Cheap Seats Basketball Introspective

After that debacle within Carter-Finley last weekend, the timing for this just seems eerily appropriate, especially since I’m not at all hopeful about the upcoming basketball season. My original intent was a more comprehensive basketball retrospective similar to the one I did for football back in the summer. But I decided that nothing good can come from anything like that for basketball. Instead, this is a trimmed-down version of an idea I began work on awhile back – a brief introspective on enduring the State fan experience (the embedded links fill in some of the gaps along the way).

This is really nothing more than another attempt in a continuing process to unravel that eternal mystery: Why am I a State fan?

Resplendent it hung, with a white border and white block letters emblazoned against a bright red background: 2003 ACC Champions.

Even though it had been 16 long, grueling years since our last conference title in 1987, a period of time nearly twice as long as our previous gap of nine years between 1974 and 1983, this was hardly uncharted territory for us. State had won 10 of the ACC’s 49 championships to date, and we had played for, but lost, the championship in 1997 and then again the previous year in 2002.

This year was different. 1997 had been nothing beyond a feel-good Cinderella story about a young and thin, inexperienced and overmatched group that left every ounce of its heart on that Greensboro Coliseum floor over a long weekend and in turn renewed our hope that we had finally reversed that unyielding freefall into the depths of despair. But that wouldn’t happen until five more torturous years later, in 2002, when after 11 years of futility, State finally played its way back into March Madness by beating Virginia and then eventual National Champion Maryland en route to a 30-point blowout loss to Duke in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte.

But unlike those two previous teams in 1997 and 2002, in 2003 it wasn’t about renewing hope or fighting for respect. Even though we’d finished the regular season at a mediocre 16-11 and had stumbled into the tournament in Greensboro after winning only four of our final nine conference games, we defeated Georgia Tech and then ninth-ranked Wake Forest en route to the championship game, and this was a team that matched up well against Duke, with whom we’d split the regular season series.

And it was right around three o’clock that Sunday afternoon on March 16, 2003, when I’d already hung that glorious banner from the RBC Center rafters. I’d endured and somehow survived not just the 90s, but four seasons in college with exactly one combined win over Duke and Carolina. And now, after leading 38-36 with 17:12 remaining, Josh Powell sparked a 15-2 run over the next 4:48, capped by his three-pointer with 11:44 remaining to push the lead to a comfortable 55-40.

I had earned this.

I can’t explain why, but I found myself thinking back to my junior year in the fall of 1999, long before the internet was a regular, inseparable part of my life. In those days I checked in the Mann Hall computer lab between classes, but mostly I still relied on the N&O, Athlon, and The ACC Handbook for my preseason previews. By all indications, 2000 was supposed to have marked the end of our long, steep climb back to respectability. I remember that Athlon had called Damon Thornton, Kenny Inge, and Ron Kelley the nation’s best frontcourt, while Anthony Grundy and Justin Gainey, along with Archie Miller, anchored a very solid backcourt; most promising, though, was that we had landed Damien Wilkins (a.k.a., the next David Thompson).

After an encouraging 5-3 start in the conference – January included one particularly miserable weekday afternoon performance at Clemson the day after The Blizzard, but then one particularly impressive statement in a 92-88 overtime loss in Cameron – the wheels derailed and it quickly became an absolute train wreck. Starting with Thornton’s technical at Maryland, State went 0-for-February, losing seven straight before recovering in March on Senior Day against Florida State – this was the game when senior Tim Wells didn’t even play, even though he’d been nothing less than a fine representative of the program and had certainly earned the honor of, if nothing else, at least a token start on his Senior Day – for a 6-10, sixth-place finish and Sendek’s fourth straight NIT.

1993 and 1995 had been abysmal, sure, but February 2000 began the lowest stretch of time for a program’s once-proud yet fleeting basketball tradition. Many of us had thought after 2000 the timing was suitable to go after Rick Barnes, who we inherently believed wanted to be our coach and who many of us believed should have gotten a call back in 1996. Instead, after 2000 Herb Sendek got a raise and an extension and Rick Barnes never got a call.

Then after 2001, with Inge, Kelley, Thornton, Miller, Grundy, Cliff Crawford, and most notably, the NBA-pedigree Wilkins, all having returned, there was no rational explanation that this team picked to finish third instead finished 5-11 in the conference and 13-16 overall, and failed to even make the NIT. We’d never been further from our 11th ACC title – or even beating Duke and Carolina – and by then there had long-since developed a stark, wide schism among the fan base, which was highlighted by persistent and generally furious infighting. By April 2001, this era was finally defined for the vocal minority among us, firmly entrenched along that lunatic fringe, after Wilkins was dismissed from the team.

Wilkins is the primary reason that I pay almost zero attention to recruiting. Beyond its fickle nature, recruiting has become bigger than the game itself, and there’s no logical argument for why a coach’s tenure should be extended because of a recruiting class. My reasoning is simple: a bad coach can recruit well and win some games based on that talent alone, but I dare you to argue that John Wall would have made Sidney Lowe a better coach, because you’d be wrong.

Wilkins arrived at State in 1999 with great promise and even greater expectations by those of us in desperate need of a legend to revive the program. But – whether it was the system or his lack of talent, doesn’t really matter – he’d never measured up to his promise, averaging only 11.6 points per game over two seasons, while his play grew increasingly lethargic during the final few weeks of 2001. What unfolded after the season that spring was an embarrassing drama: Wilkins’ father Gerald publicly criticized Sendek’s system for limiting his son’s potential, while Damien made the ill-advised decision to not only gauge his NBA draft stock, but he also made it public that he was considering a transfer unless Sendek would make certain assurances about his role on the team if he withdrew from the draft. Wilkins’ drama was a cancer and Sendek made the right decision to dismiss him from the team (to be fair, I supported that decision primarily because I thought there was no way Sendek could survive it).

But two years later on that Sunday afternoon in March 2003, Damien Wilkins was at Georgia and Rick Barnes was still at Texas, and none of that mattered to me because all of our shots were falling and all of Duke’s were clanking. We were reaping hell upon them for every missed shot and every turnover. I was convinced that nothing on this beautiful day could stand in the way of our rightful return to the top of the ACC.

But for those of you – like me – that don’t need the “NC” to know which State we’re talking about and remember when Tuffy still wore a sweater and needed a trim, and are intimately familiar with the frustration of State basketball after the Valvano Era, you should’ve known better. Because ours is a story of tragedy as much as it is endurance.

Within less than a minute after our largest lead of the game, Powell and Julius Hodge each picked up their fourth fouls. And then, like so many times before, those damned Duke Blue Devils capitalized. Down the stretch, State had six turnovers and missed 11 shots; Mike Krzyzewski outcoached Herb Sendek; and J.J. Redick nailed four three-pointers and added six free throws to seal the 2003 ACC Championship for Duke, 84-77.

I was numb, choked with anger and disappointment – not with the team or Sendek or even the several questionable calls that never went our way, but with myself. I had to be the only State fan alive that with 11:44 remaining that awful afternoon didn’t see that loss coming. I wanted nothing more than to smother myself with that ridiculous banner.

Seriously, I’d been around long enough to know better.

For those of us that have never been anything but a State fan, that ACC Championship game in 2003 serves as the perfect microcosm of the State fan experience. Our rich history is simply that – history. While Carolina and Duke keep winning titles, we’ve been reduced to a tragic loop of hope then despair. For every Julius Hodge buzzer-beater against UConn in the 2005 East Regional in Worcester, there’s a Matt Freije 11-point barrage over the final four minutes to end our season in the 2004 West Regional in Phoenix. For every improbable win over Duke in the 1997 or 2007 ACC Tournament, there waits those Bastards Born & Bred to stop us on Sunday. For every March 2006 when we have hope for a new era, there is an April 2006 to remind us that era will never arrive – we can’t even hire a coach the right way; instead, we wind up with the only guy that didn’t say no.

Unfortunately for us, the N.C. State Saga is no longer one of prevailing triumph or retribution. Rather, it’s really nothing beyond a grim portrait of dogged perseverance by a fan base that should’ve long ago surrendered, but somehow, defiantly almost, holds on to that stubborn hope – “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up” – instilled into us during a bygone era in which far too many of us weren’t even alive to remember.

Like after so many losses before and since, I swore off State basketball that March afternoon in 2003. Every loss is my last game and after every March ends the same way, I swear I’m through with State basketball. And yet, I haven’t missed many games over the years. And that’s why, even though the past two decades of State basketball have delivered little beyond brief moments of reprieve, I’ll still be tuned in for the Glenn Wilkes Classic – the what? – for that first game next month.

Look, I might be a bad fan, but I’ve never been anything other than loyal, to a fault.

Hey, I don’t get it, either.

About LRM

Charter member of the Lunatic Fringe and a fan, loyal to a fault.

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53 Responses to Cheap Seats Basketball Introspective

  1. howlie 10/14/2009 at 6:45 AM #

    It’s tough to be a Wolfpacker, LRM.

  2. GAWolf 10/14/2009 at 7:15 AM #

    We all have our crosses to bear… one of ours is being a Pack fan.

    With the recruiting class coming in, I fully expect our ever-present, sometimes overzealous, and often unfounded hope will switch from TOB and Pack football over to Sid and Pack basketball. I’m no soothsayer, but I predict: we’ll spend this winter talking about WTNY, and then next year we’ll overhype our younguns to the point they can’t possibly meet expectations and we’ll once again find ourselves discouraged and licking our wounds in the closet while hiding from our co-workers who were fortunate enough to graduate from other local institutions.

  3. VaWolf82 10/14/2009 at 8:07 AM #

    we’ll spend this winter talking about WTNY,

    We might as well, the coach already has.

  4. pack44fan 10/14/2009 at 8:25 AM #

    Judging by the coach’s preseason comments, the white flag is already is already being waived. I guess he figures if he lowers expectations, his job will be secure for another year.

  5. choppack1 10/14/2009 at 8:54 AM #

    This year should be interesting if only because we get to see some new players and we can get final proof whether the inconsistent efforts and execution we’ve seen over the last 3 years is a direct result of coaching or if it was indirectly related to those who played under Sendek.

  6. primacyone 10/14/2009 at 8:58 AM #

    2009/10 – The season with no expectations.

    The only expecation I have is to see Howell, Painter, and Wood develop some during the year. That’s it. However, I’ve got the feeling Scott Wood may GO OFF!

  7. wolfpackdawg 10/14/2009 at 9:06 AM #

    Damn you all my family members that went to NCSU. I totally blame them for my sordid upbringing and desire to attend college here.

  8. zahadum 10/14/2009 at 9:25 AM #

    I remember that game vividly as well, because I have never been angrier with any Wolfpack player in any sport that I was with C Crawford that day. If you get a chance to see it on tape, (and you can stand it) look at how much energy he wasted in the first half on celebrating and showboating. I was screaming at him the whole half ‘you’re going to need that energy in about an hour’. And sure enough, by midway the second half he was totally out of gas.

  9. eas 10/14/2009 at 9:39 AM #

    As time goes by and the Wolfpack BB team gets worse, all we seem to hear is stupid comparisons to Sendek. I just don’t get why in the world people are too lost to leave this alone! That’s 4 years in the past and we still don’t want him back regardless. Great person, coach etc. but will NEVER be a good fit in the ACC. Sorry to vent a little but people bring it up to me all the time. Here is a response I read on the cbs boards that sums up my feeling & most others who really understand what the ACC is all about:

    “In the entire history of the ACC, there are only three coaches who
    1)Lasted 10 seasons in the ACC
    2)Never won an ACC Regular Season, and
    3)Never won an ACC Tournament.

    Carl Tacy at Wake Forest, Bill Gibson at Virginia, and Herb Sendek.

    I like Sendek. He is a good man, an outstanding man, and a good coach. He simply was not a good fit for NC State, or any ACC school for that matter. His pesonality, his attitude, his demeanor, his passion simply did not cut it. Had he been hired to coach any other ACC school, he would not have lasted the 10 years NC State gave him.

    For example, over his entire 10 year career, Sendek continued to say games against UNC and Duke were just like any other game. No more important, no less important than games vs VaTech or Miami.

    That is not ACC Basketball, that is not ACC passion. That is bean counter, deadpan stoicism. That is not passionate basketball. It is not passionate leadership.

    How many coaches you know that base their coaching philosophy of Stoicism?

    How long do you think a coach would last at Auburn if he constantly said Alabama was just another football game, no more important, no less than the Vandy game? How about a Michigan coach saying Ohio State was just another football game, no more important than a game vs Indiana?

    Sendek is a good coach. He and his family are better off at ASU and in the PAC 10 where he can succeed. Where basketball is a pass time, simply something to do inside when the weather is not nice outside.

    Criticize Wolfpack fans for wanting excellence if you wish, say they are dellusional if you must. But in doing so you are stating your ignorance of college basketball history and tradition, both nationally and in the ACC. Settling for medicrity is why the national view of NC State Basketball has deteriorated to its precent state. In the ACC Sendek was mediocre. That translates to a successful coach in the PAC 10.”

  10. BJD95 10/14/2009 at 9:40 AM #

    I deleted the Sendek article “flame bait” post because it’s not relevant to the topic at hand and we already discussed it in the forums.

    I agree wholeheartedly about LRM’s post about keeping a coach for recruiting. You can look at what happened with “savior” Wilkins (mediocrity followed by season down the toilet) and even a Top 10/20 recruit like JJ Hickson (who was even better than advertised – and the team completely tanked anyway).

    Hell, look at what would have to be the best-case scenario – Julius Hodge. He was an all-ACC caliber player from the day he stepped on the court for us. He stayed for four years. He did everything well, and made the players around him better. Did he “save” Sendek’s program? No. We had four years of basketball limbo, where Sendek did JUST ENOUGH every year to hold onto his job, but never enough for anyone to be truly satisfied.

    Coaching absolutely matters, especially in college basketball. If trophies were handed out for recruiting, Houston’s Guy Lewis would be on par with John Wooden (Lewis represents the pinnacle for what Lowe’s remaining supporters seem to envision – a “roll out a ball for practice” coach who relies on recruited talent to carry the day). Instead, to the extent anyone remembers Lewis today, it’s for how a coach couldn’t manage to win an NCAA title with essentially the same players who won an NBA title later. And believe me, for every Guy Lewis, there are hundreds of “roll out the ball” coaches who never whiff even a fraction of that success. And frankly, I can’t think of a single one who cut down the nets.

    Everything I’ve heard, seen, read, and discerned leads me to believe that Sidney Lowe doesn’t know how to run a college basketball program. He’s made some bizarre recruiting mistakes, but that’s low on the priority list for problems that I see (program stewardship and work ethic being 1A and 1B). And those high-priority problems haven’t been addressed at all, and I get the impression they never will be (as with Amato, Lowe doesn’t recognize the problems, and/or just doesn’t believe they ARE problems). Recruiting is not THE solution, it’s just one component.

  11. BJD95 10/14/2009 at 9:46 AM #

    As to that March day in question, I was heartbroken but not angry. I liked how Sendek let the team play that whole weekend (and unsurprisingly, Powell’s star shone brightly). Even when we lost that big lead, it wasn’t because we played tight and “not to lose” – Duke (especially Redick) just flat-out took it from us. I remember posting right after the loss that if we kept playing like that during the NCAAT that we could really do some damage.

    Instead, Sendek took the opposite lesson, and decided that lack of iron-fisted control cost us the game. We lost the opener to a mediocre Cal team, and our players were obviously tight the entire way, scared of making mistakes once again. Hodge’s post-game quotes made it clear that the players were pissed about being reined in, and Powell’s departure cemented that. THAT was my low point, and when I lost all faith that we could ever get over the hump with Sendek here.

  12. tobaccordshow 10/14/2009 at 10:07 AM #

    That 2003 day… man… Spring Break 2003… That was it. That day. That game. It was ours. We were destroying Duke. It was in the bag. I could taste it.

    Reddick. I hate him. I hate him not for insincere reasons. He was good… No, he was damn good. Duke didn’t beat NC State that day. Reddick beat NC State that day. He couldn’t miss. Trick shots. The kind of shots that Harris Teeter offers $100k for a fan to hit… knowing that it’s almost impossible. I’m still numb thinking about it.

    And then that loss to Cal. Lethargic. Both me and the team.

  13. codebrown 10/14/2009 at 10:07 AM #

    You know why we’re State fans? Because we can take it, that’s why. Anyone else would have gone to Wal-mart and bought a Tarhole shirt after this many years of psychological abuse. Sure, we’ll have more days like this past Saturday. But we will endure. And if nothing else, that’s good enough for me.

  14. WV Wolf 10/14/2009 at 10:30 AM #

    I remember thinking we had that ACC title won as well, of course I should have know better.

    In the summer of 96 after graduation and between job interviews I worked on a drawing of the Reynolds Coliseum floor and listed all our ACC title years below it. Sitting in a sports bar in 2003 with that 15 point lead I was looking forward to going home, taking it down off the wall and adding another year to the list. Sadly that drawing hasn’t been out of the frame since it was first put in it 13 years ago.

  15. Clarksa 10/14/2009 at 10:48 AM #

    The worst part about losing to Cal was it was the very first game that tipped off in that years NCAA tournament…so the tournament is two hours old and *poof* we were done…

    Also…had Coach Sendek held on to that lead against Duke, he would have gotten a huge monkey off his back and might still be coaching here today.

  16. nycfan 10/14/2009 at 10:53 AM #

    Some pretty good stuff in here. A few random thoughts that came to me reading through this …

    > before Damien Wilkins was the savior, Ish Benjamin was to be NC State’s savior and the kid was eaten alive by the expectations; I think of him a lot when I read some of the expectations for Ryan Harrow

    > it seemed like more than a few State fans relished the 2002 State season — at least when beating the bejeezus out of UNC; I think that season definitely set the expectations for State a lot higher for the future and set up that 2003 ACC Title game;

  17. SMD 10/14/2009 at 10:55 AM #

    While I will be the first to admit that we State fans like to wallow in our own misery a little bit, we’ve also earned that right by having athletic administrations that don’t stress excellence and settle for mediocrity. It used to not be that way.

    I think that the cumulative effect is that each year chips away my passion a little piece at a time. Of course, I will always love NC State and wear it on my sleeve proudly. But there once was a time when I would never miss a football or basketball game. There once was a time when I got jacked up beyond belief for every big game. There once was a time when I would spend money that I didn’t really have to follow the Pack to the end of the earth.

    Now I find myself cancelling my basketball tickets, selling a few football games here and there (to fellow State fans, of course.) and generally getting on with my life and finding other outlets for my passion and my money.

    If NC State doesn’t care to be the best, why should I?

  18. choppack1 10/14/2009 at 11:07 AM #

    nyc fan- I remember Ishua Benjamin very well. I was excited when we signed him. However, I saw him play, and after seeing him I knew that while he’d bring needed speed and athleticism to our squad, he wasn’t well-rounded enough.

    I think Harrow is different than Wilkins or Ish. Harrow is a kid who has gone from a virtual unknown to McD AA candidate. That’s a completely different projectory than Ish..and unlike Wilkins’, he’s playing a position where you really have to be exceptional to stand out.

    Of course, after the Lo Brown fiasco, I’m not taking anything for granted until he sets foot on our campus and I actually see him wearing a jersey in a game that says “NC State”.

    While I won’t paint him savior, it’s a simple fact that some players change directions of programs. For Maryland, that player was Joe Smith. For GaTech – that player was Mark Price.

    I’m not counting on him being this player – but bringing him into a situation where we have front court talent and other players capable of filling it up, could change the direction of the program.

    This doesn’t mean I’m saying it will – only, I’ve been around long enough to know that fortunes can change pretty drastically in basketball w/ a couple of key recruits.

  19. Broccoman 10/14/2009 at 11:39 AM #

    An idiot coach with top talent will 9 times out of 10 make the NCAA tourney, and occasionally make a good run

    The ceiling of a great coach with average talent is probably VT right now.

  20. durhamwolf19 10/14/2009 at 11:50 AM #

    I was at that game as I won free tickets at work – high in the corner in the Duke section. I was having Duke fans congratulating me on the ACC championship when we go up 15 in the 2nd half. I told them it wasn’t over. We stared missing shots and JJ went crazy. Mike Wood realized he was Coach K’s personal ref and called a couple of bogus fouls on Cliff (only guy who could stop JJ somewhat) and he fouled out with about 4 minutes to go. I think Cliff fouling out sapped our resolve and the rest is history.

  21. rtpack24 10/14/2009 at 12:01 PM #

    Really good players can make a below avg coach look great. In this day of one and dones you have to compete every year. High level Div 1 bball the land scape changes because of so many guys leaving early for the NBA. Next year never gets here. Lo Brown was going to turn things around this year, unfortunately he is not here. Until recruits are in school and playing no one knows how good they are going to be. Who ever is the coach at NCSU should be able to recruit. I hoped I am surprised by this year’s team.

  22. VaWolf82 10/14/2009 at 12:39 PM #

    Next year never gets here.

    I wish we had sig lines here….because I would steal this one and make it mine.

  23. Alpha Wolf 10/14/2009 at 12:40 PM #

    “We all have our crosses to bear… one of ours is being a Pack fan.”

    Seems like we never get the wood off of Via De La Rosa, doesn’t it?

  24. ncsu0812 10/14/2009 at 12:40 PM #

    ^”You know why we’re State fans? Because we can take it, that’s why. ”

    Thank you.

    I remember that ACC title game vividly. I was thirteen years old and was still in the stage of “statefandom” where I would pick NC State to win the National Championship every year without question. A blind optimist. That day represents some of the happiest and saddest moments I have ever experienced as a State fan.

    Not ashamed to say that I cried over that loss. But that was the last time.

    Since, I have grown up as a fan. A growing knowledge of State athletics coupled with a pile of numbing losses has erased a lot of that optimism and replaced it with a more realistic approach to supporting my school. Nevertheless, I’m still young and some optimism remains. Sometimes, (on days like last Saturday) I question why. But then I remember that it’s those days that make State fans who they are.

    I have long believed that being a State fan is more than just associating with, supporting, or even loving a team. It is the encapsulation of the joy and the misery that NC State University has made us all feel; the love and the hate that we express year in and year out. It’s this feeling that keeps us so loyal even when there is seemingly no hope.

    I’m only 20 years old. Not old enough to have experienced any glory as a fan. No National Championships, no ACC titles, no No. 1 rankings, nothing. In fact, the only “glory” I have seen is a win against Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl, one appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, and only a handful of victories over a team that I hate almost as much as I love State. Yet for some reason, I pull for the Pack like we have no more room for banners in the rafters. My optimism may not lead me to pick us to win a Championship anymore (partly because we have to make the tournament for me to do that ;)), but it does lead me to hope and keep faith that one day we will “get something in return.”

    I know this all sounds overly dramatic, but I thought I’d share why I’m still around and why I will be as proud to be a Wolfpacker this season as I’ll be when we can once again call ourselves champions.

  25. BJD95 10/14/2009 at 1:17 PM #

    You have to be able to do both (coach and recruit). One without the other will never be enough.

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