To understand how I came to be here, a jangled bundle of nerves and mania, French-inhaling sickly sweet smoke from the end of a cigarette holder I named Holly Golightly while staring at the bathroom mirror, it is first important to understand that there exists, on the outer fringes of the sport world, a bustling society of junkies and fiends that extends beyond the ordinary realm of gamblers and unexceptional fanatics.
I am a college sports junkie. I am addicted to the flaws. The variety. The passion. The issues raised by a plantation system wherein "student-athletes," an imaginary group of people who carry none of the rights of either part of that label, are exploited by the most prominent cartel in America, the NCAA. College sports are a dirty business, and, much like horse racing and boxing, that villainy laces its product with an edge that is irresistible when combined with youthful exuberance and jingoistic pride.
College basketball lends itself particularly well to sports junkies, due to the abundance of teams, playing multiple days a week, where leads shy of 30 points are slight. More games are more appealing more often, and March Madness, the King-Hell high holiday of gambling, is a degeneracy IV drip.
ESPN's 24-hour Tip-Off Marathon from earlier this week is less well-known than March Madness or Bowl Week, but it's far more ludicrous. As the name implies, it's 24 hours of basketball games taking place on courts from Honolulu to Queens. Promising trendy matchups (Butler versus Xavier, Detroit versus St. John's), and designed to exploit addicts—who else would watch Houston Baptist play Hawaii, a game with a 3 AM Central tipoff time?—it called out to me.
The graveyard shift began at 12 AM Eastern Time on Tuesday. I was in the midst of receiving a rather rude fucking from the cable company, so I streamed the games online. Watching the contests from a computer screen was a brutal endeavor, a world of smudgy players and lag, a land smeared with petroleum jelly and seen through a microscope after shotgunning cough syrup.
By halftime of the first game, which featured John Stockton's son and a massive Polish center bludgeoning Bob Huggins and West Virginia in Spokane, I felt like my eyes were going to bleed. After discovering I could stream the games from ESPN itself, I was relieved of the barrage of nasty pop-up ads and commercials, but still suffered from a strangely temperamental stream that would go from being jagged blurs to so crystal clear I could pick up on the cold gray stripes running down the flanks of New Mexico's white uniforms.
The Lobos provided the first adrenal jolt of the night when Hugh Greenwood hit a free throw with 7:54 left in the second half to give them their first lead of the night against Davidson. The Pit, which had been suffering through a long cock-tease of a game—every time New Mexico came within striking distance, Davidson would respond and lengthen their lead--exploded, and a combination of Tony Snell's 25 points and the thin air of Albuquerque eventually provided a Lobo victory and the first sweet release only an exciting, amateurish game can provide. As they celebrated the comeback in the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan desert, I put on my first pot of coffee.
The sun rose over Lake Michigan around 6:30, and I skipped out on the second half of the Stony Brook/Rider contest to see it. The game, held in Rider's New Jersey gym—the kind of new-wave barn that looks spartan and neat but shot through with enough color and school spirit, even at this hour, to keep from feeling like an operating room—marked the beginning of the daytime slate. Despite talented teams and close contests, the day shift, lacking in the novelty of the graveyard shift and the name-brand talent of the evening match-ups, ended up becoming a war of attrition.
An endless parade of students, crimson-lipped cheerleaders, and reptilian coaches began to bleed together, and all the games merged into one game—a single, massive, all-consuming monstrosity of competition whose sole purpose was to wear me down and enflame my anticipation for the big tickets later that night. Here, in the cruel light of day, as the world awoke and moved around me, the spectacle of 24 straight hours of basketball seemed more absurd than ever.
Bad vibes began to build, first when the Temple and Kent State stream was so poor I couldn't see the ball, then when my internet connection kept faling apart—the coaxial cable required careful cajoling and coaxing throughout the day—and the tension finally snapped when I discovered that the night games that I had been slogging toward for roughly 20 hours were blacked out. I searched other feeds, only to be greeted by error messages or silently spinning loading indicators.
I had been rolling a pair of dice on my desk since the first game tipped off, and in the midst of my game search, one rolled off the side and into the abyss. My mania, enhanced by sleep deprivation and a dangerous amount of uppers, seized control and I dropped to my hands and knees, hunting for the die on the verge of hysterics. The games would not go on if I could not find the fucking thing; I tore the area around my desk to shreds, tossing computer bags and folders and alternative weekly newspapers across the hardwood, searching desperately to set the world straight, to keep the dice rolling and the ball playing and my lungs breathing and the universe spinning.
I finally found the die, which had landed in a cardboard box and was obscured by permanent markers and push pins, but the damage was done. A bar with few souls and many TVs was the only way I was going to survive the night, and the only environment in which I could watch the marathon's grand finale, an existential tilt between Duke and Kentucky for the very soul of college sports. The two teams are opposing reflections of one another: Duke is stable and by the books, a stuffy private school with the reputation for excellence and smarminess; Kentucky, especially under current coach John Calipari, thumbs its nose at the NCAA, constantly walking the knife's edge of what is acceptable under the cartel's rules. The Wildcats' victory in the championship last season amidst coach John Calipari's oft-demonized reign and a rising tide of scandal sent a defiant "fuck you" to the jefes in Indianapolis. Suffice to say, I was pulling for the Wildcats.
Enveloped in the warmth of a dive bar and awash in the cold glow of a menagerie of televisions, I watched Kentucky's young guns, including the supremely entertaining Nerlen Noel, fall to the solid, veteran-laden Blue Devils. I stuck around after the game, finishing a beer and discussing the geopolitical importance of college sports teams with Arturo the bartender, then headed home. A group of well-dressed Europeans showed up and began buying rounds of canned Stella, and I was in no position to deal with that weirdness.
Alcohol, uppers, mania, and 36 hours awake had taken its toll. Unable to sleep, I stuffed a cigarette into Holly Golightly, grabbed a lighter from my formica table top and flipped on the bathroom lights and fan.