Most of the 9,556 fans in attendance didn’t see the most important shot of Cleveland State’s season-opening 87-54 loss to No. 8 Iowa State on Monday. In fact, just about every one of them, save for one baseline section of elementary school children (part of a group that numbered roughly 6,000 at its peak), had already left Hilton Coliseum after the final buzzer.
Those who remained, however, spotted an ISU staffer innocently toting a basketball under his arm near the scorer’s table. Shortly after, the chanting began:
Their target, a well-dressed guy in his thirties, ignored it. At first. However, after several minutes of what I have to assume were pretend conversations with colleagues and no drop-off whatsoever in volume from the crowd, he finally took a couple dribbles and let one fly from the near-side wing.
End of the story? Hardly. Undaunted, the kids lifted right back into it, a bit less cohesive this time around, but no less enthusiastic:
“M-V-P!” (a highly-dubious claim at this point)
The staffer pleadingly gestured towards his work shoes at one point, an act of extreme futility in the face of a group probably a decade away from owning work shoes. Finally, after a couple more minutes of chanting, he banked home a right-handed layup to an explosion of cheering, and the happy stragglers finally filed out into the afternoon.
A couple hours before that climax those same kids, and plenty of others, screamed for Cyclones All-American Ashley Joens as she (28 points on 10-for-20 shooting and 11 rebounds), Stephanie Soares (15 points, 14 rebounds) and Lexi Donarski (10 points, including a dagger of a layup off of a turnover to beat the halftime horn) helped the home team to a lead that peaked at 60-20 early in the third quarter. Cleveland State didn’t make much of that particularly difficult for the Final Four hopefuls, as the Vikings struggled to execute in just about every way, turning the ball over eight times in the first quarter alone and shooting just 6-for-34 in the first half.
Some of the kids, particularly a group from nearby Hubbard-Radcliffe Elementary School – CSU head coach Chris Kielsmeier’s alma mater, which hosted a visit from the Vikings the day before – even cheered as Gabriella Smith and Brittni Moore led the underdogs to a stellar second half performance, outscoring Iowa State 34-31 over the final 20 minutes. Smith and Moore combined for 25 of their team’s 54 points, including four of CSU’s seven three-pointers.
As far as I could tell, the kids booed exactly once on Monday: during the third quarter when a timeout ended, which meant that the Juicy Wiggle went off so that the game could go back on. Sure, basketball’s great and all, but in that moment they wanted to vibe to the beat, just as they did during halftime when Taylor Swift and LMFAO were allowed their full runtimes.
That’s the thing with kids. They could fairly be described as little packages of id, instinctively chasing whatever gives them the most enjoyment, which is probably something different than what was giving them enjoyment five minutes ago. But there’s a certain wisdom to that way of thinking – or not thinking, more accurately – that transcends hinging your day or your week to the outcome of a game.
To put it another way, what was Smith’s best play in Iowa? Was it her four-pointer? Was it the backwards, falling-down, overhead heave from much closer to the rim? Or was it the day before at Hubbard-Radcliffe, when she calmly impersonated teammate Julia Hintz (who didn’t make the trip) after a couple students were disappointed by the empty spot on their team autograph cards? For Moore’s part, her gorgeous backdoor pass against ISU led to the first career points for true freshman Jordana Reisma, but she also lent every bit of her charismatic personality to leading a game of Red Light, Green Light. Which do you pick?
Right now, it depends who you ask. A few years from now, maybe Joens is playing in the WNBA or on the national team, and the by-then-older kids will probably have some recollection of seeing her everywhere-all-the-time brilliance in college. But mostly, they’re going to remember the stuff that engaged them. Getting on the court with Division I student-athletes from three states away. Impromptu dance parties with their friends. Badgering a grown-up into shooting a basketball.
Adults can’t escape adult problems altogether, and Kielsmeier still has to watch the tape and figure some things out before the Vikings’ home opener against Hofstra on Saturday, just like I have to take my car to a body shop after an encounter with a deer on a pitch-black two-laner in Illinois.
But just maybe, the answer to a 33-point loss is to learn something from the kids and chase the things that bring happiness. Gratitude for the opportunity to step between the lines against one of the best teams with one of the best players in the country, in front of the largest crowd to watch the Vikings in at least 20 years. Making a trip back home to visit loved ones for Kielsmeier, and making an impact on the next generation for everyone. Quality time on the road with teammates, that all-too-scarce commodity that, ask anyone who did it, is one of the most important pieces of the student-athlete experience.
The rest of it, including every one of the Vikings’ lofty on-court goals for 2022-23, will still be there next weekend.