We set out for Cleveland rather early, hoping to take in a bit of the town prior to watching the game. The drive, however, lasted much longer than anticipated thanks to a neverending rainstorm which followed us down I-75 and into Ohio. We passed Toledo but could barely make out the city's structures; the rain was that bad. Navigating Cleveland proved difficult as well, yet just like the initial plan, we somehow found our way. In our soaked clothes and waterlogged shoes, we managed to traverse the busy streets of Cleveland, though we were clearly in the minority as far as sports allegiances went. Most of the city's pedestrians were headed for the Quicken Loans Arena on this evening to witness its favorite son, LeBron James, take on the Utah Jazz. Clearly better times for Clevelanders.
Perhaps it was the combination of the nasty weather and the Cavaliers game, but on this night Cleveland State's Wolstein Center was largely empty. The facility itself has a wonderful facade and features two bowls not unlike Eastern Michigan's Convocation Center. Though during this season opener, that upper bowl could have been sectioned off as if it were an oversized football dome hosting a basketball game. The lower bowl was mostly a mix of what appeared to be casual observers and a few of those die-hard fans who proudly sport team apparel they likely bought 20 years ago. The student presence was laughable, with no discernible student section anywhere in the building. All of this despite the fact that the two teams taking the court that night would end up in their respective conference championship games in just four short months.
Prior to the tip, we had learned that one of Oakland's returning seniors, Derick Nelson, had suffered an injury the day before leaving for Cleveland which would threaten his season. As a novice Oakland fan at the time, one of my illustrious friends had to explain to me the significance of this situation. Oakland would have to lean on the contributions of two freshmen, Blake Cushingberry and Drew Maynard, at the forward position without Nelson in the lineup. This news didn't mean much to me then. Little did I know that just two years later, Nelson would be the player who willed the Grizzlies to a Summit League tournament championship, in turn providing me with a chance to fulfill a basketball fan's ultimate dream of storming the court.
Aside from Nelson's injury, there were other question marks for the team heading into the season. Shane Lawal was gone and the scrawny Keith Benson would get a chance to start in the post. Johnathon Jones was always a starter, but it was presumed that his contributions would increase even more in his junior campaign. These two players, perhaps more than any other, were to be responsible for whatever level of success would come to the Grizzlies in 08-09.
Within seconds of the tip against Cleveland State, all indications pointed to Oakland being just fine. I'll never forget the moment: Johnathon Jones had just got the ball off the tip, darted toward his side of the court, and found a streaking Keith Benson for a thunderous alley-oop dunk. It was a play that would be utilized throughout the season and one that clearly was representative of the roles of Jones as facilitator and Benson as low-post dominator. Even though it was not that long ago, if I had to point to a moment where I went from a casual Grizzlies fan to an intense fanatic, it was on that alley-oop dunk. The rest of the game had its ups and downs, and eventually Cleveland State pulled away in the waning minutes with the win. Even though Oakland lost the game, Benson had emerged with a double-double and Jones, despite having an off night, showed that facilitation would prove simpler with Benson occupying the paint.
Though our spirits were down a bit from the loss, my friends and I left Cleveland feeling good about our opportunity to support our school on the road. Opportunities to do it again would be few and far between for the rest of the season, but that night sparked in us a deeper connection with the program. I attended every subsequent home game that year and followed every road game through internet radio, live stats, or television - essentially whatever was available. One of my fondest memories of the rest of that season is of listening to the Oregon game with two friends huddled around a laptop with a bad Internet connection. Just as Oakland was making a push to send the game into overtime, the connection gave out. We wouldn't get the connection back until Johnathon Jones was making his mark in extra minutes, leading the Grizzlies to a rare west coast win over a Pac 10 school.
Since the early days of that 2008-09 season, I have found myself as committed as ever as a Golden Grizzlies fan. This blog was born out of that commitment with the purpose of sharing fan experiences and to further extend Oakland basketball's presence on the web, especially given the recent rise in team-specific blogs offering thoughtful, unique perspectives on the issues facing the teams they cover. Perhaps most important, I hope that stories like this and others offered previously help to ignite in readers a desire to become more involved as a fan - whether by attending one more home game than usual, taking a road trip to an away game, posting thoughts on a community forum, wearing OU apparel, or bringing up Golden Grizzlies basketball in casual conversation. As a "little" school in the shadow of some "big" competitors, every little bit we can do helps in the effort to bring all Grizzlies together.