The temperature gauge on the outside of a deserted Holt Arena says 21 degrees Fahrenheit. A few lights shine bright in the building, a mammoth, warehouse-style venue set deep in the heart of Pocatello, Idaho.
One look outside and you wonder if it’s not a ghost town—abandoned streets lie dormant against the winter night, open fields frosty from the arriving snow dusting.
Inside, the action is a bit warmer. Bellows from coaches and screeching of sneakers resonate vividly, a stark contrast to the frostbitten world that settles outside.
12 hours earlier, sleep still visible in their eyes, the Portland State men’s basketball team loaded into a small jet, Salt Lake City-bound. What laid ahead was, for me, a new adventure. A five-day trip full of promises, wonderment and stale hotel muffins.
For everyone else on the trip, it was more of the same.
EVERYTHING FOGGY BUT THE WEATHER
I’m sure glad the players are ready for this, because I’m not. It’s 7 a.m., and I’m slogging my way through the airport, a constant mess of nervousness. I’m following along with the team as we embark from Portland to Salt Lake City, up to Pocatello, down to Ogden and circling back to Oregon. I know why I’m there, but the players don’t seem sure of my presence. They send blank stares toward me as I sit down to tell their story—travel is hard, and the current trip looks to be a doozy.
Unfortunately for a school PSU’s size—and with their budget—there are no charter flights, no Nike jets, not even first-class seating for men who sit as tall as 6-feet 10-inches. They fly commercial, just like everyone else.
WEDNESDAY, 6:00 P.M.
Jim Wallis is not fazed by January nights in Idaho. For 25 years, he has roamed the sidelines for the Vikings as the team’s head athletic trainer. He’s been in every town and venue that you can imagine.
“In my time, I’ve seen some arenas that…you look up and ask, ‘Are we really playing here?’”
Wallis is machine-like in his preparation—the giant duffel bag he totes is filled with tape, wrap and gels. It follows him wherever he goes. He’s often the busiest man on the staff. It’s a long season, and his presence is vital.
Wallis is part of the group of unsung heroes that make these trips possible. A man who gets no attention, yet is everywhere you look come game day, hiding in the shadows of his players.
DaShaun Wiggins, the vital sixth man for this team, knows all too well the importance of Wallis; Wiggins’ left hand, swollen and bruised, has been giving him problems for days. At the end of every practice and shootaround, “Big Jim” (he’s not big by any stretch) is at Wiggins’ side, a bag of ice and some wrap in hand.
“Big Jim, man…he’s so vital to this team. Without him, shoot…we’d be lost,” Wiggins squints, the ice blasting his skin.
The night before a game—in this case, three hours after we’ve arrived in Pocatello by bus from Salt Lake—is reserved for practice. Two hours: a scout team walk-through with extreme detail; shooting drills and low-post maneuvers; and of course, a fair amount of (friendly) trash-talking among teammates.
“It’s a fun group—a good mix of youngsters and vets, but they all enjoy each other,” says assistant coach Anthony Owens as we head back to the hotel after practice, our stomachs growling in unison. It’s been a long day, and amid all the hoopla, no one has had time to eat. The bus stops abruptly in front of the Red Lion Hotel and players scatter like ants. There’s plenty of food choices surrounding our hotel, and for them, the time to scarf down food has finally arrived.
THURSDAY, 11 A.M.
For its expansive size, Holt Arena has some odd shortcomings. Namely, as we settle in for the morning shootaround, we’re lacking the bare essentials to broadcast a game.
“There’s one dang Ethernet cord!” exclaims Tom Hewitt, long-time radio announcer for the Vikings.
Hewitt is a one-man show himself, on the air and off. A night out to dinner turns into Hewitt story hour, with nary a word spoken from anyone else. That’s how it should be. Hewitt has been around the block, this being his 13th season covering the Vikings. He’s seen it all and then some.
That includes arenas with less than suitable internet situations.
“I think I’ll get it,” he says to
no one in particular, before catching a glimpse of me. “This
is just life in the Big Sky.”
As shootaround draws to a close some 45 minutes after it began, there’s an odd sense of ease with the players. A quiet confidence seems to be building, no doubt in part to the drubbing they put on their last opponent, Evergreen State College. Evergreen was clearly overmatched, but the comfortable win seems to have put a bit of swagger back in the step of the Vikings, a team so young and so reliant on momentum.
As the players and coaches gather at mid-court for one last word of encouragement, I find myself staying back, taking in the moment.
There’s something tranquil about the scene. One team, united by a common mission, in the middle of nowhere, with no one to rely on but themselves.
A sparse crowd stumbles in as tip-off draws near. Idaho State, in a cruel joke, has set myself and other media up directly underneath the south end basket. A loose ball—or worse, player—will end up in my lap, shattering my laptop in the process.
Any pregame jitters that
may be normal seem to be missing as the players sit quietly in the visiting locker room. Some listen to headphones, some snack on a last-minute apple. Some, it seems, just want to get the game going.
Finally, coach Tyler Geving
and his staff enter the cramped space, their suits a stark contrast to the forest green jerseys that surround them. After discussing a few last-minute strategies,
Geving gathers his squad in the middle of the room.
“First league game, doesn’t matter—10th game, 12th game, it doesn’t matter. Every league game is important. We need effort every single night,” he says, his voice rising in decibels with every word.
“Right here, together. We’ve got to do this together.”
After an early charge, PSU fell apart through much of the second half. A lack of energy and poor shooting dropped them to 0–1 in conference play on the season, a disheartening loss to start the trip. Weber State, the Vikings’ next opponent, is the conference favorite, and to say the Vikings have struggled to win on their home court would be an understatement—they are 1–19 all-time.
Needless to say, this loss hurts more than most.
In the locker room, there is an air of stunned silence. Some anger resides, but the vibe feels drier than anything. I get the feeling that the players in this room feel this was one game they should not have lost.
“We seemed to make little mistakes here and there…we just have to bounce back, that’s it. We don’t have time to sit and sulk about it,” said assistant coach Jeff Hironaka. He is a longtime coach in the Pacific Northwest who has joined coach Geving’s staff this year to add basketball IQ to the team—but, just as important, to bring a calming voice.
He approached the team after Geving spoke and told his players confidently, “We win as a team, we lose as a team. We’re playing the best team in the conference Saturday night. If we can step up—it would be great.”
Hironaka is the opposite of your visualization of a coach. He stands just over 5-feet 5-inches and weighs maybe 130 pounds. Without fail, every morning of the trip, as we all found ourselves shoveling in a greasy hotel breakfast, Hironaka would saunter down halfway through, his workout freshly in the rearview mirror, and read the paper.
No food. No coffee. No body fat.
I became enamored with his demeanor. The reasons for his hire were becoming more apparent as the trip went on. If this team is going to overcome obstacles this season, I have a feeling Hironaka will be a big reason why.
RED LION HOTEL
FRIDAY, 9:50 A.M.
The next morning we packed our bags and all at once found ourselves in the lobby of the hotel. The frustrating part of a season is the lack of breaks—if your team finds themselves heading into a downward spiral, there’s no rest. Games come and go whether the team is ready or not. There’s rarely a chance to slow down and correct the things that need to be corrected.
Sometimes the only thing that can change the course of a season are unexpected events, and that’s exactly what happened to these Vikings when we arrived in Utah, the next stop on our roadtrip.
Look for the continuation of the Vikings season and the conclusion of my trip with the team in next week’s ‘Vanguard.’