on and what am I going to do, take a crack at the Bills? Fuck that noise. If the live-blog has some hiccups, it will be up tomorrow as a retro-retro live blog. This game has nostalgic connotations for me and in order to keep myself from pontificating on them when I should be discussing the game itself, I'm getting them out of the way here beforehand.
Some moments don't need captions...
If you go to Thirsty Buffalo on Elmwood at a time where it’s not packed to the gills with bros and skanks, you might notice an unassuming, cheap plaque against the far wall, right near the bathrooms that desperately need an upgrade. On it is a large photo of Jason Pominville, zoomed in from behind a moment before he reaches his stick around statuesque Ray Emery and sends the Sabres to the 2006 Eastern Conference finals. It is an auspicious yet fitting location, tucked away in a corner usually passed by without a second look, a place that anyone outside of Buffalo would be surprised to find their team’s greatest moment of the past dozen years. Yet still, just a moment that led to nothing but another crushing playoff defeat a couple weeks later, in Raleigh, North Carolina. A moment that either happened on May 14, 2006- the best night of my life, or a moment that made May 14, 2006 the best night of my life.
That may seem trite, hyperbole, but I haven’t married or spawned so hear me out. Two nights earlier I stood in St. Bonaventure’s campus bar, clutching my apartment’s broom and sucking down an alarming amount of fifty cent drafts. It was Senior week, the campus barren except for the class of 2006, left with nothing much to do but drink, barbeque, attend various social functions (more drinking), and watch hockey. The night before, dozens of us crammed up against a bar watching the overtime of game three on a tiny corner television where JP Dumont scored, sending the Clubhouse at the campus golf course into euphoria. Could it happen? Could we really beat the Senators?
Not in game four, and that broom ended up broken in half (graduation was three days off, what the fuck would I need it for?). It would be back to Ottawa for Game five.
Why didn't I watch the game? Well for starters, my parents had come down and her cousins from just over the hill in Pennsylvania wanted to take us out to dinner (in 2006 Olean this meant Applebee’s). I tried as best I could to discern what was happening on the television some thirty feet away at the bar while at the same time being polite. My extended family gave my mom and I Penn State apparel in honor of starting law school in the fall and the first period ended in a tie. When we all parted at intermission, I promised we would be staying in town that night; it was cold, raining badly. Instead, my girlfriend and I headed to the hills near Ellicottville for a party with my high school friends.
I remember squeezing into a tiny antique bench that couldn’t have been meant for actual use because there were so many people in the living room. I remember the storm making the MSG feed cut out and someone having to pound on the cable box to get it to return. I remember playing asshole during the third intermission and into overtime, keeping an eye on the television and preparing myself to enjoy the rest of this final night in college with second consecutive loss.
I remember the play, the eruption of the house, the screaming, the hugging, the unbridled joy felt by everyone there. I remember the look of bemused excitement on the girl who had been introduced to this fanaticism throughout the highs and lows of the season.
I remember many of us heading out in our boxers in the rain and taking the slip and slide down the hill, hoping simply that we wouldn’t carom into the guest house or stones at the bottom. I remember pouring a funnel for a friend and saying “Eastern Conference Finals, man,” in disbelief.
I remember heading back to Allegany, to the house I spent a sizable amount of nights drinking and smoking that year. I remember standing in the backyard with those people that I shared the best years of my life with, classmates, roommates, teammates, basking in the bittersweetness of our ride together coming to a close and the sweetness of the team whose ride we felt was just beginning. I remember hugs and handshakes and my girlfriend saying to me “Matt, we have to go to bed- you graduate in like three hours.”
I remember no one had left.
There are many things that I love to hate, and that are so easy to hate. Restaurants that serve ranch with their “buffalo” chicken sandwiches (I’m looking at you, everywhere in Albany, State College and Montpelier), people who drive 65 in the fast lane, and southerners come to mind. Just as easy for me to hate for so many years has been the NBA, a hatred which I have cherished and nurtured to the point that I can barely make it through a quarter without working myself into a blinding rage. The refereeing is far and away the worst of the major four sports, where even apologists talk about preferential teams and players to the point which respected media personalities blatantly ask the commissioner about fixing games. Many of the best players of the last decade have been so goddamn unlikable they make John Edwards or Tony Heyward seem like decent guys. There’s the style itself, filled with possessions of one guy driving to the basket while his four teammates stand around, or missed shots as the entire offense is already retreating, leaving no one to bother contesting a rebound. (Editors Note: I think the rest of the Deeg would wholeheartedly disagree with that. In 2003? Yes. Now? No way. But oh well, let the new kid have his rant!) Then there is the seemingly incomprehensible- to me at least- infatuation for it throughout this country, filling ESPN’s daily “top plays” with dunks and blocks, dedicating such a massive amount of their airtime to a sport while overtly ignoring the one that so many of us in WNY care about much more.
Don’t get me wrong, I used to be a fan, in the way I was a fan of every sport growing up. I cheered against the Bulls throughout the 90’s and adopted the Suns as my favorite team, with Charles Barkley as my favorite player. But as the 2000’s came and I moved on to rooting against the Lakers at every turn, I simply couldn’t appreciate the game anymore. (Editor’s Note: As noted above, because the early 2000’s were awful sauce for b-ball.) The most entertaining moment in that NBA era happened for me when sitting at a bar underage in 2004, I overheard a buddy scream in astonishment “they’re fighting the fans” as we watched “The Malice at the Palace” unfold before our eyes. I wanted to appreciate Lebron as a Cavalier and for a short period I did, until he revealed himself to me as an egomaniacal douche specializing in blowing games to the Magic and Celtics and unable to win unless he stacked the deck in his favor.
(Quick aside: The thing I harp on the most when it comes to Lebron being an insufferable tool- and what should have made “The Decision” easy to see coming- is the teams he cheered for growing up. Despite being from Akron, he rooted for the Bulls, Yankees and Cowboys while all three were in their hey-day. Every school, including yours, had a kid like this in it. I feel comfortable saying that every one of those kids was a revolting little shit and is now likely a self-absorbed asshole. I find it much easier to accept Lebron’s demeanor when seen in this light.)
All of the above are the only reason I’ve tuned in the past couple weeks. To mutter at every uncalled travel, to sigh in resignation as Lebron drives to the basket, to rage at every biased call in the Heat’s favor, every terrible shot choice, every uncontested rebound and every jerkoff that thinks flashing gang signs is kosher in front of a national television audience. But soon my long-cultivated and loudly-proclaimed hatred for the NBA will come crashing to a halt. I will be tuning in for games in November for the first time since my childhood. I’ll be live tweeting them and attempting to pass myself off as a student of the game. I will actually purchase an NBA jersey and wear it proudly to summer parties and camping trips sans undershirt. I will be engaging in hoops talk with the friends that I’ve so often dismissed as they attempted to preach the merits of the modern game to my stubborn ears.
So what happened?
Andrew Nicholson happened.
If you even passively follow WNY sports, odds are you’ve heard of him, the forward who led St. Bonaventure to an improbable run to their first A-10 Tournament title and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2000. You may have also read that he is pegged to go somewhere in the middle of the first round of this year’s NBA draft. Beyond the box scores lies the story of an unforgettable season, one that brought to me and any Bonaventure fan those moments that remind you why you fell in love with sports in the first place.
Basketball was what introduced me to the campus where I would have the best years of my life. During a high school basketball tournament in Olean, our coaches brought us to a Bonas game to kill an afternoon before one of our games. St. Bonaventure hadn’t even been on my radar for college; I was still looking at larger schools, more identifiable names much farther away. That walk through campus, from our hotel to the Reilly Center immediately placed it on my list. It became the only campus I ever bothered to visit during my “process” of picking a school and I arrived for my freshman year in 2002 with those vague, generic hopes for the next four years that I presume all incoming freshmen have. At least I knew I had the basketball games. They were identifiable, tangible, and I looked forward to them immensely during a time that could be nothing short of terrifying.
Any alumni can tell you what happens next, the timeline seared into our memories. February 2002 it’s found out the team had admitted and was dressing an ineligible player, soon after that all conference wins are vacated, the team doesn’t dress for the final two games and the school President, athletic director, coach and assistant coach are gone. In August that year the chairman of the Board of Trustees takes his own life. Sanctions are imposed, crippling sanctions that would have damaged a large program and appeared to be nothing short of the death penalty for my tiny college in the hills. During my sophomore, junior and senior years combined, the team won six conference games and seventeen games total. I attended one game during that time, left at the half with the Bonnies down some twenty-odd points. In hindsight it’s disappointing to have attended during the lowest point in the program’s history, but like everything else going on off-campus during those years, I was ambivalent, more than content to spend those nights partying instead of watching the comedy of errors that was going on at the Reilly Center. The basketball team may have always been part of the college experience there; it just wasn’t going to be a part of mine.
Nicholson stepped on campus in 2008, the year that my last large contingent of friends graduated, effectively ending any visits to the college where I could act as a student. From then on my visits would consist of hotel rooms instead of dorm rooms, and nights out meant the bars and not the keg parties and townhouse beer pong that had always preceded them. Luckily for the basketball team, their future also looked nothing like it had in the 02-08 era.
I won’t bore you with numbers; anyone with a working Google machine can see that the Bonnies immediately became a .500 team with Nicholson, winning as many conference games as the stiffs that walked the campus in my day managed to do in three years. They managed to make the CBI in 2011 which my sources tell me is a legitimate postseason college basketball tournament of sorts. (Editor’s Note: Statistics – being neglected by the Deeg since 2011)
It’s so rare to see something in sports that truly causes you to feel awestruck, to shake your head and simply admire what you’re watching. Lebron against the Pistons in 2005 was like that. Game six of the World Series was like that. The comeback game against the Leafs this year was like that. Watching Andrew Nicholson dominate this season brought the same awe, watching one player maintain his game at a level so far and away better than everyone else on the floor and doing it in the faces of double and triple-teams for the majority of the season. He grabbed twenty-three rebounds against Duquesne and didn’t score less than nineteen over the last ten games, topping twenty-five six times. He dominated the A-10 tournament in a way I’d only seen from schools much bigger and much farther away, and he was from my school, my tiny school doing it in front of the college basketball world. That was incredible. But a couple weeks before that A-10 tournament in which he’d be named the MVP, in a game against St. Joe’s that was only televised online, he showed all who cared to watch that he was a player whose legacy will be cherished at that school.
Even now it is difficult for me to find the words to describe the swing in emotions I experienced that day, from despair to euphoria and then back and forth numerous times in a matter of minutes. Luckily for you who like sports (and if you don’t why the fuck are you reading this?), that is a feeling we can all relate to. I mean, here are just a few of my tweets from the final minutes and overtimes:
What a joke ·
This team’s losing in the first round of the A-10 and making the CBI. ·
Wait, what? ·
Nicholson is what would happen if ’04 David Ortiz and Chris Drury had a kid. (Editor’s Note: Gross.) ·
Sports man, freaking sports.
So what’s next for him? Well the two teams I don’t want him to go to- Heat and Lakers- seem relatively unlikely, as he should be gone before Miami selects and the Lakers don’t even have a first round pick. The mock drafts I’ve seen- a big ‘fuck you’ to ESPN for putting theirs behind the insider paywall scam- have him going to Boston or Cleveland, with Oklahoma City and Atlanta as other possibilities. One of my friends from Bonas doesn’t see him lasting past the teens. That’d be nice, but I’d be fine with the twenties. He’s certainly not as muscular or athletic as those in the upper echelon but he can make a shot from anywhere on the floor and would be a perfect change-of-pace guy on many NBA rosters. Regardless, I will have a new favorite NBA team come next Thursday and will be following them in a way I haven’t followed a team in nearly twenty years.
I know my fellow alumni as well as friends that have seen him play are on board, but now I’m putting the call out to all of you to join the bandwagon, assuming you missed the stop in March. We may never appreciate the NBA like those in New York, Boston, Chicago, or Indiana do, we may always be resentful of the overblown coverage that the league receives compared to the underappreciated NHL, and we may be turned off by many of the very players that are the best in the world, but this kid, this chemistry-degree graduate from Toronto is something special if for no other reason than he belongs to Western New York now. He’s ours
, and he’s easier to root for than any Niagara Falls product who flamed out of the league. (Last Editor’s Note: Scizz here, I’m still holding out for Flynn, God dammit!)
Either join the bandwagon or tell me all your NBA jokes soon because come November I won’t find them so funny anymore, especially if they’re about my favorite team- whoever they may be.
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