Daniel Mayes, Staff Writer
I love basketball.
I am a big fan of all sports and consume sports media at a somewhat-maybe-probably unhealthy level, but something about basketball sets it apart from the others for me. However, as a 5-foot-9-inch, un-athletic student at Fyffe High School (yes, it is a real place), my basketball playing dreams led me to the frustrating experience of being just good enough to remain on the team but not quite good enough to crack the normal rotation. I stuck it out and remained on the team because I just loved being in a basketball gym everyday. Plus, I always told myself, all these long hours of practice and getting yelled at and suicide sprints will be worth it for those few games a year when my team was up by 20 in the fourth quarter (thanks Ider), and I would get to go in the game.
So, after I played (or didn’t play in) my final high school game in Jacksonville State’s own Pete Mathews Coliseum in the Regional Final, I was depressed. Not just the normal, my-team-lost-a-big-game-depressed, but basketball-is-over-and-I’ll-never-get-to-do-this-again-depressed. Which is true. I’ll never get a chance to be on a basketball team like that (barring an unforeseen late growth spurt of about a foot and a half). But, now that I’m in college at JSU, I’ve found a different way to remain around the game I love.
Coming in to my Freshman year at Jacksonville State, I had no idea what I wanted to study in college. I was the kid that always answered “Daniel Mayes, undecided” when we had to introduced ourselves on the first day of class and the professor would always be like “It’s okay, you have time to decide.” I really stressed over the decision to declare a major, and I didn’t have one until the very end of my freshman year. Sure, I could have just picked something and changed it later, but I am the type of person that wants to be really positively sure about something before I commit to something. I knew all along that I wanted to do something with my life that would keep me in close contact with sports in some context, but I just didn’t know how I wanted to accomplish that. I’ve always had somewhat of a talent for writing (I think anyway), and being the huge sports-media-nerd that I am, I began to look at sports journalism as a possible career path. I worried and debated and deliberated over the decision for a long time, but, finally, I decided on a major of communication with a concentration in digital journalism.
Not long after that, my friend Katie Cline was hired as the Editor-in-chief of The Chanticleer. She asked me if I wanted to write for the newspaper, and I agreed. In Fall 2016, I began writing sports stories for The Chanticleer. I covered football, soccer and volleyball games, but what I was looking forward to the most was covering basketball. I had been to a few men’s basketball games during the 2015-16 season, but found it tough to get excited and invested in the program with the perpetual cycle of losing the team had been under for the past few years (the team finished 8-23 last season). I had heard great things about JSU’s new coach, Ray Harper, and I had high hopes for the future of the Gamecock basketball program, but I had no idea the incredible journey the 2016-17 Jacksonville State basketball season would take me on.
The Gamecocks started the season off with 16 of their first 17 games on the road, so I didn’t get a chance to watch them much in person, but I caught them as much as I could whenever they were broadcast on TV or streamed online, and I could already tell I liked what I saw. The difference in attitude and intensity coach Harper had instilled in the team in such a short time since taking over the job was just amazing to me, and this was only reinforced when they finally returned to Pete Mathews Coliseum for some games. Because I was covering the games for The Chanticleer, I was issued a press pass and allowed to sit on press row for the games, which I thought was just ridiculously cool in and of itself. Growing up watching an absurd number of basketball games on TV, I always was envious of the people that had such access to the sport like that, and, now, here was ya boy Daniel Mayes, sitting there, getting to take games in up close and write about the sport I loved.
The Gamecocks continued to improve throughout the season, and finished out the regular season with a 17-14 record (9-7 OVC), good enough for a four seed in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, which JSU had not even qualified for since 2011-12. The Tournament was held in Nashville, and, after I was issued a credential, suddenly I was off to cover the team’s journey in the tourney. The Gamecocks opened with a win over Southeast Missouri State, but I was more in awe of the atmosphere of the whole event. I got to sit at the press table, write about the game, and even attend the postgame press conference which was still just so ridiculously cool for me.
On the next night, the Gamecocks were slated to take on regular season OVC champs Belmont in the semifinals, and, prior to the game, not many, including carefully hopeful me, gave Jacksonville State much of a chance. Belmont had finished the season with a 15-1 record in the OVC and had beaten JSU fairly handily twice. However, just like for me, the basketball season was about making what seemed possible a reality for Jacksonville State, and they took down the Bruins. Despite my supposed journalistic impartiality, I found it really difficult to stop smiling as I sat in the press room after the game listening to coach Harper describe the victory.
In the finals, Jacksonville State took on UT Martin, and, despite some lead changes early, the Gamecocks took control late in the first half and cruised to their first OVC Championship and berth in “The Big Dance,” the NCAA Tournament. As I stood on the court taking pictures as the players celebrated their victory, it did not even dawn on me yet that I might get to attend and sit at press row and cover an actual legit March Madness game.
However, (thanks to the driving of Chanticleer Sports Editor Tim Cash), I found myself in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis as the Gamecocks took on Louisville. In the NCAA Tournament. With nearly 20,000 people there. In a game that 2.4 million watched on TV because it was being broadcasted on actual CBS. Despite a 78-63 loss, I was extremely proud of Jacksonville State University. Despite being overmatched against a great Louisville squad, they came out and played their hardest and even lead 8-0 to start off the game. After the game, as I sat in the bowels of the arena in the media workroom, I found myself feeling sad. Not a my-team-lost-a-big-game-sad, but basketball-is-over-but-thankfully-I’ll-only-have-to-wait-until-next-year-to-do-this-again-sad.
The old saying is “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.” I know I’m just starting out in my (hopefully long and successful) career in the field of sports journalism, but I don’t see how the experiences I have been through in the past few months could ever possibly get old or boring or tedious. I’d like to thank JSU, the basketball team, and The Chanticleer for making what was just a mere pipe dream a few short weeks ago into a reality. I know it may not seem like a big deal to some people, but for someone like me, the journey I have just been on truly was a dream come true.