Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Golden Grizzlies Fan: Part III

For die-hard college basketball fans, every 40 minutes of basketball means something special when witnessed live. Each new game presents fans with the opportunity to see something amazing. A spectacular individual performance, a memorable dunk, or a game-winning shot is never out of the question on a given night, and it is a part of the reason why we love to attend sports events as much as we do. The ability to say "I was there when..." is much more alluring than "I watched when..."

But what if you could say, "I participated when..."? In this sport, there is one tradition that trumps witnessing all awe-inspiring performances or dunks or shots. It takes the experience from one of simply viewing and cheering to one of actually doing. It is the holy grail of college basketball fanaticism: storming the court. Storming the court has a long and storied history, its own set of rules, and those who attempt to protect the sanctity of the action. It is serious business.

For a school like Oakland University, the opportunity to rush the court does not come up very often. Using Storming The Floor's guidelines, you can quickly begin to see why:

- If your unranked team beats a top-10 opponent (Top-10 teams never play true road games at mid-majors like Oakland)
-If your lower-division school beats a D1 opponent. (Not a lower-division school)
-You beat your most hated rival in overtime, or on a last-second miracle shot. (Could happen any year with a home game against Oral Roberts, but close games in the past - including Johnathon Jones' Homecoming game heroics in 2010 - haven't prompted a court rushing)
-Your team breaks a long losing streak against a particularly difficult opponent. (Again, most of OU's losing streaks are to high-major schools which won't play true road games, and the Palace, where those teams often play the Grizzlies, doesn't allow storming)
-Your team wins the league tournament in a one-bid conference. (Ah, ha!)
-You become the first 16 seed to beat a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. (Not happening)
-If your school wins the NCAA tournament. (I'll never say never)

Even if one of these events were to occur, there is the added concern that a school needs fans in attendance for the court storming to come to life. For mid-majors, most of these events, if not all of them, are more likely to come on the road where the team may not have the fan presence necessary to storm. As if it were not difficult enough to be a fan of a small-school basketball program already, now we've learned we don't even get as many opportunities to participate in a good ol' court storming! That said, this is precisely the reason why it is so special to be a part of a rushing when it happens at this level, why it is the holy grail.

Fortunately for Oakland University fans, the program will always have a shot at court storming during the conference tournament since The Summit League earns only one-bid to the NCAA Tournament. And OU has an Athletics Department very committed to ensuring that an adequate number of student supporters are given the opportunity to be present at the tournament every year. After that, it is up to the team to make it to the championship game, to give the fans a shot at fulfilling a dream.

For a group of die-hard Grizzlies and I, this dream became a reality during last year's conference tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. For an entire year, I had the image of the North Dakota State Bison fans storming the court, hoisting Ben Woodside on their shoulders after he hit the game winning shot against Oakland in 2009. While NDSU had geography on its side, Oakland had space on buses, and lots of it. For the 2010 Conference Tournament, there were close to 100 student supporters making up the band, the cheer and dance teams, and the spirit entity known as the Grizz Gang. We spent over 15 hours (each way) on those buses, but it was all worth the opportunity to cheer on the Grizzlies as they embarked on a three-day journey toward a conference championship and the chance to send the team off to the NCAAs like the Bison fans had done one year earlier.

As anyone reading likely knows, the championship game was one heckuva battle, led by the historic performance of Derick Nelson. In the closing minutes, after Keith Benson had blocked an IUPUI shot that led to the game-clinching And-1 transition bucket by Nelson, I remember being so out-of-control in my excitement that I somehow ended up in an entirely different section of the bleachers we were occupying. In that moment, I was so high on adrenaline that thought I had mastered the art of teleportation.

After a few more token end-of-the-game plays on the court, the true teleportation - to the floor - was imminent. My friends and I, and the rest of the fans in attendance, began flooding out of the bleachers to the very edge of the court as the final seconds waned. If it weren't for a last second whistle abruptly halting our rush to a celebration on the court (one which ended up making OU fans appear as novices, which is partially true given the rules), the court storming would have been perfect, one where the seconds between leaving the seat and jumping up and down on the court are lost in the moment. Alas, it was only near-perfect, but the elation felt once that first foot touched hardwood quickly made up for any glitches in the approach.

The celebration lasted for over thirty-minutes. What started out as a black and gold blend of players, coaches, fans, and families jumping and yelling in unison at center-court gave way to players hugging moms and dads, fans taking photos, and media members seeking out quotes for the game recaps. Afterward, everyone got a chance to cut a piece of the net, and thanks to a suggestion I overheard by Coach Greg Kampe, even members of the band, cheer/dance, and Grizz Gang were afforded the opportunity to climb the ladder for a piece of glory. It was in that moment everyone knew they had contributed to the event that just happened. While the coaches and players made it possible to win the game, everyone in the stands, all of those who rode charter buses or flew out on their own dime, had given Oakland basketball as great of a home-game atmosphere as possible some 16 hours away from the O'Rena. We poured our hearts out and lost our voices, and the program gave something back to us for our efforts, just as we had been giving to them all along.

That night I knew I was a part of something special. I knew, deep down, that such an experience could never be had as a fan of a big-time college sports institution. The rewards of sticking with a small-time program are vast, especially at Oakland. The fans who were in South Dakota last March can attest to that. We will remember forever the rush that comes along with rushing the court, and the feeling we had as the most recognizable figures at Oakland actively encouraged the fans to stick around for the entire celebration. I can only hope my fellow and future fans can one day feel the same. Beyond my educational experience at OU, this experience is the major reasons why I will, through thick and thin, forever be a Golden Grizzly.


And with that comes the close of this latest series on what it is to be a Golden Grizzlies fan. I feel this is also a good point to briefly mention a few concepts regarding this outlet. As the previous posts indicate, I'm an unabashed fan of this school and program. I'm not an Xs and Os guy, nor do I really have the knowledge necessary to breakdown player mechanics. I won't write recaps or have scoops because the program already has a great beat writer. Admittedly, I am leaving the state for graduate school this fall, but my location will provide me (barring weather conditions, homework assignments, and cash-flow hiccups) the opportunity to check out a few road games. I'm already eying games against Purdue, IUPUI, and if it ends up on the schedule, Illinois. Wright State may be a possibility as well. My hope is to offer more broad-level perspective on the program/school, experiences at road games, match-up analysis, and whatever else comes to mind that would be relevant and original. As noted, most of this is contingent on having the time to do so, but I've enjoyed thinking and writing about these topics and people seem to read them. So with that, go Grizzlies!

1 comment:

  1. I want to rush the court right now. Adrenaline-pumping article!