The 2009-10 season in college basketball was notable not just for the shocking run by Butler University to the NCAA championship game, but for what the Bulldogs represented. “One Beautiful Season” is the book that explains the deeper challenges and connections of the small-conference game that have fed the beast of March Madness.
Kyle Whelliston, creator of the now-shuttered Mid-Majority blog, was a passionate troubadour of the little guys for a decade (2004-14), traveling across the country (in often harrowing fashion) to capture the essence of the game played at the grassroots level, and whose best teams finally gave the bluebloods a lethal threat.
His self-published book grew out his blog and other freelance work, including a brief association with ESPN that ended in controversial fashion.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also In This Issue: More March Madness; Rick Telander; Eddy Merckx and Lou Gehrig Films; Remembering Johnny Hoops and Trevor Grant
Disclosure: Kyle is a former colleague at Basketball Times and for a while I contributed to his Basketball State site, which is a data-rich treasure trove.
True college hoopheads will be rewarded over the course of nearly 600 pages that detail the historical build-up of the likes of Butler, George Mason (which reached the Final Four in 2006), Virginia Commonwealth and the one-bid league teams that have scored monumental upsets.
Near-upsets also are woven into this tale, including Kansas’s great escape against Davidson and Stephen Curry. During “One Beautiful Season,” however, the Jayhawks couldn’t avoid the upset bug, falling to Northern Iowa on a 3-point shot by Ali Farokhmanesh, another March Madness legend.
The “mid-majors” who have made good are from schools with either small-college football or no football program at all. While the old Big East was an ultimately doomed mishmash including Syracuse and Georgetown, Boston College and St. John’s (and whose presidents voted against including Penn State), Gonzaga and Xavier laid the groundwork for small schools (many of them also Catholic) to thrive.
St. Mary’s of California and Cornell are additional storylines in this narrative, which is more about the fits and starts of these aspirants, and how many years it took to break through.
Even at Butler, where Brad Stevens was quietly adopting a “servant leader” coaching philosophy espoused by his predecessor, Barry Collier, who visited former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett along with Jim Larranaga, the George Mason coach, to soak up some coaching wisdom.
Stevens parlayed that approach to a storybook trip to the Final Four, played not far from the Butler campus in Indianapolis in the gleaming Lucas Oil Stadium, which was built near a downtrodden community called Babe Denny. Writing in the wake of the recession, Whelliston makes much of these economic disparities, and not just between the rich of college basketball and everyone else.
In a piece for The Washington Post published the week of that Final Four, Larranaga (now at Miami, Fla.) wrote that Butler was no Cinderella story. Yet Whelliston explained it this way:
“It was handmade bootstrap success in the age of machines. Butler was encouragement for the powerless, balm for anybody who stopped believing that small things couldn’t overcome big things. This was a team that represented the economically disenfranchised and the terminally outdated. It was a team for the disappearing middle class, and for flyover country, and for the Babe Denny neighborhood. They were all Butler Bulldogs.”
After slaying Michigan State in the semifinals in their hometown, the Bulldogs were making believers of a nation. Gordon Hayward’s last-gasp 3-point shot in the finals against Duke rimmed out, bolstering Whelliston’s motto of Mid-Major Nation, that “the season always ends in a loss. Everything does.”
He repeated it the following season, when Butler, even more astonishingly, reached the finals again, only to be crushed by UConn.
As “One Beautiful Season” closes, March Madness is on the verge of expanding to 68 teams (following a 96-team flare designed to boost the price of television rights), a dispiriting round of football-oriented conference realignment is approaching, and the iconic little guys are growing into big-time monsters.
In the current NCAA tournament, Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed. Butler and Xavier are national powerhouses in a Big East without big-time football, a league that boasts Villanova as its reigning national champion and top overall seed.
Then the biggest upset took place, by an underseeded Wisconsin team, over Villanova. Yes, spoilers from the Big Ten. The most charming, feel-good story has been Northwestern, the only school from a current power conference to have never been invited to March Madness.
Until now. Northwestern, which has produced hordes of bandwagon-jumping sportswriters, improbably won its first game. In the second round, the Wildcats were pitted as an underdog against—wait for it—Gonzaga, which is still yearning for its first trip to the Final Four. The Zags held off the upstarts from the Power 5, as the contours of “chalk” have taken on a very different dimension.
A Few Good Reads
- Inside John Calipari’s media empire, and it might be a bit of a stretch to call it that. His “Calcast” is a great listen, and the coach of the Kentucky Wildcats is a natural for the media;
- Philadelphia journalist Larry Platt goes long in GQ on Villanova’s Jay Wright, “the anti-coach” of another band of Wildcats trying to defend their national championship;
- Dan Wetzel, for your March Madness reading pleasure, on Florida Gulf Coast assistant Tom Abatemarco, a coaching lifer far removed from glamour circuit of Cal and Coach K;
- A half-century of Bill Raftery’s NCAA tournament memories;
- Five years after succeeding the late Pat Summitt as head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols, Holly Warlick writes about the woman who remains “the voice inside my head;”
- Two stories on Nigerian hoopsters who made their way to America, and are competing in March Madness: Chima Moneke of the UC-Davis men, and Olamide Aborowa of the University of Texas women;
- In his first piece for The Undefeated, longtime ESPN journalist Tom Farrey writes about the gentrification of college hoops;
- Nigel Hayes is waging a legal battle against NCAA amateurism while playing in March Madness for the Wisconsin Badgers;
- Rick Telander talks to Kirk Wessler about “A Season Under the Gun,” his acclaimed, deeply moving five-part series for the Chicago Sun-Times on how players on a high school basketball team are coping in a city plagued with horrific street violence;
- Larry “Bone Collector” Williams is a New York City street basketball legend, playing in the famed Rucker League decades ago, and these days he’s touring the world to share his story and his love of the game. For Japan Times, Ed Odeven writes about Bone Collector’s recent visit to Tokyo;
- The legendary Belgian Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx inspired two 1974 films regarded as “cycling’s first existential masterpieces” by Andrew Flanagan, writing in the latest issue of the splendid Victory Journal;
- Meet Eileen Sheridan, a record-breaking long-distance cyclist in the years right after WWII, and who was quite the celebrity in Britain at a time when women weren’t known for athletic exploits;
- An appreciation for the enduring wisdom of “The Inner Game of Tennis” from Brad Stulberg, a health and science performance writer (Sports Biblio post on the same subject from February 2016);
- The World Baseball Classic shouldn’t be panned as it has by baseball diehards, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, one of a growing number of mainstream baseball scribes who’s been smitten by this year’s event;
- A boy from Belfast trying to make it in the big leagues: Mets pitching prospect PJ Conlon got a look in spring training, and has been reassigned to a minor league camp, but his story is still an inspiring one in his native land;
- For These Football Times, Steven Scragg writes about former Ipswich Town standout Paul Mariner, who earned 35 caps for England and headed for the theoretically greener grass of soccer in North America, only to be booted as Toronto FC head coach in 2013;
- A Russian fighter known as GGG (Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin) is the latest boxer to embody “Mexican style boxing,” which, as Roberto Jose Andrade Franco writes in Remezcla, has a very long history.
Sports Book News
- The making of “The Pride of the Yankees” film is the subject of Richard Sandomir’s next book and is slated to be published on June 13 by Hachette;
- Also in June, British investigative sports journalist David Conn’s “The Fall of the House of FIFA” is being published by Vintage.
- Australian sportswriter Trevor Grant, 65, was a giant in his profession Down Under but so much more than that, as remembrances following his death from mesothelioma have noted, including his advocacy for Tamil refugees;
- John Andariese, 78, longtime radio and television analyst for the New York Knicks, was affectionately known as “Johnny Hoops” and dates his work with the team from the Marv Albert years of the early 1970s. Andariese was a winner of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy media award, and it’s a shame his career wound down as the franchise spiraled into dysfunction in the front office and on the court.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 76, published March 19, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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