Ten years ago this week, I was in the middle of the biggest story of my journalism career.
I missed the actual anniversary by 11 days. It was March 3, 2003, that the St. Bonaventure University men's basketball team became embroiled in a scandal. I was covering the team for the Olean Times Herald at the time, and covered the scandal from start to finish. It was my biggest story. It won me a national writing award.
In so many ways, it was the biggest story of my life.
ST. BONAVENTURE - Several people in the Reilly Center expressed the same sentiment - Monday was a dark day for St. Bonaventure University.
The St. Bonaventure men's basketball team forfeited six Atlantic 10 wins on Monday because it had an ineligible player, junior center Jamil Terrell, on its roster. In addition, the Atlantic 10 conference declared the team ineligible for the conference tournament, which is scheduled for next week ...
Last week, Bona declared Mr. Terrell ineligible after the NCAA ruled that he did not meet eligibility requirements for junior college transfers. Specifically, Mr. Terrell does not have an associate's degree, as required by NCAA rules. Instead, he has a certificate in welding.
-Me, The Times Herald, 3.4.03
The story really began in late February. Just before a Bona-GW game at the Reilly Center, the school issued a press release that a question had been raised about Terrell's eligibility. The fact that he had a degree in welding from his junior college had been floating around all season, but it had never been confirmed or pegged on-the-record. Now, this was very clearly the issue.
A few days after that game, I was in Philly, covering the Bonnies' game at Temple. I wound up sitting next to Linda Bruno, then the A-10 Commissioner, who filled me in on the conference's planned hearing that Monday.
On Monday, then-Bona coach Jan van Breda Kolff took his spot on the weekly Atlantic 10 conference call. Mike Harrington, the college hoops reporter at the Buffalo News, was on him from the start. "Did you enlist the help of the University president to declare Jamil Terrell eligible?" he asked pointedly, repeatedly, in a classic performance.* I had already been digging into the story. That call sent me into overdrive.
(Mike later told me that he had been kicked off the call by an overzealous operator who was concerned that he, Mike, was badgering the coach. Ray Cella, the A-10's legendary PR chief, got Mike back on the call within minutes.)
Later that afternoon, after the sanctions, I tracked down Terrell's junior-college coach, Gerald Cox. He told me that he had sent a letter to St. Bonaventure, and every school recruiting Terrell, that the player's degree was not the equivalent of an associate's degree. "They knew what they had," Cox told me.
I was the only reporter who had quotes from Cox in his story. I'm still damn proud of that.
After doing a lot of reporting, I stopped by my apartment for a quick break. I put on the Empire Sports Network, which was doing a standup outside of the RC. The reporter mentioned at the end of her report that the players were meeting at that moment.
I flashed on a scene a few years ago, when Indiana fired Bobby Knight and the players admitted they considered boycotting a game. "They're voting on whether to play their last two games," I thought.
I went to campus, found nothing. I went to the office, and while putting together the story about Terrell's recruiting and the sanctions, and conducting one of the last interviews with then-school president Robert Wickenheiser (who admitted to being at the center of the scandal), I made calls and found out that, apparently, players were leaving campus for spring break.
The next morning, I had to work a pagination shift for our afternoon paper. I quickly did my page and then got the RC for the scheduled practice. The team was supposed to practice before busing to UMass for a game. I got to the gym, and John Wawrow of the AP was there. He had heard the same rumors. We spent a bizarre day at the gym, trying to figure out who was here, who was gone, what was going on, having players refuse to talk to us, walk through the stands to avoid us, before finally admitting what had happened. Players had left campus. They were refusing to play the team's final two games.
ST. BONAVENTURE — The silence spoke volumes.
At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team was scheduled to start practice in preparation for its Wednesday night road game against Massachusetts. But except for a rack of untouched basketballs, the gym was empty — silent except for the hum of the lights.
The Bonnies never took the floor for practice. They never boarded the team bus for Amherst, Mass.
They ended their season a week early. In a stunning and unprecedented move, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team’s players decided not to play the final two games of the regular season. The school backed the move, announcing Tuesday afternoon that the team would not play its scheduled games this week against Massachusetts and Dayton. Those games go in the books as forfeit losses.
A once-promising season for the Bonnies ended not on the basketball court but in a conference room in Hopkins Hall with a press briefing.
- Me, The Times Herald, 3.5.03
What strikes me the most, 10 years later, is how different the actual journalism was.
There was no social media. Twitter and Facebook literally did not exist yet. Newspapers were online, of course, but it was very different. This was still a time when the online edition was a complement, a bonus, an extra. It was repurposed content from the print edition.
Looking back at how I covered the scandal, everything was built around the next day's story. They were long, in-depth stories that I'm damn proud of. But the atomic unit of my work was that story. At some point during the day, I sat down with all my notes and crafted a story.
If this story happened now, I wouldn't do that. This story would come together incrementally. There'd be no waiting for the next afternoon's paper. I'd be writing constantly, updating the story with each new morsel of information, keeping things alive on Twitter. When I talked to Gerald Cox, that quote I included above wouldn't have been saved for Tuesday afternoon's paper. It would have been on Twitter seconds after he said it, or at worst seconds after I hung up the phone. The player boycott? That would have been all over social media that night and day. The story in 2003 was crazy and confusing because no one knew what was happening. This story in 2013 would be crazy and confusing because there would be so much noise, between players Tweeting, blogs opining, Tweeters snarking, etc. (I've had this conversation with Mike Harrington. We both agree that Joe Shepherd, who went on Sportscenter to give the players' side, would have blown up Twitter in the Bona basketball world). In 2003, journalism was story-driven. In 2013, journalism is increasingly process-driven.
That's not to say one is better than the other. It's not to say that the way we did it in 2003 was right and pure, and that today's news is wrong and tainted. It's the way of the world. Things change. Technologies evolve. Paradigms shift. I know there's a part of me that's very glad that Twitter didn't exist in 2003, because it would have made that challenging story even harder to cover. I also know that in many ways, the new technologies would have made my coverage of that story better and more useful to my readers.
I've toyed with the idea of writing a book about the scandal. My wife's told me I should do it for years. Two other books have been written. I played with the idea, corresponded with an agent about it. But it never happened. Part of the reason is that I could never think of The Big Idea of the book. What's the big hook, the big story, the thing that makes someone who doesn't know St. Bonaventure from Bonasera the undertaker want to read the book? I'm not sure. Plus, having helped three professors write books, I've seen the insane amount of work that goes into a truly great non-fiction book. I haven't had that in me. Yet.
In a lot of ways, this story 10 years ago defined who I was as a journalist. It's among the first things I mention when I discuss my career. It's the one story almost everyone knows about, at least in passing. I'm proud of breaking this story, of the work I did.
That my journalism career peaked at 25 is sad in some ways. But that story is what helped me get my next job in Binghamton, which led me to meeting and eventually marrying my wife, which led to our daughter being born.
It was the biggest story of my career. And it helped me start writing the story of my life.