As part of a new series we’ll be running on DimeMag.com, follow author Matthew Pierce into the world of not-so-famous college basketball…
I checked into the game midway through the first half and officially began my college career. I waited nervously in the paint as the other team brought the ball up the court. One by one, the cluster of guards and forwards fanned out to either side of the floor, revealing the other team’s center: a giant, terrifying person who was lumbering right at me. I suddenly wanted to go home.
*** *** ***
There’s one year of my basketball career that I don’t talk much about.
In 1999, I spent my freshman year at Bryan College, a tiny Christian school in the mountains of Tennessee. And when I say “in the mountains,” I don’t mean “close to some mountains.” The entire campus of Bryan College is literally on top of a mountain. The school is located in a small town called Dayton, which is next to a place called Soddy Daisy. If you are looking for a place to hide out for a few decades, I would recommend Soddy Daisy.
Small schools like Bryan have a little secret to help nudge along enrollment: JV sports teams. Filling out a freshman class is a lot easier if you have 30 18-year-olds arriving each fall to play JV soccer or basketball.
The idea of playing JV basketball at such a small school might seem pointless, pathetic, or even cruel. But it was a chance. And when you love the game, sometimes you can’t walk away from a chance.
My teammates on the JV team were not bad basketball players. If you squinted hard enough, you could see many of us being useful players at a higher level. We were like the island of misfit toys: each of us had a flaw, a defect that relegated us to the scrap heap that was JV basketball.
There was Josh, the point guard, who had both speed and a soft shooting stroke, but was a profoundly meek person. He was quiet, gentle, and lacking the gene that makes point guards such insufferable little tyrants. Too nice.
There was Michael, who had impeccable post-up skills and a great motor—but was only 6-1. Too short.
And then there was me, and I was perhaps the most maddening case of all. I was the type of freshman that gives coaches fits: 6-8, painfully skinny and raw, but with enough athleticism to seem like a prospect.
In an empty gym I could fly up and down the floor and dunk over empty chairs, but in a game, with currents of bodies flowing around me and pushing from all sides, I was completely overwhelmed.
*** *** ***
Our first game was against a Bible college nestled deep in the Appalachian hills. The gym was not especially large, and was probably made to hold less than a thousand people. A contingent of blue and white-clad fans turned up to support their squad of future pastors and theologians and filled perhaps a tenth of the bleachers. As for the Bryan College JV, we had no cheerleaders, no family members, not a single fan of any kind. Just eight kids and a couple of assistant coaches. One van. Five dollar bills in an envelope for the postgame meal. McDonald’s, if we could find one in this wilderness.
When I checked into the game, our starting center jogged past me on his way to the bench. This was Steve, a wild-looking man with long hair and Wolverine-style sideburns that were three inches thick. It was unclear if Steve had ever seen a basketball before he joined the JV team. Still, he started over me because he was as strong as an ox and was very good at hurting people.
When I bumped Steve’s fist to take his place on the court, he murmured something that sounded like “have fun with Pickle.”
Pickle was the other team’s center, the man who was now coming right at me as I stood in the paint. I wanted to look for someone else to guard. Here he came down the lane; there was no time to do anything but set my feet. Well, this was it. I’d be dying a virgin. Hopefully one of my teammates would tell my parents that I loved them.