Kyle Whelliston passed his Thanksgiving at the Mitchell Center in Mobile, Alabama.
While much of America - and Mobile, for that matter - was tucking in to tryptophan comas, the USA Thanksgiving Tournament hosted by the University of Southern Alabama was in full swing. Teams from the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the Great West Conference, Colonial Athletic Association, and the Sun Belt Conference, Mid-Major college basketball programs all of them, competed. And, even though attendance by the crowds and the media was sparse, Kyle Whelliston was there.
Kyle runs the Mid-Majority, now in its sixth season, which covers the Division I men's college basketball teams that lead less glamorous lives then their brethren in the power conferences such as the ACC, the Big East, and the Big Ten. These are teams offered up as sacrificial lambs at the beginning and end of the NCAA's basketball season. This is the world of Mid-Major college basketball, a pastime hidden from national consciousness for most of its season, that is, until the bright lights of the NCAA tournament glare down upon these smaller conference champions and rare at-large bids.
Some of these small-time programs pack enthusiastic fans into cramped bleachers every home game. Most do not. Among the 225 or so teams that fall under Kyle's definition of Mid-Major there is wild variation, basketball evolution undertaken in all directions. But one fact ties them together, they all, despite their humble origins, have a shot at the NCAA title.
Kyle with his faithful compatriot Bally - a cute and often subversive walking and talking basketball whose adventures Kyle captures in cartoon form for the Mid-Majority - travels to over 100 Mid-Major men's basketball games every season, chronicling the ups and downs, the wins and losses, of teams living below what Kyle terms the "Red Line," capturing what they endure living out this string of hope. If it's a thankless job, Kyle wouldn't know. But it's an obsession that has pushed his journey to the brink before and threatens to do so again.
The internet is a sort of massive, ever shifting puzzle. It is a technological advancement that is also an immense drain on general productivity. It is a method to deliver content that rarely creates any content and, when it does, more often than not, is unable to adequately subsidize that creation. It trumpets ideals such as freedom and sharing while trafficking in rampant piracy of intellectual property. Some claim that it is a tool. Some a playground.
For Kyle Whelliston, the internet is a place to share stories of the 225 Division I college basketball teams that "don't have very much money," in his words.
While Kyle draws inspiration from sources as diverse as the now-defunct Bat Girl blog to the poetry of David Berman, former frontman of the Silver Jews, to the monologues of Joe Frank, the miles of asphalt the Mid-Majority chews up every season often evoke the spectre of Jack Kerouac. Kyle insists, however, he patterns the Mid-Majority on a different road warrior: Charles Kuralt.
Both Kerouac and Kuralt are most famous for projects called "On the Road," Kerouac's book of that title, Kuralt's long running telejournalism series. And, though the Mid-Majority derives an uncompromising ethos from author Anne Ursu's alter ego Bat Girl, David Berman, and Joe Frank, it is clear that Kuralt, with his deep affinity for storytelling and care for his subjects, is the spiritual forefather of the Mid-Majority's mission, that which spurs Kyle down blizzardy roads for CAA contests that matter little in the final standings.
Every season since it's inception in 2004, the Mid-Majority sets the goal of 100 Mid-Major games. Only once has Kyle fallen short of the century mark. I ask Kyle about the scope of this considerable undertaking.
"Folks in the audience tend to be fascinated with the travel aspects," Kyle says. "But when I'm around assistant coaches and scouts and referees, they're not impressed at all. A couple of years ago, I was on press row trying to impress a scout with my itinerary, and he looked at me and deadpanned, 'One time, I picked up a rental car at the Kansas City airport on Friday afternoon and returned it on Monday morning. I went to six high-school games and drove 2,500 miles.' And I said, 'Yeah, I can't step to that.'"
So, relative accomplishments aside, what comprises a typical day for Kyle?
"I drive in the morning and work out a piece in my mind," he says. "Then I stop at a Starbucks or truck stop and write it in the early afternoon. In the evening, there's a game. I drive as far as I can, crash in a cheap hotel room, then I do it all over again. Every day brings different challenges."
Challenges are fitting for a project such as the Mid-Majority. The site's first season was almost a dare, the chronicling of his travels almost an afterthought. Kyle talks fondly of his experimental first season - the swirling unknowns, the freedom in attempting something new.
"My favorite posts were the goofy ones from Season 1, when we were just developing the complicated array of inside jokes all the diehards love so much," Kyle says. "Free Wolfie, 22 teams that can beat the Hartford Hawks, turning the Vermont Catamounts into a heavy metal band. The interview with Drake legend Dolph Pulliam was the most transcendent the site's ever been. We talked about things he'd never discussed in public before, like the racial violence that claimed both his parents."
Kyle's fondness for the first season is in keeping with the spirit of the Mid-Majority, defined as it is by its sizable ambitions on the one hand and its concern for authenticity on the other. The Mid-Majority, in its history, has been a journey into the middle, approached at odd angles, some novel, some glib, others somber, and occasionally, hopefully, celebratory.
Every year, the site undergoes a transformation. Why?
"I make aesthetic changes to the site so that each season will be distinct," Kyle says. "I number them, I wear a different pair of sneakers with my suits each year, change the name of the weekday post - all sorts of things to make each season separate and memorable on its own merits.
"I talk to a lot of writers who can't tell seasons apart, and I don't want to turn into one of those."
Kyle breaks down the Mid-Majority's seasons thusly.
"Season 1 was the original 100 Games Project. Season 2 was my first year with ESPN, and I struggled with keeping the content on the [site] updated while I was writing five times a week for them. Season 3 was a disaster as far as my site went, because I was working with another company and was spread really thin. Season 4 was close to perfect, because I learned to balance everything; I did about 2,000 words a day and posted some great interviews. Most long-time fans, if you ask them what their favorite post was, it usually came from the 2007-08 season. Season 5 was an exercise in pure survival, and I still don't know how I got through it."
It's that exercise in pure survival that makes this season, the sixth of the Mid-Majority, so important. But let's back up a bit.
As Kyle mentioned, before Season 2, he began writing for ESPN, the Mid-Major expert in their vast stable of writers and pundits. He filed reports, wrote official blog entries, moderated chatrooms all for a modest weekly sum. And he used that modest sum to fuel the Mid-Majority's travels, a sort of zero-sum convergence. The ESPN work was a chance to spread the Mid-Major gospel and to cash a check at it. The Mid-Majority developed into Kyle's outlet for expressing directly to his readers, for channeling his creativity in unbridled fashion.
What emerged was a balance of sorts, a balance that would prove ultimately unstable.
The Mid-Majority is nothing if not passionate. The passionate tone of the Mid-Majority can veer into stridency at times, especially when taking swipes at fair-weather fans, professional basketball, and other sports such as American football. He rails against the bracketology craze that's overtaken NCAA basketball. He chides the National Basketball Association and the National Football League for being boring and commercial. It's this singularity that can grate the reader's nerves that imbues the Mid-Majority with vitality. Kyle takes his cue from Bat Girl, David Berman, and Joe Frank, refusing to compromise, never fearing alienating a fan here and there. At the heart of the Mid-Majority is a beating heart. And every angry word is written out of a fierce sort of love, for his sport, for the people who coach it and play it and love it as well.
It's also this unwillingness to compromise that nearly brought the Mid-Majority to its end. Mid-January, Kyle published a post called the "Sports Bubble," explaining to his readers why his work at ESPN being halved, thus jeopardizing the rest of the Mid-Majority's season, and why he was asking them for donations to continue. In the piece, Kyle thanked ESPN for the opportunity to travel around the country and cover often overlooked college basketball. In all, he returned to his initial strategy of relying on the people who understood and closely followed his journey, his loyal readers.
What the "Sports Bubble" netted Kyle was an unceremonious and complete break-up with ESPN. According to Kyle, some inside ESPN painted his post as lies, malicious ones, ones intent on undermining the four-letter network. At the time, Kyle maintained his silence.
"I didn't say much about the details last season because I was trying to stay classy and thank ESPN for the incredible opportunity," he says. "And I mean, c'mon, I was a guy from blog-land who was given the opportunity to travel around the country and write about basketball. How cool is that?"
Something changed as the Mid-Majority was thrown into full survival mode. Loyal readers stepped up and donated, allowing Kyle the chance to finish out Season 5. But there didn't seem much hope beyond finishing out the season.
"I made the decision to [quit] in mid-season last year, and I'd written my tearful farewell long in advance. But when it came down to it, in March, I couldn't cut the cord. It was all the damned reader feedback. One of our readers wrote in after that his young son told him, 'If Kyle ever died in a car wreck, then Bally would be an orphan again!' Things like that made me realize that I'd crossed an important line with the audience, and that what I'd created was living in the hearts and minds. That's serious business; you don't fuck with stories."
At the end of Season 5, Kyle ended his season as he always does, with his "Epilogue" post. There he spelled out his plans for Season 6, one funded by a variety of sources, his readers not the least of which, that would allow him to maintain the Mid-Majority's singularity in voice.
As Kyle tells me, "I just know that I'll never work for an organization like ESPN ever again."
By a kaleidoscope of approaches, Kyle is offering his supporters the chance to subsidize the Mid-Majority. When I ask him if the Mid-Majority will make it to 100 games this season, he tells me they are half the way there. It's crucial home stretch in fundraising, one that makes Kyle uncomfortable. He describes the process as draining and unnatural.
At one point, I ask Kyle about his regrets.
"Anything I'd do over has to do with the times I've tried to antagonize fan bases with snarky comments," he says. "Those moments have shown me how ridiculously easy it is to get traffic and attention."
Somehow I imagine him pausing here for dramatic effect. I do not know because we've conducted our entire interview over email. But I imagine the far-away look, the long intake of breath, then a smirk, all before typing:
"I'll never be able to do what Gregg Doyel does."
Saturday, November the 28th. Heeding advice that Kyle dishes out on the Mid-Majority, I've checked the local schedules and come out for good old fashioned Mid-Major basketball in my area. This is the Battle of the Bronx, the annual game between Fordham University and Manhattan College, a rivalry stretching back almost 100 years and exactly 102 contests.
I arrive a little late. Luckily, only a minute and half has elapsed. Draddy Gym, home of the Manhattan Jaspers is rocking. The Jaspers' green is flowing from the ceiling, circling the court, and dotting the stands. But the Fordham Rams' maroon makes dark impressive pools amidst the green and, more importantly, matches the Jaspers decibel for noisy decibel.
I witness the first points of the evening, a pretty lean-in lay-up by Manhattan's Darryl Crawford that draws the foul as well. The emboldened Jaspers make a 9-2 run over the Rams forcing Fordham coach Dereck Whittenburg to burn an early timeout. Jaspers coach Barry Rohrssen, in the throws of excitement grabs his center Laurence Jolicoeur - roughly "Beauty of the Heart" in French - and tosses him back and forth excitedly as he yells encouragingly to his suddenly slow marching troops.
Out of the break, Fordham mounts a bit of resistance. Rams guard Jio Fontan displays some nifty slashing moves to the basket. But his strategy of taking the offense load upon himself meets mixed results. For all his fearlessness in driving to the lane, he struggles guiding the ball inside the hoop or drawing the foul.
With three minutes left in the half, the Jaspers are almost doubled up on the Rams, the contest noticably slipping out of hand. Instead of staunching the bleeding until the wound can be dressed at half, the Rams go into desperation mode. Gambling at steals on defense, heaving up ill-advised alley-oops, sending poorly spaced threes up like the half-formed prayers that they are.
In the half's final minute, a patient halfcourt set and pretty finger roll by Manhattan guard Antoine Pearson sends the Jasper Jungle into approving yelps. What gets the Jungle roaring is a buzzer beating, glass kissing long distance three by guard Rico Pickett, upping the score at the half 39-18 in favor of the home team.
At the half I take in the crowd around me. A Liliputian crew of cheerleaders flitting around with nervous energy. Alumni from both schools gladhanding with earnest crow's feet crowding the corners of their eyes. Lots of thick Bronx brogue in all directions.
The teams continue on their divergent paths out of the half. The Jaspers execute the fast break with sneaky confidence, well spaced as they glide down the court two on one or three on two. The Rams' Fontan seems determined to put the game on himself, win or lose, something coach Whittenburg notices after the Rams can't keep pace, pulling Fontan for a chance to cool his heels and hopefully punch his team's reset button.
The Rams never mount a serious challenge in the second half, every encouraging play is answered almost immediately by the Jaspers. But it's theater in itself observing the looks on the faces of these young men. In the scattered moments of downtime, the expressions range from determination to confusion to fear. And those pools of maroon Fordham fans still exhort their players on. A slightly apoplectic old man whose face looks to be sliding off at a glacial pace unleashes a low and elongated call of "Airballllllll!" every time a Jasper sets up from the charity stripe.
The Fordham Rams never get closer than seventeen in the second half and end up dumped 68-44. The Battle never even made it to the level of streetfight. But this kind of experience is as much about what transpires on court as what happens off it.
After Pearson is given the Doc Johnson Most Valuable Player award in a brief ceremony. The victorious Jaspers are swarmed by a surging student section, sharing high fives and chest bumps with classmates. Though the players stand taller, literally and figuratively, than their fellow students, college kids they remain for now, thoughts likely turned to whatever celebration is appropriate to laying claim to one of New York City's five boroughs.
Kyle warned me about all those green banners hanging from the rafters of Draddy Gym. And it is without a doubt an impressive site, sending the hairs on my arm upward despite my agnosticism concerning this contest. A stretch of Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships, an array of NCAA tournment appearances, a glut of National Invitational Tournament (NIT) consolations.
Impressive heraldry to be sure. But also a reminder of a theme Kyle returns to again and again on the Mid-Majority, the measured dreams of the middle class. There are no national championships. The only point of distinction between the tournament banners is a lone "Second Round" on the 2006 NIT one. Making it, touching the dream, is enough to commemorate, enough reason to celebrate and remember.
When I first contact Kyle about this piece, asking politely but sincerely for just a bit of his precious time, he swats away the notion that his time is so precious, noting at the moment he receives my email he is sewing legs on a plush basketball in a truck stop parking lot. He suggests I use this novel tidbit for the story's lede. Instead, I conclude with it, a man beside an interstate in-between two destinations doing the little things, things perhaps perplexing to the outside observer, he hopes will take him from point "A" to point "B"... and, in this way, Kyle is no different than the Mid-Major teams he chronicles.
At one point, I ask Kyle about distinguishing between each college hoops season. I am curious whether, in the passing of time, George Mason's run feels distinct from Davidson's or one year of Winthrop's only recently broken domination of the Big South differs substantially from another one, etc., etc.; however, I am not so specific in framing of my question. Kyle responds by detailing the changes the Mid-Majority's site undergoes each season, an understandable misunderstanding since I approach him about his site.
Yet, perhaps, there's more to it than that. In the Mid-Majority's quest for authenticity in the college hoops world the site has become nearly indistinguishable from the Mid-Majors it chases down interstates and county roads. It's running a measured, hard distance, depending upon its biggest fans to cheer loud enough, keeping a head up for any breaks, and hoping that it will still be alive come tournament time.
Indistinguishable save one important difference. There's no relegation to Division III for failed sports writing dreams.
[Cian spends his days in photos and his nights advancing the cause of the Einsteins... well, most nights anyway. If you like the magazine, he would really like it if you joined our mailing list. To read more by Cian, check out his profile.]
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