• Joe Connor

Mr. Sports Travel Is Back On The Road

It remains in the sent items of my email.


I don’t see a reason to delete it. For it provides perspective. And context. Of life. And its journey. All its joys and tragedies, its rivers – all the ebbs and flows.


At 12:40 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on Jan. 15, 2020, I emailed yet another monthly college hoops travel column to my editor, John Akers, publisher of Basketball Times. I’d been writing for him annually since 2012. After successfully pitching my column, John provided me a platform to share my unique background and experiences with fans. For, like you, I am first and foremost a fan. And I will be forever grateful to John – and he knows it. Like most on that day, never could I have imagined that would be my last column – until now.


The final issue of Basketball Times was May 2021 – John, keep enjoying retirement and see you soon courtside. And thank you to Dave Barend for this opportunity to re-connect with fans.


If you’re reading about me or my column for the first time, for more than 25 years, I’ve been sports traveling. I’m just a few schools shy of having savored a game at every NCAA Division I men’s and women’s home basketball venue. I’ve taken in a non-D-I college hoops game across 34 states, plus the District of Columbia.


We’re talking everything from NCAA DIIs and DIIIs – to NAIAs and Jucos (from Division I to Division III) to the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA) to the Association of Christian College Athletics (ACCA) to other conferences, including independents. I’ve enjoyed high school contests in 28 states. Years ago, I finished watching a game live inside every NBA arena. I’m close to doing so for every G-League setting, too. This is just hoops – and a sincere thank you to the late Dr. James Naismith. Memo: I never played organized basketball.


As the late Gordie Howe famously said: “All hockey players are bilingual – they know English and profanity.” I’ve relished a game at every National Hockey League, National Football League, and Major League Baseball venue. And to date, a tilt at nearly every NCAA Division I football, baseball, and hockey school. And I’ve attended premier events in golf, tennis, auto racing, track and field, cycling, rodeo, and rowing. I’ve watched sports in the flesh in 36 countries. On six continents, from sumo wrestling in Japan to cricket in Australia.

Starting on Feb. 5, 2018 – and ending on Dec. 11, 2019 – I went to a sporting event every day in the U.S. or Canada. That’s 675 consecutive days.


Sports and travel? My DNA. My blood. No exaggeration – absolute genuine euphoria when I witnessed the NCAA DI Bellarmine (Atlantic Sun) men tip off against Tiffin (NCAA DII/Midwest Conference) on Oct. 28, 2021 at Freedom Hall in Louisville – for an exhibition game. Because it was the first time I’d stepped inside a gym and enjoyed a live hoops game since March Sadness 2020. And yes, Bellarmine’s court is where Louisville previously played its home games. Have the past two years been wackadoodle or what?


Historically, my columns have chronicled not just my journeys – but the people, places, and experiences that make college hoops special. And I hope you will become a reader. To that end, please feel free to email your sports travel related questions to mrsportstravel@gmail.com. Because “Dear Mr. Sports Travel” is open for business! I may answer your questions in a future column.


My trips have a larger purpose. I drive my 2012 Ford Fusion across the U.S. in what I refer to as “The American Flag Mobile,” raising awareness of OperationFirstResponse.org, a nonprofit that helps veterans, service members, first responders, and their families. Prior to my 2018 and 2019 roadies, I decided to “wrap” my car in the American Flag. The message on the back window reads: “Thanked a Veteran, Service Member, First Responder, and their Families Today? OperationFirstResponse.org.”


My late father served in the U.S. Air Force and was my hero. He introduced me to sports – and I always loved road tripping with him. My dad often reminded me what it means to live in a free country.


My column so my opinion: athletes are not “heroes,” they’re athletes.


Operation First Response helps our real heroes with paying rent or utility bills so they can get treatment, like for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m honored to be partnered with this organization that has aided 25,419 since 2004 – 1,730 in 2021 alone. They have a four-star rating from Charity Navigator. I fully self-fund my trips so no one pays me to endorse anything. And how am I able to do this? I’ve put most of my income in rental properties, so consistent cash flow while I’m on the road. And I’m single. And never married. And have no children. So that’s how.


My most recent, four-month trek included games across 22 states, from the historic Cabot Center in Boston (NCAA DI/home of Northeastern women) to the Thomas and Mack Center (NCAA DI/UNLV) in Sin City to the heartland where I enjoyed six games in the Show Me State alone, the most of any on the roadie: three NAIA schools (Avila, Columbia, and Harris-Stowe) to Central Christian of the NCCAA and ACCA to NCAA DII power Northwest Missouri State to NCAA DI UMKC.


Highlights:

Best Game – and Atmosphere: An NCAA Division II men’s non-conference rivalry as then-No. 15 Embry-Riddle (Sunshine State Conference) visited Flagler (Peach Belt Conference). Because the game was played two days before Thanksgiving, students weren’t on campus. Whatever. Crackerbox Flagler Gymnasium was packed to the gills! These two coastal Florida schools, separated by 56 miles, never exchange Christmas cards and historically games are intense.


Jaizec Lottie had one for the ages – 40 points and the winning bucket with seconds left to lead the home Saints to a 78-76 win. His brother in attendance? Ejected from his seat for allegedly saying a few not so nice things to one official.


Quipped Flagler Athletic Director (AD) Jud Damon: “You should have been here the year when the mascots fought at center court!”


Best Game – and Atmosphere (Runners-Up Edition): NCAA Division III Montclair State’s men’s opener against Brooklyn College (CUNYAC) – students were lively from the tip, cheering the home Red Hawks (New Jersey Conference) onto a 91-68 victory. Ditto for the students at the men’s home opener at NCAA Division III Eureka College (St. Louis Conference) despite an 82-68 loss to Cornell (Midwest Conference). It was first time the Red Devils had played in front of a home crowd in 622 days. Should you wish to catch a game at these schools – Mr. Sports Travel recommends! – a warning: if you like your space, this ain’t your place! Prepare to rub shoulders.


Coolest New Gym: Liberty Arena (NCAA DI/Atlantic Sun). According to Liberty University, it spent $65 million on its new 4,000-seat digs. Worth every penny. While the splashy, flashy new NCAA Division I newbies at James Madison (Colonial Athletic) and High Point (Big South) are worth a visit too – each also has upper deck seating – Liberty’s is far more intimate. No upper deck – and beyond the entire length of one side of the court, a gigantic black and white montage of the mountains that beckon beyond this Central Virginia campus. Way cool.


Coolest Old School Gym: Mr. Sports Travel is a sucker for old-school cribs! Favorite visit this trip: a women’s game at Hamline University’s Hutton Arena (NCAA DIII/Minnesota Conference). Driving along Snelling Avenue – a major St. Paul, Minn. throughfare – it’s easy to miss this quaint, 1,800 seat gem, which opened in 1937 as Norton Fieldhouse and cost $100,000 to build. Upon entering, welcome to your time warp – a charming low-lit, low-ceiling lobby with a bust of its namesake, Joe Hutton Sr., plus other artifacts. A few steps further and there’s the darkened court below street level – and its classic fieldhouse roof design above.

Easiest way to describe Hutton? A mini-Williams Arena, home of NCAA DI Minnesota (Big 10), which is the state’s oldest arena, opening in 1928 as “Minnesota Field House.”


Hutton’s heyday was the 1940s and 1950s, with the coach leading the Pipers to three NAIA titles and seven of his players going on to play pro ball. The Minneapolis Lakers occasionally played here in the 1950s when the Minnesota Auditorium was unavailable.


Joe Connor is a contributor. Learn more about him at his website, www.mrsportstravel.com, and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. Questions for Mr. Sports Travel? Email mrsportstravel@gmail.comand he may answer your questions in a future column.


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