"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, July 04, 2011

Warrior Travels, Chapter 6, Brick City

"A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ."

Newark is a hardened, shattered city. It is nicknamed the Brick City after the many brick homes, although urban lore says this moniker came from an infestation of crack bricks. Mayor Cory Booker is utilizing unending optimism to try to reverse a decades-long urban slide (as shown in the Sundance Channel’s documentary series by the city’s nickname). Its one asset is land-locked Manhattan: the alternative airport, the transportation infrastructure, and the available real estate give the politicians something to build on. The Rock has been the cornerstone of these efforts, trying to draw in entertainment dollars from the metropolitan area and beyond. The NCAA East Regional would be another national showcase opportunity. Sadly, Newark’s nickname would foreshadow things to come for Marquette, however.

It is too easy to be a critic today, everyone has a digital voice to immediately pronounce to the world what is wrong, myself included. A videogame mentality is a major part of the “New America”. This is the “Age of Instant Criticism”. However, tweeting or blogging about Newark’s or Buzz Williams’ problems only gets you so far toward solving the actual problems, as all it does is add more angst to the discussion. The tough part is to stir the pot of optimism and hope to “Be the Difference”.

Arriving via a LaGuardia shuttle at the Newark Liberty Airport on Thursday, March 24th, my mood was very upbeat about Marquette’s chances against North Carolina. MU was hot, playing on a familiar Big East court against a team that was not as good on the road/at neutral sites. However, the Tar Heels had the clear match-up advantage, especially on the frontline—which usually comes more into play on the second weekend of the tournament. That said, figuring out the match-ups in this game was much easier than figuring out the New Jersey jug handles. I fly into Newark about ten times a year, but I somehow wind up lost at the Newark Port after exiting the airport 100% of the time—and GPS is of no help.

After the LaGuardia airport shuttle, with a transfer to the Newark airport tram, to the hotel shuttle terminal, to the hotel bus, to the hotel, I checked into my room. Welcome to Newark! After I unpacked, I headed to the lobby bar to grab some dinner and a few beers while I watched the Thursday night NCAA games. Some Kentucky Boys were lined up on the back wall drinking their Buds and looking uncomfortably out of place in the big city—their team did not in the end.

Game Day Friday rose in the East. After some work and a late breakfast, I headed to the team hotel to meet a friend for lunch followed by the MU Pep Rally. The East Coast alumni and their families were out en masse as the entire hotel ballroom was ablaze in blue and gold. The Rachael Ray Show was there to film a segment called “The Final Fork”, featuring Famous Marquette Potters Beans by the superb MU Jamie. The fans then set up a two-sided spirit tunnel in the hallway to send off the players as they boarded the bus. Amidst rumors of other suitors, there was no Buzz with the team. Frankly, it was an odd situation as all the conversation was on the coach and not the game. As we waited for the bus caravan to load, I made a stop in the men’s room. Upon exit, there was Buzz right next to me as he popped off the elevator, with Steve Cottingham lingering. Hmmm…I wonder who was doing the talking?

The MU bus caravan was long and spirited. MU’s pre-game meeting place was the Brick City Bar & Grill, right next to the arena. The turnout was massive, making it nearly impossible to get a pre-game drink. And, with the NCAA’s self-imposed dry dock inside the arena, I would have to watch tonight’s games uneuthanized. More so, we had to go through a tight security ring to even get into the arena: A tank, Uzi’s, a hand wand and a full metal detector before I even gave an usher my ticket. Strange days indeed.

For the first seven+ minutes, the Warriors hung tough with the #2 seed Tar Heels, but then Marquette went stone cold. The resulting debacle, while bad, was to be eventually surpassed by Butler in the National Championship game. However, at that point in time, the emotional high of Cleveland felt decades away. The fans were Northeast Corridor brutal, screaming for scholarships to be revoked and coaches to be fired. Frankly, it was harsh and some alum parents bravely shouted for these few to calm down in front of their young kids as the bad spell continued. I was hoping there were no prideful student-athlete parents within earshot. The optimism of the pep rally was fleeting, replaced by the arid team shooting. I took it all in with silence, my soul sinking with every possession. Brick City it was.

MU won the 2nd half, but UNC’s dimmer was lowered after the break. I stuck around for the Ohio State vs. Kentucky match-up, which Kentucky won on a last second shot. Although this was a great game, I was still half into it after the earlier flat tire, sitting there in the down MU section. To quote Eeyore: "It's bad enough being miserable, but it is even worse when everyone else claims to be miserable, too.”

I woke up the next morning to a sunny spring day. It was off to NYC on New Jersey Transit to meet a business associate for lunch at Rocky’s in Little Italy. The Big Apple was alive, and vibrancy was being celebrated on every corner. We had a nice, long Italian lunch at Rocky’s, savoring all the five senses that Little Italy has to offer: the leisurely table talk, the garlic smells, the blended tastes, the people watching and the feel of a glass of Chianti. Perfetto!

After lunch, it was time to walk and subway around Manhattan. We did the tourist thing to check out the bustle of Times Square. Then we grabbed some coffee at Bryant Park, a beautiful urban enclave. Then it was over to Central Park to walk the jogging trail at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, taking in all the early spring day had to offer.

On the train ride back, my soul felt refurbished. The UNC Cold Winter 1st half had been forgotten. In its place were the sweet, surprising memories of Cleveland—where the fanbase came totally together, and the critics among us were quieted. It was a phenomenal up and down run, and the indefatigable spirit of post-911 New York was a great ending point to this Marquette journey.

Back in Newark, I watched Kentucky finish off UNC to earn Coach Cal’s first legitimate Final 4 the next night. These two basketball royalty schools expect to be in this spot every year, something that the Buzz Generation Warriors aspire to achieve--in a Rising Phoenix resolve similar to the host city’s mayor: “Newark is still showing signs of hope and promise and quite frankly doing some things other cities don't do," Booker said. Hope springs eternal, even in Newark, as my Warrior outlook now turned to the promise of next season.

"Brick City" is the latest in a series chronicling the 2010-2011 Marquette hoops season from a fan's unique perspective. If you missed the first entries click on the tags below for earlier installments.

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