Hope Floats ... Like Our Turd of a Season

Words do no justice in describing what it's like being a Gamecocks sports fan.

There's just no succinct term that encompasses our full gamut of experience--heart-wrenching dejection; colossal and congenital disappointment; intractable futility; fortunes that are so ridiculously star-crossed as to be comedic.

When it comes to college football, I struggle with deciding whether it's better to own a lifetime .500 mark--pretty much Webster's definition of “mediocrity”--or whether I'd rather lose every game in a blowout.

Set the bar so low that we can practically step over it. Avoid the heartbreak.

Why did I think this year’s SEC basketball tournament would be any different? I don’t know. Force of habit, likely.

Doesn’t matter. There I sat like a prize fool, watching USC amass a double-digit lead in the opening round of a tournament they’re only invited to because the league says they have to be there as a member.

As the lead grew, so did my hopes.

Maybe, just maybe, we could win a game or two, putting us into the NIT discussion at least. And hey, if we were really lucky, we could make a run at winning this damn thing and getting into the Big Dance--again because of tournament rules, not because of our .500 record.

I would’ve accepted the former scenario. Hell, an NIT berth would be something of a small miracle for a team that lost two of its best players early in the season--one to an injury, and the other for "violating team rules" shortly after he sustained a black eye from roughhousing at home.

Yes, a horseplay injury (we’re told). That’s the kind of spectacularly abysmal luck Gamecock fans endure.

It’s a low-down dirty crying shame that Devan Downey’s senior year ended this way. Indeed, it’s because of Downey--who in most games this season has been the best player on the court from either team--that the Gamecocks even won 15 contests.

“If we could play our way into the NIT,” I deluded myself, “maybe Downey would play in front of some big audiences and scouts, maybe get the ‘Renaldo Balkman’ bump.”

But as per usual during a Gamecocks sporting event of nearly any kind, reality hurtled me screaming back toward Earth, and I watched USC fritter away that lead, which had been in the high teens somewhere.

“What could have been, had Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes stayed healthy and, you know, on the team?” I don’t know, but I do know that it’s that kind of thinking that will forever keep our sporting clubs from moving forward.

Ballgames aren’t the favorite pastime for USC. Dwelling on “what ifs” is.

To be fair, the road to sporting success isn’t exactly easy for South Carolina. Geographically, it’s a nightmare in fact. In football, our talented players can go south to Georgia or Florida. In basketball, attractive options abound in our neighbors to the north: UNC, Duke, even Wake Forest.

Kinda hard for a talented South Carolina athlete not to choose those kinds of programs over the Gamecocks, whose only national championships are in equestrian sports and women’s track and field (sorry, but NIT trophies don’t count).

And that's not even mentioning the competition from in-state rival Clemson. Even the Tigers have a national football championship to their credit (mercifully I was too young at the time to have any memory of it). That accolade is thankfully more of an aberration than a norm for Clemson, who at least in football have struggled in recent years about as equally as the Gamecocks have.

The difference is that Clemson beats us in head-to-head contests with regularity. When it comes to football and basketball, you just can't deny that they are--for whatever reason--routinely better coached and play in more high-profile games than we do. So even if you persuade an S.C. athlete to stay in the Palmetto State, he or she has better options.

Baseball is a slightly different story, sure. USC generally fields a competitive and well-coached team, and Ray Tanner had better be raking in millions. But still no championship there.

Downey aside, the list of talent that has slipped through our fingers is staggering. And even he picked Cincinnati first.

Plus, have you been paying attention to the news lately? South Carolina’s national profile is bigger than ever, and for all the wrong reasons: a philandering governor; a homeless-hating lieutenant governor; a coked-up treasurer; a congressman who interrupts the president’s State of the Union address; a college town that ensnares beloved Olympian Michael Phelps in a pot-smoking scandal; and a capital city that still has a Confederate battle flag flying on State House grounds--in the year 2010.

Frankly, I’m surprised the Gamecocks are able to field a team at all. By now, I’d think their recruiting pool would be down to maybe me, my brother, Chubby Checker and Walter Edgar.

I hope Devan Downey goes on to play professionally, preferably in the NBA. He posted a lot of league-leading stats and is the kind of player who comes along but once in many moons. He has skill, determination, more heart than a deck of cards, and I hear he’s pretty good with a Bo staff.

We were lucky to have him grace our court for any length of time.

But his team blows, and he’s 5-foot-9. About my height.

So I wouldn’t hold out much hope … for the tape deck, or the Creedence.

As for USC fans? Oh, we few. We happy few. We band of buggered.

We soldier on, like homeless cuckolds, like those hangdog troops in "Return of the King" who, having told their commander they don't have the manpower to win, receive the retort: "No ... but we will meet them in battle nonetheless."

Stirring and endearing ... and ever middling.

I think I just penned our new alma mater.

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