|Tuesday, November 26
Chillin' at the North Pole
By Theron Smith
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's Note: Theron Smith, a preseason Wooden Award candidate entering his senior season at Ball State, chronicles the 2002-03 season for ESPN.com.
What up world? I am returning from the "top" of the world right now, and I must say, it was a pretty good experience.
We opened our season last weekend at the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska. As promised, here's my weather report from Alaska -- chilly with a side of ice. I couldn't believe how cold it was, but our hosts, The Church Family, warmed it up.
The trip started last Tuesday with a 16-hour day of travel and sitting on a plane can be rough if you are 6-foot-5 or taller. (Andy Katz would know nothing about this.) The scenery was gorgeous with all the mountains and snow-covered trees. The locals said last year it was 40-below for the tournament, but this year it was unseasonably warm with the temperature in the 20s most days. One of the traditions in Alaska is that people there don't wear long pants until it is zero or below. Well, I come from Florida, where temperatures in the 20s is as uncommon as polar bears on the beach. Needless to say, I wore shorts only on the court.
A dream of mine has always been to visit Santa's house and that dream came true when we went to the North Pole on Wednesday. I never thought Santa's house had a parking lot and I never could find Rudolph. Santa must be getting kind of cheap too because he made us pay for souvenirs.
The team was adopted by the North Pole Middle School, which made us feel right at home. We visited the school and the students one day, and it was a pleasure to be around them and talk with them. I remember those days -- going through puberty and hormones raging. In fact, college is much the same! Truthfully, kids are wonderful and to spend an afternoon with them was fun for the whole team.
I was expecting the food to consist of frozen fish and whale blubber, but to my surprise there was a McDonald's on almost every corner. My favorite meal of the trip came at a place called The Pump House. My steak was good, but nothing compared to what happened after dinner. Chris Ulm (a.k.a Mini-Me) and one of our team managers, had the whole place jumping with his karaoke routine. I kicked it with Santa and Elvis in the same day!
Somewhere in there we had time to practice for our game against Jacksonville State. They were a tough team and should really surprise some people in their conference. They surprised us by coming out and playing hard to make it a close game, but we escaped 72-64. Personally, I was really excited about playing my first real game since the surgery. I think I came out maybe a little too hyped because someone stole my breath the first two minutes of the game. I finished with 18 points and a disappointing four rebounds.
The next night our opponent was Weber State, who came out and jumped on us right away. They played with tons of energy and intensity. It was a hard-fought game and unfortunately we came out on the short end, 72-67. This game taught us a lot about ourselves as a team. We have to stick together to get to where we plan on going. I finished the game with 15 points and seven rebounds.
Sunday was a real gut-check for our team, I think. We played a Nebraska team who was also coming off a loss to the eventual champions of the tournament. So they came out hungry and looking to prove something.
The game started out in similar fashion to the one the night before. Nebraska jumped on us early, playing with extreme toughness and poise. Our togetherness proved to be true in this contest because in crunch time we made plays when we were forced to. We trailed by as many as 10 points in the second half before we made our final run to victory, 73-65. Final stats: 13 and 9. Still searching for that double-double.
The tournament and trip was a fun experience and it taught us that we still have a long way to go before we are a finished product. Chris Williams really showed his leadership through his play as he set a tournament record for scoring with 83 points in three games and was named to the all-tournament team.
This weekend we travel down to Butler to play one of our rivals. Hopefully I can continue to improve my play and the team can continue to mature.
Until next time, live life to the fullest ...
"T" Smith #21