Fearlessness and Failure (Epilogue, The Fourth)


Seriously, what’s the big deal about fearlessness? It’s made out to be this incredible and rare trait that only a select few possess. People forget that it’s our natural, default state of being. We enter the world too naive to fear anything; over time, we develop a profile of all that scares us. Some spend their lives figuring out what’s on their own checklists.

Some play twisted games with fear. They put themselves in uncomfortable, disruptive situations that press that fear button, set their bloodstream awash in life-affirming adrenaline and cortisol. Throughout history, entire nations have been manipulated into fearful submission with laws and religions. In modern times, there’s an entire fear industry, countless chairs facing countless couches. The hired friend leans in close, asks countless variations of the question, “What, exactly, are you afraid of?”

Fear is often triggered by something outside that activates the mechanism inside. Sometimes we fear that something inside will betray us. There is fear of the invisible and unknown, fear of the physically present, dangerous and looming. There is the panic that engulfs and immobilizes, as well as the phobia that propels into performance.

But all fears have one thing in common. Nobody’s afraid of things that have already occurred. If one is running from the past, it’s only because of a fear of repetition — worse, bigger, more damaging this time. The object of fear is always somewhere in the future.

Fear is of the end.

But the end is already on its way, it will arrive no matter what. The end is black, all-consuming, relentless, and it is undeniable. The end will come despite therapy, over-the-counter medications, herbal teas, breathing exercises, whistling in the dark, or meditative visualizations that don’t include it. The end will take no prisoners because it is not a prison — it is, simply, the end.

Yes, the end will come, whether you’re crippled with anxiety about it or not. The end simply doesn’t care.

***
And this is the end of The Mid-Majority’s fourth year of existence. All of the remaining small-college teams have been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament… and by extension, so have we. There’s nothing left to do but write the epilogue to a season that was.

And what a beautiful season. It began with a dedication, back when the first cold winds of November blew across New England. Back then, there were 225 teams outside Division I’s eight richest conferences, all with theoretical shots at the national championship. For the past five months, we’ve made a point of cover them as well as we possibly could by driving across the country, sleeping in truck stops and attending games nearly every day. Our goal, as it has been for four years, has been to celebrate mid-major over high-major victories as well as the special ethos of basketball at this level. It ended for us on March 30, when the final representative exited the NCAA Tournament in the Elite 8, on a last-second shot that flew wide left.

It ended, as it always does, with a loss.

In between those two timeposts, we’ve had a lot of fun, haven’t we? We saw Maryland fans so stunned they couldn’t even sing their favorite song. Our pet cartoon basketball Bally got mauled by a Memphis Tiger, had his power-conference secrets exposed, met his mortal enemy and was later photographed with pretty girls. We revived Finals Week in December and not many readers played hooky. We made LOLBallys, wrote a kung fu movie. We never boht into Rhode Island. We drew a Red Line (okay, two), laughed at Xavier’s hubris and talked to a 7-7 dude. I stopped doing radio (the best decision ever), they actually put me on TV, and we did a six-hour ESPN.com chat, the longest ever for someone not named Bill Simmons (and third-longest overall). We held out for nearly two days not knowing the Super Bowl score, but in the end, the Valpo student section made sure we knew.

We fell in love with Campbell, hit 100 games again, we ended the regular season with awards and cheerleaders, warned against office pools. We were broken-hearted by VCU, Illinois State, Belmont and Butler. But we reveled in Siena’s win and celebrated with Western Kentucky after a Sweet 16 berth. Then we reveled in Davidson’s wonderful win over Wisconsin to join the Elite Eight, but the blinding Just Balls tie couldn’t make that shot go in.

It was a packed five months, to say the least.

In total, we attended a site-record 117 games all across Hoops Nation, and defeated our chosen standard of measurement, everywhere-official Steve Welmer. Then we gloated about it. That’s 508 college basketball games over the past five years, and I honestly think that nobody attends as many. If you have (and I’m presuming you’d be some kind of scout, I’ll gladly abdicate my throne and give you proper credit. Then I’ll race you next season.

And I wish next season started tomorrow, I really do. For the first time since Season 1, I’m not going to spend three months of burnt-out, brain-dead recovery time, telling The Official Wife of the Mid-Majority™ never to mention basketball or anything orange ever again. I said it after the 100 Games Project and I’m saying it now: I miss it already.

I miss it for a variety of reasons, the greatest of which is that this was the first of the four Mid-Majority seasons that really made sense. First and foremost, there was unprecedented financial clarity — moving the statistics that formed the base of the original site over to a new venue, then having people pay for access, has helped offset the navigation confusion of the past few seasons as well as offset the travel expenses for the whole year. It also made a few bucks for the investors too.

In the past, I’d have to grovel for PayPal scraps to keep the site running, then be all pissed off at the audience when they didn’t come in. (Old-timers remember the infamous One-Day Whiteout of February 2006… we’ll never mention that again.) If you really want to support the efforts of this site, don’t bother clicking the worthless Google Ads, go ahead and buy a Basketball State subscription. You’ll be getting more than a good feeling out of it — you’ll get 12 months of more stats than you can handle, neat personalization features, and new stuff being added all the time like team vital signs, record breakdowns and season splits. Plus, you’ll get the information you’re looking for much faster than the clunky, cluttered, ad-littered competition. And it’s cheap, too! Just 22 bucks a year, non-recurring. Heck, I’ll knock two bucks off the price (because you’ve read this far) if you click this special link:

(And if you reeeeally want to help support the site, contact us about helping finance our BB State Season 2 expansion plans. Our people will be in touch with your people.)

This season, I finally struck the right chord of editorial balance. Along with tri-weekly contributions to ESPN.com and monthly filings to Basketball Times, there was plenty of material left over for the site that got me on those radar screens to begin with. Unlike Season 3, when TMM stumbled and lost its way on account of its unsure place in the universe, this season had unprecedented focus. It was only when a wise man (my dad) reminded me last summer that in a business where one’s work is constantly crafted by others to fit commercially viable molds, sometimes it’s really important to maintain an outlet where creative freedom is unchallenged and unfiltered.

And that’s the role of this humble little site, with its daily audience that couldn’t sell out a Missouri Valley Conference arena. An audience that’s likely much smaller than the chorus of conscientious objectors who hate that I cover their schools, who have seemingly decided as one that “mid-major” is just as demeaning a hyphenated descriptor as “monkey-fucker.” That’s okay, everyone’s in denial of something or other.

Despite the “haters,” this season was bigger and more awesome than ever before, from daily Boubacars to Bally photos, to open-book travelogues of life on the road, to our fair-minded but still slightly flawed rating system, to a successful interview series that featured old-school Final Four heroes Artis Gilmore and Dolph Pulliam. There were old standbys, too, like the Mid-Majority Baller of the Week and Game! Of! The! Night!

But like Bob McKillop, I’m looking for the Perfect Season too. This wasn’t it. I didn’t maintain the consistency I was hoping in features I was hoping would be weekly, too much time passed between interviews or travelogues. There weren’t as many cartoons as I was hoping to draw, there just wasn’t enough time. There never are enough cartoons. Still haven’t figured out how not to gain 15 pounds over the course of the season. But that’s all stuff we’ll work on in Season 5.

So Season 4 is over. I hope that I’ve put across in these past five months what enormous and intricate logistical architecture is necessary to make something like this work — scheduling, travel, game after game, and enough time to write about it coherently afterwards. I certainly can’t do this alone. In addition to the boundless love, faith and understanding of my beloved wife, there are a lot of people whose trust, expertise and support are necessary for a Mid-Majority season to happen at all.

This season would have been D.O.A. on many occasions — or at least the sword, ceiling and basketball hoop stanchion of Damocles would have hung over it — if not for the initial class of Basketball State investors. I want to thank the Chicago Timbles (the Ramblers will rise again!), Josh “How Those Numbers Lookin'” Jackson and the fabulous anonymous B.U. Boys. Your dividend checks are in the mail.

Special thanks to Kim Baxter at ESPN.com, easily the most efficient and assiduous editor I’ve ever worked with, and easily the most tireless and dedicated. That’s not to take anything away from John Akers at BBT, whose personal and professional sacrifices for the great game of basketball are beyond those of anyone I’ve ever met. And thanks as well to all the sports information directors at mid-major schools from coast to coast, who do this because they love this and aren’t getting rich writing game note blurbs with clever headings. You all have my respect and unwavering awe.

There are folks who have been on board since the very beginning, folks who have had every opportunity to jump off. Mike Brodsky (to whom I still owe money to from Season 1… it’s coming, I promise), Jen from N.C., Rod from Asheville, Cortney Basham, Mike Litos, Andrew Baker, Jeff, Travis and everyone else who gets on me when I try to pass off weak crap on this website. If I forgot you, write in to complain. It’s probably because it’s been too long, we’re due for a chat anyway. I have a lot more time to answer e-mail and chat on the phone now.

Lastly, thanks to everybody who bought a BB State subscription, everybody who sent in a question to an ESPN.com chat (especially those I couldn’t get around to because of time constraints), everybody who submitted an entry to a Bally contest, everybody who wrote in with well wishes or just a complaint about how I didn’t say enough nice things about your team. I’ll try harder next year.

Keep in touch, don’t be a stranger, and we’ll see you all on November 1 when we do this damn thing all over again.

***
Seriously, what’s the big deal about failure? Failure is hard-coded into the cosmic program. Everything is pre-programmed to fail. Failure is the natural, default state of the universe.

Every human day is filled with miniscule victories and tiny defeats, but the universe is adamant that each of us finishes below .500. In the end, the body will fail to protect the soul inside. Every fear-driven effort to outlive that fragile vessel is doomed to be forgotten eventually, or swept over by lone and level sands as a colossal wreck, boundless and bare.

It ends with a loss. Everything does.

A basketball season is a far less lethal metaphor: it begins, travels its uncertain trajectory, and ends. In early March, teams crumbled and expired by the hundreds, eliminated at the gates of their conference tournaments, or by falling short in those minor brackets or in the at-large muster. In the past two weeks, they’ve perished one by one, far long after we became too numb to feel sadness for any individual passing.

Even the champions end the season with a loss, in a certain way. It will be the final time that team will ever exist in that perfect state, in that formation and at that exact age. From then on, it will be a constant struggle to recapture that lost magic captured in a still frame. The main difference, perhaps, is that they will have far fewer regrets than the rest of us.

But why have any regrets at all? Why mourn the inevitable? We all know it’s coming, the end. Why fear its onset? Why pay heed to its existence when the beginning, middle, and penultimate points are so rewarding, so worth getting lost in? The end will take care of itself, it will pick its own time. No matter what.

And for each of our 225 teams, and for us, the end has already come and gone.