Jeff Pearlman

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Ryan O’Neil

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This Kenyon College junior is the backup point guard for a Division III basketball team in the midst of a 1-21 season. So what is it to lose, and lose, and lose, and lose, and lose, and lose? To be blunt: Not fun. POSTED February 7, 2019

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Because it’s a tiny Division III college in Gambier, Ohio, not a ton of people follow the Kenyon College men’s basketball team.

Which, if you’re a current member of the Kenyon College men’s basketball team, might not be the worst thing right now.

As I write this, the Lords are nursing the wounds of a 10th-straight loss, dropping them to 1-21 on the season. Yes, that’s correct. One. And. Twenty. One. This latest setback, a 98-94 home overtime defeat to Hiram College, came before 100 devoted spectators at Tomsich Arena and—I’m guessing—had to hurt even more than, say, the 112-61 demolition at the hands of Albion College earlier in the campaign. Losing sucks. Losing when you feel as if you should have won sucks, times 100,000.

I digress.

The Lords’ backup guard is a junior named Ryan O’Neil. He’s an aspiring journalist with a ton of writing talent, and he’s also—to his great credit—unafraid to bluntly explain what it is to lose and lose and lose again. So I brought him here, because nothing takes the sting off a 4.7 winning percentage more than life inside the Quaz.

One can follow Ryan on Twitter here, and learn more about the Lords here.

Ryan O’Neil, you are the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Ryan, you’re a backup guard for the Kenyon College men’s basketball team. Your record, as I write this, is 1-20. I’m gonna ask bluntly—what is it to be on a team that’s 1-18? And did you see this coming?

RYAN O’NEIL: It sucks, and there’s really no way around that. There’s no way to say it in a more eloquent or diplomatic way. There have been a lot of nights when I’ve called my dad out of pure frustration. I don’t particularly look forward to going to practice, and sometimes I don’t even get excited to play in games. I try, and often fail, to find consolation by telling myself that playing a sport in college is not supposed to be easy. But it’s difficult to remember that, and even when I do I find that it offers very little solace, encouragement, or support. I’m not having fun this season, and basketball is supposed to be enjoyable. I’m fortunate that I get to hoop every day with some of my best friends in the world, but I don’t really feel lucky. These days, basketball feels more like a chore or a job than a source of unbridled joy. Often, I catch myself comparing this season to high school basketball, when the sport was a distraction from school, when we would play in front of 1500 or 2,000 people on some nights, when my favorite thing in the entire world was to be in the gym.

More than anything else, this season has been disheartening because I didn’t foresee the struggles that we would have as a team. In addition to the four players who graduated from last year’s team, five others decided to transfer from the school. So I knew there would be an adjustment period as we learned to play without them and the freshmen acclimated themselves to playing at this level, but I didn’t think that we would struggle to this extent. We believe that we’re a better team than our record says, but it’s all too easy to invoke Bill Parcells in response.

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J.P.: You play Division III hoops, which is low on the glory but still high on the commitment. I’m guessing you’ve seen a lot of small, half-empty gyms through the years. I’m guessing you’ve had many a long road trip. So … why? Why do it? Why not just spend these four years partying your ass off?

R.O.: I actually believe that’s one of the most misunderstood aspects of Division III basketball. While there are many nights when there are fewer than 100 people in the stands, our conference has several programs that have significant history. Ohio Wesleyan, Wabash, and Wittenberg have all won national championships, and The College of Wooster is the winningest Division III basketball program of the 2000s. Typically, when we play at one of those schools, we play in front of a large crowd. With that said, those schools are outliers; more often, small school basketball is inglorious. As I’m writing this, the temperature in Ohio is below 0, and my classes for the day have been cancelled, but we still have to go play our game at Wooster tonight.

There have certainly been occasions, especially this season, when I’ve asked myself that exact question. Playing basketball has limited my ability to have a legitimate “college experience.” My Thanksgiving and Winter Breaks are truncated, and I usually don’t get full weekends like my friends who aren’t college athletes. But I know that it’s worth it. Since graduating from high school, I’ve become more confident, I’ve become more vocal, and I’ve learned valuable time management and leadership skills; I fully attribute this personal growth to basketball.

J.P.: You’ve told me you want to go into journalism—an industry that definitely seemed to be struggling right now. So … why? And what’s your plan?

R.O.: I suppose that it’s easier to answer your second question before getting to the first. Ideally, I would like to write nonfiction books that are culturally important. I’m fascinated by stories that are sports-adjacent, in a sense. My favorite book–which I am currently reading for the third time–is Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights. When I first read the book in seventh grade, it was illuminating and very literally life-changing. It showed me that sports can, and should, be used as a vehicle to tell a broader, more important story. So, I would love to write books that encapsulate sports, culture, and the world’s myriad faults.

There are so many stories that I want to tell. Recently, I’ve been obsessed with the history of lacrosse and the Native Americans’ relationship with the sport: how it began as a deeply spiritual game played by Native Americans; how the sport has been wrested from the Natives and appropriated by affluent white communities; how the Native American story is replete with tragedies including disproportionate rates of suicide and alcoholism and how lacrosse is an example of all that has been taken from the community; and how athletes like the Thompson trio who played at Albany show an attempt to recapture the sport. If I could, I would write a book about the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse team as it prepares to play in the next World Lacrosse Championships, an event that has only seen Canada and the United States win.

I’m also obsessed with Colin Kaepernick’s odyssey, although that’s a much more mainstream story of which most people are well-informed. To me, Kaepernick’s public conflict with the NFL offers the perfect blend of sports, politics, and culture; it is the perfect representation of the sports-adjacent stories that intrigue me.

I’m also interested in the youth soccer scene in America. The game is primarily reserved for and played by the wealthy elite, especially in U.S. Soccer’s Developmental Academy. The flaws of the Developmental Academy led to our nation’s absence in the 2018 World Cup and the subsequent election to find the new U.S. Soccer President; the election focused greatly on access to the sport in this country. This topic also involves the access that girls have; as the U.S. Women’s National Team is the best in the world, but receives much less funding and attention than the Men’s National Team.

I believe that these are stories that must be told, and that’s why I want to enter the field. Journalism, as much as our President tries to convince you otherwise, is a vital tenet of democracy and has the potential to very literally change the world.

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J.P.: Back when you graduated from high school, your uncle gave you a copy of “Into the Wild,” with an inside-the-cover note that read, “A good read here about family, choices and priorities. Seems we could all use a little bit of his spirit in our lives.” The book, according to an essay you wrote, has had an enormous impact. Why?

R.O.: Like Friday Night Lights, I’ve read this book several times; unlike FNL, I don’t quite know why I come back to it so often. It’s a story that both inspires me and frustrates me, because Christopher McCandless is both familiar and foreign to me. It inspires me, because there’s something profoundly simple in the idea that we should live how we want to, not in the way that the world has decided we’re supposed to. But it frustrates me because it’s ultimately a tragedy that was not inevitable.

In the essay that you referenced, I wrote most prominently about why I relate to McCandless. As a junior in college, I think I’m beginning to see the world with more clarity. It’s frightening how quickly college has been going by, and I realize, almost daily, that I am on the precipice of entering the real world. And as I get closer to the real world, I think I’m beginning to understand the way it works. Very few people get to do what they want to do for a living. So, I’m going for it: I’m starting a website with some friends; I’m writing as often as possible; I’m pursuing this career before it even starts. In part, this is thanks to Into the Wild. I’m inspired by the way that McCandless just said “fuck it,” and went out to do what he wanted. But it’s also daunting and terrifying: what if I’m not good enough to do this? What if it doesn’t work out for me? I’m aware that I’m setting myself up for a major disappointment, but I’d rather pursue my dream; I don’t want to sit back 40 years from now and wonder what could have been.

McCandless pursued his dream, and unfortunately it ended in his death. But at least he went for it, and I respect the shit out of that.

J.P.: I’m not trying to pile on, but I’m just as fascinated by losing as winning. And earlier this year you guys traveled to exotic Albion, Michigan, where Albion College beat you 112-61. What do you recall from that experience? Were they just THAT much better than you? And is there anything to gain from taking an ass kicking of that magnitude? Or does it just suck?

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R.O.: Oh, man. I’ve tried to erase that game from my memory completely. It was so humiliating. It felt like they were scoring every single time down the court, and we just couldn’t do anything to stop them. We were losing by some 30 points at half, and no one said anything in the locker room. Then our coach walked in, and we could tell that he didn’t know what to say. He spoke inaudibly, barely above a whisper. He wasn’t even angry, he was just morose. He kept rubbing his forehead, as if he was perplexed by what was happening on the court. And honestly, it was confusing. Albion is a fine team, but they’re certainly not 50 points better than us. I don’t think there’s a Division III team in the country that’s 50 points better than us.

At the time, we thought there were things we could learn from the game. We tried to fix our warmup and pregame routine, we tried to approach film and scouting with a greater focus and more keen attention to detail, we tried to work harder in practice. But in retrospect, we didn’t really learn anything. We didn’t improve. We’ve had several other notably bad games. It was just another dispiriting moment in a demoralizing season.

Summer ball in New Rochelle

Summer ball in New Rochelle, N.Y.

J.P.: You and two pals started up a sports and pop culture website. Why? How? And how come you haven’t added to it in more than a month?

R.O.: For some time, I’ve had the idea of starting a website with friends who have similar interests. Over Thanksgiving Break last semester, I decided to commit to it. I sat down and I created a five-page Word document outlining my vision for the website. The thought of running my own website and having the ability to create the type of content that interests me were my primary motivation, and I tried to convey this in the Word document, which I sent to about 20 people. Most of these 20 were kids my age who, as I understood, were interested in some sort of career in writing or media. I also sent the document to several kids who aren’t interested in writing or entering the field, thinking that they would be good additions. Right now, my friends and I are working on developing the site: designing the site, writing pieces for it, getting the domain.

We’re about ready to begin the site, which is called Badlands. I’m really excited to start, and we have a lot of really cool ideas that we’re developing. We’re going to write about a wide variety of topics across sports and pop culture. Some of it will be serious, and some of it will be more trivial and jocular. Of our first few pieces, one will be about sports psychology, as my co-editor Henry wrote about DeAndre Jordan, Markelle Fultz, and free throw shooting. Another piece will propose a hypothetical about me, my brother, and my two friends playing in and winning the Little League World Series. I’m also currently working on an episodic fictional series about a slow pitch softball league. My friend Hugo wrote about Ambrose Bierce, and my friend Joe is currently writing about his favorite guitar solos of all time. All of these pieces should be ready when we drop the site. This summer, we’re hoping to do a bracket to determine Westchester County’s best local pizza place, using fan votes and taste-testing.

J.P.: You wrote a very profound essay, “The Sadness,” about 9.11—and event you don’t remember. And I wonder, what is it to be from New York, to hear about 9.11, to know people directly impacted by 9.11 … but to have no recollection of it? Do you feel like you should feel more connected? Do you feel sorta lost on the day? Do you ever just feel nothing?

R.O.: It’s … difficult. It’s impossible to ever forget what happened. Like I wrote in that essay, some of my high school classmates lost parents, cousins, uncles or aunts. One of my best friends lost two uncles that day. But I was only three years old at the time, so I don’t remember it; I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing. Everything I know about that day is secondhand. But I still feel it: the emotion, the patriotism, the anguish. When I was in eighth grade, my youth soccer cried on the tenth anniversary of those attacks as he tried to express why this day was so difficult for him because two of his brothers-in-law passed away that day. I had never seen him cry before.

I really don’t feel any connection to 9/11 on other days, mostly because I can’t remember it. I feel guilty, in a sense, because I don’t have to think about it all the time. People who lost family members, and even those who just had to watch the wretched news coverage that day, don’t have that same luxury.

I wrote that essay during my sophomore year, my second consecutive year away from New York on that day. And for the second year, I was surprised to see that most people seemed unfazed by the anniversary. As a result, I felt detached from my hometown for the first time. So, I wanted to express what the day means when you’re from New York.

My mom, my biggest fan, shared that piece on her Facebook page, like she does with all of my writing. One woman, who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks, wrote, “Next time you see that boy–give him a huge hug from my kids and I. Wow.” For as long as I live, that will be the most meaningful reception I will ever get on anything I write. It made me feel like I was back in New York.

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J.P.: You’re from Pelham, not far from where I was raised. What’s your basketball journey? Were you always one of the better kids? Were you a high school star? Did you think you’d wind up at Michigan or Duke? What was recruitment like?

R.O.: It’s funny that you mention Duke, because that’s actually where my basketball “journey” began. My dad went to graduate school at Duke. For those three years, my twin brother, Matt, and I grew up on Tobacco Road, worshipping the Duke players, Coach K, and the Cameron Crazies. We would play on our little driveway hoop during the day, and accompany our dad to Cameron Indoor Stadium at night.

When Matt and I were five, our family moved to Pelham, where my dad quickly found a weekly pickup game at a Boys and Girls Club every Sunday morning at 8 o’clock. Every Sunday morning at 7:45, Matt and I would pile into the car with him, wearing our basketball shoes and carrying our basketballs. The gym was usually freezing, and I’m sure the men didn’t appreciate the fact that there were two young kids running around the gym screaming and shooting on the hoops that they were supposed to be warming up on. But once the games began, Matt and I would just watch, soaking up every aspect of the game. We whispered to each other about things we saw, like the way one guy wouldn’t pass; we huddled in trepidation whenever the men would argue with one another about a foul call or the score; we laughed to each other whenever they would curse loudly.

And then, we began to play CYO ball before matriculating to the basketball program at Pelham Memorial High School. We both played JV as eighth graders, and then I was called up to the varsity team as a freshman. And from the beginning of sophomore year to our final game senior year, Matt and I started every single game in the backcourt. That was my favorite thing in the world, playing ball with Matt. We had a unique chemistry, which would manifest itself in several different ways–some of which helped us, some of which were more pernicious. We almost always knew where the other would be on the court, but we were also very comfortable yelling at one another if we were angry.

I was pretty good in high school, although I was never much of a scorer. My best skill was my ball-handling, so I was good at getting in the paint and kicking out to shooters. My senior year, I was named an All-Conference player (translation: good, not great player). Luckily, some college coaches found something about my playing style appealing. I received looks from some schools that I never wanted to attend, and didn’t get the attention that I wanted from some other schools. Ultimately, it came down to Kenyon or SUNY Geneseo. I took visits to both Kenyon and Geneseo, and decided that Kenyon would be a better fit for me.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel

Photo by Jonathan Daniel

J.P.: I’ve got more than 25 years on you, and sometimes it’s hard to read a different generation. So there, on the campus of Kenyon College, how is Donald Trump playing? What do people think? Your teammates? Etc?

R.O.: Generally, Kenyon students hate Donald Trump. According to the New York Times, Clinton won 90% of the vote in Gambier (the town in which Kenyon is located). Most students consider Trump to be abhorrent and grotesque, but there are certainly students who voted for him and continue to support him. One student who lives across from me has a Trump poster hanging up in his room, with the infamous campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, plastered across it.

The 2016 election was a disappointment for me, personally, because I was anticipating healthy political discourse during the campaign. Instead, Kenyon became a place where students were defined by their political affiliation, and those who were conservative were likely ostracized. Even today, there is very little room for political compromise on Kenyon’s campus, and most students scorn conservatives for their beliefs or support of Trump. While politics isn’t a topic that comes up often with the team, it is something that comes up often in academic settings. In fact, I had one professor last semester who began each day by debriefing the class about the troublesome things that Trump had done since we last met. It’s really an unavoidable topic, but the discussion around it must be rectified so that students aren’t totally ignored because of their political perspective.

J.P.: Along those lines—unorthodox question. Your coach, Dan Priest, is in his ninth year at Kenyon. Seems to have a good rep, nice way about him. What if he was a very vocal Trump supporter? What if he wore #MAGA hats to practices? Could you play for him? Would that matter? And do you think a coach’s political leanings should matter?

R.O.: This is a really good question. I’ve never spoken politics with Coach Priest, so I don’t know where he stands on the political spectrum. Truthfully, I really don’t know what I would do if he wore one of those red hats. I think I would be hurt, just because those hats symbolize so much more than political affiliation: they symbolize Trump’s disposition toward people who are purportedly inferior to him. They symbolize hatred and elitism, arrogance and mendacity.

I don’t know whether I could still play for him. I wish that I could confidently say that a coach’s political leanings don’t matter, but they honestly do. I see Coach Priest six days every week, for four straight months. If he were vocally hateful, then I don’t know if I would want to be around that attitude so often.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RYAN O’NEIL:

• Right now, Kenyon v. Duke. Final score?: 147 to 52, Duke wins; Zion records a quintuple-double.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): A$AP Rocky, Dixie Cups, Sharpies, the mid-1980s San Diego Padres uniforms, the Washington Monument, James Harden, “The Green Book,” candy corn, the smell of musty blankets, John Bolton: Dixie Cups, James Harden, A$AP Rocky, Washington Monument, the mid-1980s Padres uniforms, Sharpies, the smell of musty blankets, “The Green Book,” candy corn, John Bolton.

• What’s the greatest moment of your athletic career?: Hitting a three-pointer with 30 seconds left against Eastchester High School to clinch the game.

• What’s the lowest?: Losing to Byram Hills High School in my final high school basketball game. I’ve never cried so much in my entire life.

• The world needs to know—what’s it like playing alongside Kamal Aubakirov?: It’s no different than playing with any other teammate, but sometimes it just takes a little longer to talk things through with him, but his English is pretty good. He went to high school in the US.

• One question you would ask Lou Ferrigno were he here right now: How much protein is appropriate to consume in one sitting?

• In exactly 17 words, make an argument for Carmelo Anthony as the greatest Knick of all time: Melo jab-stepped into my heart with his 62-point game, his infectious smile, and his Easter Day game.

• What age do you consider to be the line when someone is old?: 40

• Three memories of your first date: We got ice cream, I was too embarrassed to tell my parents, and she drove.

• We add LeBron to your team and give you a mid-major DI schedule. How far do you guys go, and do you contend for a national title?: If LeBron’s history is any indication, we’ll miraculously make it through a depleted east regional and lose in the final four after our second best player goes down with an injury.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life