Revised version, originally published on PastaRunMusic.com.
Lying alone in bed at night as a kid, listening to the radio, I learned the importance of believing in something bigger than yourself – even if that something was a below average college basketball team.
I wasn’t a fan of basketball at the time, and to this date I’ve never played in an organized fashion. I was just tuning my radio to the most talkative station I could find to drown out the voices in my head. No matter how low I got, listening to the broadcast of the Penn State Basketball games would always comfort me. It didn’t matter if they won, because the play-by-play and conversations alone were enough to distract my thoughts. Slowly, I began to feel for the team and its fans – and became one myself.
For those unfamiliar with the Penn State Men’s Basketball program (insert ‘Penn State has a basketball team?’ joke here), this is not a team you choose to follow based on their success on the court. To many fans online, the unofficial emblem of the team is the flaming bus that you see below. Since 1990, they have made it into the NCAA Tournament only four times - which means that most sane people choose another basketball team to cheer for. While Penn State’s football team routinely attracts a crowd of over 100,000 to attend its games, the basketball team averaged a lackluster 6,910* in the 2015-16 season. The dearth of success on the court makes fandom something like a curse. Yet in spite of their record and support, becoming a fan of the Penn State Men’s Basketball team was a blessing for me.
There I found hope: hope that they would win, that they would play well, that they would do better next time. And I remembered I could hope the same for myself, in life. There was also belief: belief that they could win, that they would play with their hearts, and that they would try to do better next time. And I remembered that I could believe the same things about myself. And this formed a strong bond, one that seems irrational at first when I consider my faith in this team, but when I remember where I was, where I am now, and how strong my hope faith and beliefs have become. I am so thankful that I tuned the radio to those games on nights when all I needed was the comfort of hearing conversation, and passion, and knowing that it’s not all about being the best. Sometimes it’s about acknowledging defeat, and doing whatever you can to move forward towards future success.
The losses in life may sting, but the wins stick with you much longer.
Once more, as post-graduate unemployment wore on me, and I kept working hard to find the right job and continue to establish who I was as an adult; Penn State basketball offered me support. In the winter doldrums I can tune in to see others who are working to better themselves, knowing that much of the world is indifferent to their success or lack thereof. I find solace and motivation in the way the team never gives up, fighting for every rebound and lose ball even when the season seems lost to the casual observer. A few years ago during the B1G Tournament “why not us?” run, I was at times overwhelmed by the efforts of DJ Newbill – who lead the team on and off the court, even through the loss of his mother. When DJ broke down in tears after losing to Purdue in the B1G Tournament, I nearly did so myself. But seeing the way that he fought through all of the adversity, I was inspired to fight in the same way. The adjectives that are constantly used to describe the team (#relentless, #attitude) are as admirable off the court as they are on the court. You can’t watch a Penn State basketball game without either of these characteristics being alluded to by an announcer or opposing teams coach. And while that’s not something I can use to argue that Penn State basketball is nationally relevant, it’s something that keeps the team relevant for me despite countless seasons of disappointment, almosts, and what-ifs.
I would love nothing more to see the team’s hard work payoff. I’d love to watch the team play in March, and have the opportunity to pencil them in to my bracket rather than writing this diatribe – but that’s just not the case.
Rare preseason hype for the program, combined with an 8-5 record in the non-conference schedule has some clamoring for change, as is their right. As for me, I suspect that at some point this season (hopefully now) the team will string together some wins in conference play, or knock off a highly-ranked opponent. This means I’ll start getting my hopes up once again riding this roller-coaster of Penn State basketball fandom. And whether the team wins or loses, I will cheer for them. Because, in a College Basketball world where 40-0 is the ultimate achievement to most, I know that trying is what truly counts. Moral victories count for nothing in the standings, but they do have significance in the real-world. Giving it your all when the odds are against you and even your biggest fans don’t expect you to win. Facing defeat and knowing that not all is lost, and there is progress to be made. And I know that no matter the results, this team will give its all —they have attitude, and each time I watch them play, I am motivated to fight as well.