BATON ROUGE, La. — Growing up in football country, I always wondered what it would be like to live in a basketball town.
For a day, when LSU and UL-Lafayette squared off in a heated NIT matchup, I got my answer, and it exceeded my wildest expectations.
I grew up in Baton Rouge and have lived here for all but two years of my life, when I moved to New Orleans, first, then Thibodaux, to play college ball. I grew up in gyms, the son of two coaches. I went to church, but they were my holy places. I loved basketball, every aspect of it: the geometry, the rhythm, the poetry, the pressure, the precision.
I grew up playing Biddy Basketball, wearing a maroon cloth jersey with a swishing basketball logo my two-year-old daughter sometimes sleeps in now and playing with yellow-and-black balls on eight-foot goals attached to 10-foot rims by metal poles and wooden backboards.
I grew up spending summers at school with my working parents and my older brother, watching, on rollaway televisions with velcro-strapped VCRs in empty libraries, Pistol Pete’s Homework Basketball, doing the drills with the GOAT with whatever basketball I could get my hands on. Watching Air Bud, or Space Jam, or Blue Chips. Reading Matt Christopher books and Sports Illustrated for Kids and writing my own basketball stories on MS-DOS on dad’s work computer.
I grew up playing for hours in my slanted driveway, the base of the goal lower than the free-throw line, before my parents literally poured a concrete slab on a flatter part of our yard and put up three goals – three! – so I could practice on a more game-like surface. For hours upon hours, I played imaginary games, making up teammates’ names, doing play-by-play and color commentary as I bounced, slashed, stepped-back and shot. I always hit the game-winning shot. If I missed it, I got fouled. If I missed the free throws, there was a lane violation.
I grew up in football country, though. And when football ended in December here, it was baseball season come January. I played both of those, too, but basketball was my love, and I was the odd man out, the outsider.
When I finished playing the game, I started covering basketball – and, of course, football and baseball, too. The more fans demanded more of the latter, the more I wanted to do of the former.
But Baton Rouge hadn’t changed. It was no more a basketball town after I graduated college than it was when I graduated pre-school, a year or two after Shaq left and local interest in hoops left with him.
Sure, there were moments fans cared. During the 2006 Final Four, they showed up. During the 2009 SEC Championship season, they showed up. They showed up when Kentucky came to town, to see DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall and Karl Anthony Towns and Devin Booker. They showed up when Ben Simmons came to town, for a little while, and they showed up when he squared off against Buddy Hield and Oklahoma.
But they weren’t there for basketball, most of them, as much as they were there for the spectacle. For the stars. I know that, because they stopped showing up when the stars stopped showing up.
All the while, I wondered what it would be like, now, to cover a basketball team in a basketball town. What would it be like to be the beat writer covering Kentucky, Indiana, Duke, or North Carolina? I wondered what it would be like to read a paper where basketball was always above the fold, not buried on page four after baseball, spring football, and gymnastics. I never planned to move – my wife is from here, and all of our family is here – but that doesn’t stop the mind from imagining.
What I never imagined, though, is that, for a day at least, Baton Rouge would become a basketball town. I certainly didn’t imagine it would undergo that transformation for an NIT game between LSU and UL-Lafayette.
That’s exactly what happened, though.
And it happened, mostly, because two coaches gave a damn. Really, really gave a damn. Bob Marlin, ULL’s head coach, cared so much about his program that, while attempting to sell it to an uncaring public outside (and maybe inside) of Lafayette, he took some shots at LSU that didn’t sit well with folks in Baton Rouge. While praising his arena, he diminished LSU’s “gym.” While extolling his team’s success, he mocked LSU’s recent lack of it. While selling his program, he – unintentionally, I hope – insulted another.
That program he potshotted also has a coach who gives a damn – and who shows it, too. Will Wade didn’t take kindly to Marlin’s comments. He shared his thoughts with his team before the game and with the public after.
The result was manifold. ULL, the overlooked little brother, played with a chip on its shoulder. LSU, the wounded giant, played with a chip on its shoulder, too. Baton Rouge natives Johnathan Stove and Frank Bartley left their souls on the floor for the Cajuns. Skylar Mays, Brandon Sampson, and Duop Reath did the same for LSU.
Things got chippy, from the court to the bench, and even into the stands. Players jawed and pushed and shoved, with two – Stove and LSU’s Daryl Edwards – earning techs. Wade and Marlin shared a tense and terse pre-game handshake before Wade called timeout with 12 seconds left and a nine-point lead and directed a quick, “Enjoy that!” toward Marlin’s bench. Both coaches received technical fouls and needed restraining.
“Since they don’t get to play us very often,” Wade said after the game. “I thought they should sit there and enjoy the opportunity to play us.”
I, for one, enjoyed the opportunity to watch two teams that gave a damn led by two coaches that give a damn supported by two fanbases that gave a damn. I enjoyed the opportunity to watch, after 29 years of waiting, my hometown become a basketball town, at least for one night.
I hope there are more such nights in the future. It was fun, and it was worth the wait. I hope it lasts. I hope it becomes the rule, not the exception. I hope I get to write columns like this for years to come. And I hope 29 years from now, someone else reads this column incredulously, wondering how a time ever existed that basketball wasn’t beloved in Baton Rouge.