Every once in a while at Marquette Courtside, we like to separate ourselves from the day-to-day of analyzing Marquette Basketball and instead follow Al McGuire’s tradition of going “barefoot in the grass.” A man can’t live on assist-to-turnover ratio alone, after all.
This week’s theme? Nostalgia. It’s the right week for it, at least for me.
Wednesday night was Wesley Matthews Bobblehead Night at Fiserv Forum. Matthews was in attendance, as was I. Thirteen years ago, there were at least a few days and nights in the Bradley Center Media Room where an age-20-something me was asking an age-19-or-so Matthews questions in a press-conference setting, back when I covered MU for another Milwaukee radio station. Wednesday, there we were again: An age-30-something me asking an age-30-something Matthews questions in a press-conference setting. Because I don’t cover the Bucks, we hadn’t engaged in such conversation in at least 13 years. The only other question-asker in the room who once talked to Matthews as a student was John Dodds, a longtime member of Marquette’s stat crew and the purveyor of MarquetteHoops.com. The three of us probably all felt a bit more elderly as Matthews — once a fresh-eyed kid from Madison, now a father and an 11-year NBA veteran — answered our inquiries. He’s developed a relaxed eloquence you don’t get from college athletes. With years comes wisdom.
Tonight, I’ll be back in the PA announcing role I enjoy so much at New Berlin West High School. The school fieldhouse’s court will officially be dedicated to retired coach Jeff Lewiston during a boys/girls doubleheader between West and rival Eisenhower. Back in 2000, Lewiston and the sons of former Buck Len Chappell, John and Jason, led West to a 26-0 record and a WIAA Division 2 boys basketball state championship. I was a senior at Brookfield Central when my Lancers ran into those Vikings on a December night in 1999. An eventual state semifinalist in Division 1 ourselves, we lost at home, 72-56, as John, who not only later played at South Carolina but tore it up in the classroom, scored 21 points.
Lewiston retired in 2014 when faced with his toughest opponent: Cancer. He must be just as good of a fighter as that 1999-2000 team was, though, because he will be around to be recognized at the dedication. There will be plenty of reminiscing along Cleveland Ave., perhaps beneath moist eyes.
Even though I went to Central, I lived in New Berlin from birth through my college years. On the morning of January 23, 2003, 20-year-old me woke up there, knowing I’d have little time to get ready before a half-hour drive to the Klotsche Center for a Saturday afternoon UWM/Wright State game. My duties as student help for the Panthers’ sports info office that day were supposed to involve assisting the regional TV crew carrying the game. But when I logged onto our house’s dial-up internet to check my E-mail, I got a surprise: John Huegel, an advisor, mentor and UWM’s basketball PA announcer at the time, had laryngitis. With three years of UWM soccer and two years of Panther baseball PA under my belt, Huegel suggested he and I make a one-day role swap to save the expected crowd of nearly 3,000 from hearing amplified hoarseness. Higher-ups signed off before I even awoke. For the first time in my life, I was doing PA for a team I followed as a kid, having gone to UWM games since the Steve Antrim era.
The Bruce Pearl-led Panthers, who made their first NCAA tournament later that year, walloped the Raiders that day, 74-59, going on a big first-half run after getting comfortable. I tend to be my own worst critic when it comes to announcing, but I felt memorably great doing that game. I swear the Klotsche Krazies were louder than usual when we begged for noise during T-shirt tosses and promotions.
Doing D1 men’s basketball PA was a thrill, yet the opportunity never again came up as a UWM student. A couple of those higher-ups handled a 2005 behind-the-scenes situation in a way that made me uncomfortable and frustrated. We stopped working together accordingly. As a kid, I always wanted to be a Panther someday. I got the chance, then saw UWM reach what’s still the university’s athletic apex in ‘05. Not long afterward, I had a UWM degree, but had thrown my support back behind Marquette.
Funny things happen in time, though. I’ve formed a friendship with current UWM SID, Chris Zills. In 2018, as I announced a Marquette/UWM soccer match in my 12th year as an announcer for MU futbol, Zills, unaware of the history, told me he thought I was really good and wondered if I’d be interested in doing UWM games. While I said yes, I may have also had a drink or six later that night to deal with my feelings. Even 13 years isn’t enough to cleanse every ounce of resentment about some things.
Nonetheless, this week, one guy’s busy, another can’t make it, and bam: Saturday, you’ll find me behind a mic at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, doing just my second-ever UWM and D1 men’s basketball game, first in 17 years and first-ever in Milwaukee’s most historic hoops venue. I was there, operating part of the scoreboard, when many of the 10,000 yellow-clad fans stormed the court following the 2003 Horizon League Championship. I designed the season-ticket brochure when the Panthers moved back into the building for the 2003-04 season. I left for a long time. Now I’m back. Oddly enough, Pearl’s top UWM assistant, Tony Jones, will return as well, as he now holds a coaching spot with incoming foe Oakland. He will probably know me better than most of UWM’s current staff. Few remain on the Panther payroll from those halcyon days.
Nostalgia is dangerous. We tend to cleanse the past to the point of thinking everything was better than it was. Removing my obvious example of how it wasn’t from above, consider baseball’s retro stadium trend. The architecture may be great, but wanting the majors to look more like the 30’s and 40’s doesn’t sound as good to people who weren’t allowed in the game those years because of their appearance.
But used correctly, the happiness nostalgia brings comes from remembering both how much potential laid before us when we were younger, as well as how we took advantage of opportunities to improve with age, for ourselves and others. Matthews spoke at length about how he thought he was a man at Marquette, but now knows he was only being given the tools to become a real man: A father, teammate, leader, man of God and so on. Like Lewiston, we use our past successes build toward bigger battles. Like me, we recognize we’ve journeyed, worked hard and been willing to heal old wounds.
One can make the case that high school and college basketball have lost some oomph in Milwaukee the past 20 years. Marquette hasn’t won a tournament game under Steve Wojciechowski. The Panthers have come nowhere close to recapturing the magic of the Pearl era. Prep ball still produces great talents, like Menomonee Falls’ J.P. Tokoto and Central’s Riley LaChance, but they don’t attend MU or UWM. The college hoops capital of Wisconsin has largely been the state capital of Madison, at least ever since Bo Ryan and Greg Gard left the Panthers after my freshman year there.
Still, it’s good to see the folks with strong ties to this area’s institutions — Matthews, Lewiston, and yes, even me — persevering. We’ve all got years on our belt. None of us know how much more time we have left. But we’re all working to make the most of them. That’s bigger than basketball. That’s life.