The Vanderbilt Vendidad

On basketball and Vanderbilt and players as humans.

This uncharacteristically sincere column was originally published in The Nashville Newzine.

It’s no secret that, as a fan, I am something quite short of a stats junkie. Considering that I care almost exclusively about Vanderbilt sports, this is a good thing, especially during football season. Nothing’s puts a twinge into the void in my soul quite like trying to convince the sixteen-year-olds that I tutor that Vanderbilt football isn’t all that bad.

Which is why basketball season has always been such a generous lover. Because I can look at our record without wanting to cry, and because I can consider the non-statistical aspects of a team that is making me feel all kinds of happy.

Take Vanderbilt’s 2007 and 2008 basketball seasons, for example. These two seasons, aside from having impressive resumes, lived and died on the play of two enormous players: Derrick Byars and Shan Foster, respectively.

Byars’s senior season was, in my mind, the greatest single season any Vanderbilt player has ever had. If we needed a three at the end of the game, I wanted Byars to shoot it. If we needed a layup, I wanted Byars to take it to the hole. If we needed to hold onto a tiny lead, I wanted Byars blocking shots and grabbing rebounds, as he did in the NCAA tournament.

And there’s Foster. The guy had the strangest-looking three-point shot I’ve ever seen go in nearly every time. He released it at the highest point in his jump, almost on the way down, a la NBA Jam. He was impossible to guard, and he had some of the most beautiful alley-oop dunks I’ve ever seen.

But more incredible than their stats and styles were their characters. On the court, they were leaders, clapping their hands, working the crowd, doing whatever was necessary to keep the energy level in Memorial Gym high, bringing both players’ teams upsets of top ranked Florida and Tennessee teams, respectively. Both players put their teams on their shoulders enough times to make such games cliché, and both players rightfully earned SEC player-of-the-year honors.

But off the court, they were giants as well. In college, I was in a legendary three-man electro-pop band, Hyzer Bee (Google it). I spoke with Byars about a show, and he became an instant Hyzer Bee fan. Somebody ask DeMarcus cousins how many three-man synth bands he listens to, and if any of them are random UK students from whom he has nothing to gain by chatting. You’ll have to find him first. Places not to look: class.

And Foster. No college player that I’ve ever seen has had a better bedside manner with fans. In an era where the appropriate way to celebrate a big play is to look MAD AS HELL and beat your chest, Foster’s celebrations were always the same: grinning from ear-to-ear and pointing up.

Foster has been back around campus lately. He was shaking hands with students before the Kentucky game. When I saw that, I thought, “Oh wow, what a great guy, taking a moment to show appreciation to his fans.” At halftime, I got a text: “The Truth is moshing in the student section with his face painted.” Incredible.

This year’s Vanderbilt squad, the best I’ve ever seen, is different. There is no Byars, nor Foster. There are no SEC Player of the Year candidates. Player of the Game honors have gone to eight or nine different guys, depending on the game.

But this, too, is a team of character.

There’s Jermaine Beal, who has been quiet, patient, and steady for four years, only to explode into a senior leadership role, shooting the lights out and driving the lane when no one else will. The guy is a trip off the court as well—I once spent an evening helping him brainstorm the necessary resources for a shoestring-budget remake of Def Jam’s How To Be A Player, starring Dolla Beal. It was awesome.

There’s A.J. Ogilvy, who plays with angst and sass, and without attention to conventions, like Australian basketball’s David Bowie. You get the feeling that he’s a little sad he can’t play in Keds and skinny jeans.

And there’s Steve Tchiengang, who is quietly winning the hearts of every passionate Vanderbilt fan. No one plays harder. Period. And his Twitter feed is nothing short of adorable: “Blessed to see a new day. Can’t wait to see what it has in store for me.” He tweets something like that every morning!

And there are many, many more—Andre Walker, the gluest glue in the glue, John Jenkins, a guy who does exactly what I do: tries to help his favorite team win, Festus Ezeli, a newcomer to the game of basketball, Lance Goulborne, who wants to put the ball in the basket every time it touches his hands, and Jeffery Taylor, about whom much has already been written, but I’m running out of room. This is my poop-joke-free column way of saying “thank you” to some of the guys who have made this season incredible.

Keep it up, boys.

5 March 2010

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