On College Basketball and the Human Condition


“Nothing makes me feel as purely and intensely as football. It usually makes me feel awful--but it is a PURE awful, you see. It is a SINGULAR awful.” — John Green [4]

Have you ever felt a pit in your stomach so deep that you might pass out?

Your heart beating so fast it could shoot right your of your chest?

So many thoughts to say yet not a single word could escape your lips?

And did you feel like there were no where else on this planet that could make you happier than where you stood that moment?

I’d wager that if you’ve ever loved a sport, you’ve felt this feeling more times than you can count. That buzzer-beating prayer, that improbable Hail Mary, that 3-2 slider that was just in the wrong spot. That anxiety becomes joy, that pain becomes relief. Salvation.

But we’ve seen those moments of infamy.

I was nineteen years old at a Chickie’s and Pete’s because that was just about the only public place a nineteen-year-old could see the Sixers play the Raptors in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (at least without breaking the law). I felt an aching in my gut that the strongest dose of Alka-Seltzer couldn’t solve. Although I imagine the ridiculous amount of chicken wings didn’t help.

All because our collective salvation rested on 4.2 seconds of basketball that remains forever imprinted on my memory and the memories of millions. 4.2 seconds later, the art gallery of the universe received it’s newest submission.

Kawhi Leonard puts up a three-point prayer at the buzzer to send the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. Photograph: Mark Blinch/NBAE/Getty Images

I never knew until that moment just how loud silence could be. As much as you could hear a pin drop in the room, you could also hear the expletives in the minds of those South Philadelphia basketball fans. I seemingly lost the ability to speak for the next twenty minutes as we grappled with the realization that those 4.2 seconds had denied us a salvation long awaited, uncertain if we may have to wait a lifetime more.

I’ve always wondered what makes us so willing to put our heart in harm’s way for a game. After all, “it’s just a game”, as we’ve always heard. Is it really worth our limited time on this earth for the potential of suffering? I would not only argue that it is, but that perhaps sport is the most human activity.

Sport is the result of the chain reaction of human love.

We loved each other so much that we learned to grow more food than we ate so that we could share it with others. We loved each other so much we created medicine so we could love each other longer. We gave so much love that we could learn to compete not for survival, but to satisfy an innate human need.

I recognize that this is a rather privileged take. For a lot of people, especially at this moment in history, this is not reality. For some, survival is a far greater worry than scoring a goal. But I’d like to think sport gives the oppressed peoples of the world a glimmer of hope that they may have more time to take batting practice (baseball or cricket, you decide) instead of having to worry about their next meal.

Two Afghani cricket fans watch their nation’s team face Australia in the 2023 Cricket World Cup. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Consider the Afghanistan national cricket team. I’m sure you can guess they haven’t had it easy. Between socioeconomic conditions and a region in constant turmoil, putting together a world-class cricket team is a herculean task. But with the odds stacked against them at this year’s Cricket World Cup, they put together victories over Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and England (who are all among the sport’s best teams).

“The whole nation prays for them,” said Heshmatollah, a resident of Kandahar. “They are bringing us joy. It is very much needed for our people.” [1]

Imagine that. A nation still dealing with the aftermath of a decades-long civil war, finding their greatest joy in watching some of their own winning a game of cricket. They found hope that this joy could exist for them. If only for a moment.

Just over five years ago, as a freshman at Drexel University, I sent what I thought was the most benign email of all time.

Dear [redacted], Please find attached my resume for the Video Assistant position at DragonsTV. Despite being a computer science student, I have a lot of experience with video production. During my senior year of high school, I was technical director of our school news production, and this past summer I worked as a Videography Intern for the Upper Darby Summer Stage program.  … I hope to hear from you soon! Regards, Gurleen Singh

I was expecting to get paid ten dollars an hour to point a camera at some student athletes on a field somewhere and be done with it. After all, I came to school to become a software engineer. This was just a way to make some money. What I didn’t realize is that the art of sport storytelling would become my obsession for the next 5+ years.

Here I was, spending all of my non-school hours on putting mid-major men’s and women’s basketball teams on television. Teams that, historically, didn’t really get much respect:

"Some backstory here: Five Philadelphia colleges have played an informal round robin nearly every year for 60-plus years. That grouping of La Salle, Penn, St. Joe’s, Temple and Villanova is known as the Big 5. Drexel is another Division I basketball school in Philadelphia; they are the afterthought of Philly college hoops. Sorry, but it’s true. The Dragons have a good nickname, but haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in nearly 25 years. The best things about Drexel basketball in recent years are the fan who dressed as Hank Hill, complete with propane tank, and the student section’s Harlem Shake video." [2]

I couldn’t just sit and accept this. I felt so deeply that the floorboards on the court of the Daskalakis Athletic Center, if they could talk, had so many stories to tell. And I’d be damned if those stories were not given the spotlights they deserved.

And so I, along with so many talented people that have worked on DragonsTV throughout the years (especially those before me), have spent so much time making these basketball broadcasts look as good as they possibly could with what we had. I figured that if we looked respectable, we would be respected.

Screenshots from DragonsTV broadcasts. Left: Jan. 2019 game vs. Towson. Right: Nov. 2023 game vs Temple, and the first Big 5 game at the Daskalakis Athletic Center.

For those loyal to the Dragons, we gave them more of their favorite college basketball team every year. If just one person told me they felt closer to the DAC having watched our broadcast, my work was a success. And for the Drexel teams, success was not far away. In 2021, both the women and men would win their respective conference tournaments and make an appearance in the NCAA tournament, the latter team having done it for the first time in 25 years. Respect was being earned on Market Street.

When it came time to revive the Philadelphia Big 5 in 2023, Drexel was given a seat at the table. At long last. These young women and men had worked tirelessly to give their teams the success needed to make this happen. And I’d like to think that making them look respectable on television had helped, if only a bit.

Despite losing two heavily-contested games against La Salle and Temple, the fates had ordained that our game at the Big 5 Classic would be against #18 Villanova. A team that for decades had dominated the Big 5. It was assumed by most that this game would be a walk in the park for the nationally-ranked side.

"As good as Drexel may be defensively, it is offensively challenged. The Dragons ranked 245th in offensive efficiency, per KenPom."

"Williams is talented inside, but the Dragons don’t have any real perimeter threats and shot just 23.8% as a team from beyond the arc (353rd in the country). They’re also turnover prone, coughing the ball up on 19.3% of possessions, which ranks in the bottom-third nationally." [3]

And there I was, court side at Wells Fargo Center, with hopeful (if a bit tempered) optimism. Even as the Dragons refused to give up a lead to the opposing side at any point in the game. I thought to myself, “I’ve seen this before, and it hasn’t ended well”. If only I thought to remind myself that some of the greatest miracles known to man have happened on the hardwood.

With just a single Villanova possession left in the game, Drexel led 57-55. Our collective salvation rested on just 6.9 seconds of basketball. As I readied my phone to record, I thought to myself, “I’ve seen this before, and it hasn’t ended well”. But Drexel’s Amari Williams had other plans defensively. 6.9 seconds later, the art gallery of the universe received an unlikely submission.

Drexel celebrates a 57-55 victory over #18 Villanova, their first win in the Big 5.

Anxiety became joy, pain became relief. Salvation.

In an instant, I learned why I’ve been so willing to risk heartbreak. For loving something so strongly, even when it hurts, is why we're here.

References: [1]: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2023/nov/10/they-bring-us-joy-afghans-swept-up-in-cricketing-fairytale [2]: https://jezebel.com/if-kendall-jenner-is-going-to-drexel-basketball-games-w-1830825741 [3]: https://www.vuhoops.com/villanova-basketball/2023/12/1/23984877/villanova-wildcats-college-basketball-2023-24-game-preview-drexel-dragons [4]: https://twitter.com/sportswithjohn/status/1642918725278900224