For the past four months, I’ve been a reporter for the Collingswood branch of Patch.com. For the past four years, though, I’ve been a student at Rowan University in Glassboro.
Fortunately for me, an aspiring sports journalist, the college formerly known as Glassboro State offers two courses related to the field I one day hope to be a part of. Both classes are taught by an experienced Philadelphia journalist who has worked in the sports world. Both classes open with the same golden rule: “Do not be a fan.”
This rule isn’t as strict as you might think. Obviously, if you were born and raised to cheer on Philadelphia-based professional teams, that won’t just leave you overnight. Rather, what you’re taught to keep in mind is that, as a sports journalist, you’re writing for the masses. All biases must be put aside. You cannot be a fan.
When I was first assigned the Collingswood boys basketball beat, I didn’t think this would be a problem. I would be writing about students I’d never met, listening to a coach I’d never watched, in a gym I’d never been in.
Boy, was I wrong.
A mere days after their opening practices, I had a chance to sit down with Collingswood head coach Joe McLoughlin. He told me all about the athleticism packed into the body of forward Bryant Jones. He ranted about the pure shooting skills of guard Karon Waller. He raved about the leadership qualities and the anxiousness of senior center Julian Welsh-White, who couldn’t wait to get onto the court after a junior season plagued by injury.
In spite of his genuine excitement and sincerity, I, naturally, had my doubts. After all, when was the last time you heard a coach hang his head about a season that hasn’t even happened yet? Before game one, every team is undefeated.
It didn’t take long before how right I truly realized he was.
At games, I kept my own statistics. It was almost instinctive how quickly I went to mark points on my pad every time Waller released the ball, and scary how quickly I forgot I wasn’t a part of the student section whenever Jones rose up for a fast break dunk. It was nearly impossible not to cheer every time Welsh-White snatched a rebound from an unbelievable height. Somehow, I managed.
This season, I watched McLoughlin win his Collingswood-record 225th victory. I saw Waller surrender an opportunity for a 40-point game on senior night, only to pass the ball to Jimmy McMonagle, an upperclassmen that only saw the court in landslide wins, so he could score his sixth point of the season. I saw a team grow before my eyes.
Little did anybody know, I was growing alongside of them.
I learned what it takes to cover a basketball team. I rushed from classes to games, often times in a sheer panic that I would miss tipoff, yet always greeted by McLoughlin once I arrived.
So when it came time to say goodbye to the team, I wanted to do it right, in a way that all of them could see it.
They brought me back to places it seemed I hadn’t been in forever. The excitement of music blaring as 12 young men take the court is one that can’t be matched. The adrenaline flowing through your body when you sink a game-winning free throw is something you’ll carry with you forever. The pure emptiness you feel as you pull your jersey over your head for the last time is something you’ll never want to experience again.
And yet, the 2010-11 Collingswood Panthers reminded me of each of those things, leaving me with a single question:
How can you not be a fan of a team when you feel like you’re a part of it?