spent eight years at the Chicago
Tribune. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune)
Editor's note: SI.com is happy to announce Brian Hamilton (formerly of the Chicago Tribune) as our new college basketball blogger. Below is an introduction he'd like to offer:
Northwestern undergraduates of a certain age remember the late Ricky Byrdsong as a terribly wonderful, mystifying human being and a terribly mediocre basketball coach. Better to be the former than the latter, unless you walk into the athletic director’s office during what would be a seven-win season and ask for clarity on your job status. Because that athletic director likely has no choice but to do what Rick Taylor did in early 1997 and answer, basically, soon-to-be-unemployed.
So as the end of his four-year tenure with the Wildcats approached, the two beat writers for the school newspaper arranged an interview with Byrdsong. I was one of them. Here was a man famed more for what he did off the bench than on it: Very literally wandering into the stands during a Feb. 1994 game against Minnesota, high-fiving a mascot and sitting in an empty seat while ostensibly coaching a team already on a nine-game losing streak. It became known as Byrdsong’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Naturally we figured we’d capture the entirety of him in a half hour or so.
Years have befogged most of the particulars, but as the three of us sat around a large table, I assume we posed very unoriginal questions about legacy and the difficulty of the job and what came next. I know for certain we did not know what came next, as I distinctly remember asking Byrdsong about his unorthodox coaching style and peculiar motivational techniques.
Because that’s when Ricky Byrdsong, without a word, stood up and left the room.
Too shocked to laugh uncontrollably, two college sophomores stared at each other, mouths agape, for minutes. And then Byrdsong returned, carrying an overstuffed mesh bag. And then he sat down again. And then he began to pull various hats and T-shirts out of the bag. And then he started tossing them gently our way.
Hamilton was given this shirt on his first beat: Northwestern basketball.
I still have two. One shirt reads: MENTAL IS TO PHYSICAL AS FOUR IS TO ONE. The other: MINE IS NOT TO REASON WHY MINE IS BUT TO DO OR DIE.
Later, considering the whole Nick Knapp thing, we figured it was better the second shirt probably never left the bag.
Allow me a moment to reset my dentures, but it’s going on two decades since. And still, to me, this is college basketball. It is a game of color and characters, as vibrant around the lines as in between them. It might be antiseptic and militarized in other corners of the athletic cosmos, but I learned to appreciate what college basketball gives, in wild abundance.
I learned your uncle can be the first troll you ever encounter, having no allegiance to Temple and Mark Macon whatsoever but, just for the hell of it, rooting bucket for bucket against North Carolina at the Meadowlands. I learned I might never see a better sequence live than Jeff McInnis lobbing an alley-oop pass from half court that Vince Carter reverse dunked home, punctuating a comeback against Wake Forest and turning the Smith Center inside out.
I learned when Shaun Livingston takes a recruiting visit to Illinois, he may stop by Kam’s, and I also learned that when Shaun Livingston stops by Kam’s he will be swarmed by a harem of Illinois co-eds. I learned to always request the best quote on the roster after a loss – a lesson etched in bold when J.B. Bickerstaff emerged for a Minnesota practice the day after a defeat and pronounced, “You guys should have talked to me. I had some (bleep) to say.”
I learned the mind of a player bowing his head during the national anthem may be on Zulu time in Afghanistan’s woeful Korengal Valley, where Kyle McAlarney’s best friend tried to fix wounded soldiers while McAlarney hoisted 3-pointers for Notre Dame. I learned you can watch Eric Devendorf jump on the scorer’s table at Madison Square Garden somewhere along the way to six overtimes and then, four years later, you can watch Jerian Grant score 12 points in 45 seconds to send Notre Dame and Louisville tumbling into to five OTs.
Hopefully that’s for starters. Whatever else I find as a college basketball writer for SI.com, I’ll share in this space, starting today.
Before I get to scribbling, there’s one thing you should learn about me, and we might as well get it out of the way now:
Yes, I hate your favorite team.
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad T-shirt.