Almost clever

The TrueHoop Network's astoundingly positive weekend at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference included one vast disappointment. Oakland-based HoopSpeak and WarriorsWorld blogger Ethan Sherwood Strauss discovered only after crossing the continent that he had not, in fact, bought a ticket. This is the story of his weekend:

The shock of nearly missing this Boston flight lingers as I take my seat. A thumping heart pumps heavy eyelids upwards, much like those tire-changing jacks I never learned to use. That long-awaited MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is only hours away, and the old man to my left might as well know about it.Turns out, he’s a professor, a dream specialist. Turns out, he’s more talkative than I was prepared for. He rambles himself into hacking phlegm fits as I retreat from our conversation. Then he slurps coughs as I try to sleep. The old man stirs me awake so as to canvass the entire plane for advice on his hiccuping Kindle. God, how I hate this kindly old soul.

Boston’s public transportation is a relative breeze compared to that guy. The next morning, I’m floating towards the convention center on the oddly roomy wings of “The T.” Once above ground, my walk is a run. The cold temperature provides an adorable novelty en route to the holy event.

“You’re uh ... not in the system ... I’m sorry,” says the Sloan gatekeeper as he blinks into a computer.

(Oh no...)

The bad news bearer is skinny, gawky, and seemingly empathetic -- not your typical velvet rope bouncer. He goes through the steps of explaining how Sloan is at capacity, how nothing can be done, how I can use the convention WiFi. The dude is gently nudging me towards a depressive shame spiral -- right in front of passing media peers.

(You can’t enter the nightclub of high sports nerdom. You’re not on the list, you’re not popping bottles with Mark Cuban and R.C. Buford.)

Reporter Sam Amick says “Hi,” and sympathetically reacts to my predicament -- on his way to “the club.” Before leaving, Sam goes, “Wait, what’s your name again? I’m so bad with names...” The reporter struts off into the distance, as the Sloan cornfield of dreams slowly absorbs his body.

Awhile back, I’d bought my ticket -- at least I’d thought I had. The purchase was not greeted with a confirmation e-mail, which should have been a sign. Instead of following up, I frittered weeks away, bragging about my admission.

I’m flying to Boston! Sloaning it up with Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell!

College ended roughly two years ago. I’ve bounced around since, living paycheck-to-paycheck, between paychecks, on the unemployment line, below the red line. I’m just your typical graduate who didn’t brace for that recession wall, I suppose. The 90s conditioned us to expect great. Getting a resume rejected at Whole Foods, Starbucks, Peet’s, the local grocery store, bookstore and library? Not so great, especially if you value a working self esteem.

My generation has been chastised for living a protracted adolescence. What the older folks don’t get is that conditions prompt adulthood, as much as time does. News tells me: Since the post-WWII middle-class boom, youthful bread-winning has gotten increasingly difficult. If pimpled milkmen seem of another era, then so too is the idea that such a job could buy a house. How do you become a man in the absence of stable work and a future? How do you cope with paying off college loans at an age when people used to save for the kid’s tuition? The answer: You cling firmly to the idea of who you want to be -- someday.

I bought into the unvalidated belief that I had something to offer. Salon.com felt the wrath of persistent e-mails till they finally granted an unpaid internship. Once there, I grinded hard enough to publish pieces, get part-time work, and eventually, a full time gig. Then, with financial security finally established, I quit an all-consuming news job. Why? Because I’d become a basketball writer -- in my own mind at least. The aspirational identity had sustained through the bad times, and it had grown brash enough to fire me in slightly better times.

The aspirational identity needs events like Sloan. As my bank account’s digits disappear, access is a promissory note. Maybe I’ll catch a prospective employer’s eye, maybe I’ll schmooze my way into Mark Cuban’s will. A plane ticket from Oakland to Boston is an expensive investment, but an investment indeed.

Today, it’s not paying off.

“Do you have a confirmation e-mail? Anything?”

I don’t. I shrink into the corner, suckle on WiFi till embarrassment drives me from the premises. The gatekeeper’s blurry presence floats around my periphery like a haunting spirit. I can’t bear to look at him as we cross paths.

My face is numb till the cold outside wind slaps it into painful sensation. Temples dully throb as I push my body forward in failure's trudge. I’d call my Mom, if these hands weren’t so frigid.

(Why didn’t I buy gloves? I’m not really an adult, am I?)

The iPod is replete with success-celebrating rap, no artist wants to wallow in self pity with ol’ Strauss. Through ear buds, Eminem imagines a scenario in which his career hadn’t ascended:

“And his alarm went off to wake him, but he didn’t make it to the rap Olympics, slept through his plane and he missed it!”

(Well, I guess I’m that guy.)

The rest of the day is spent in a trendy Boston coffee shop, tethered to choppy Sloan webcasts. All the other bloggers are tweeting each other about the conference fun. It’s like they’re taunting me.

If I’ve missed Sloan’s propulsive career shuttle, Beckley Mason’s sitting comfortably in it. He’s tweeting away chummily, making connections. We’ve walked the blogging journey more or less in synchronicity, collaborating on many projects -- but this conference is first time I’ve met Becks, in person (Or as Henry Abbott put it, it’s our “first time meeting since the womb”). Seeing Mason should be another quirk amid a strange journey. I feel like we’re already friends, but can friendships exist in a solely digital space? What happens when that space is compromised?

I eat dinner with the pals who put me up in Boston, then ditch them for a bar where TrueHoop writers are milling. I say “hi” to Beckley, who’s quickly, noticeably, becoming a star in the blogger milieu. Abbott’s words haunt because I don’t want to be compared unfavorably to someone so at ease, in any situation.

(Beckley’s awesome, amazing really! Why is he writing with this awkward guy who can’t successfully buy a ticket? Also, Ethan’s face is very, very stupid.)

All my interactions lead to rehashings of how I missed the damn conference. My expression is like the dread-soaked visage of a man, forced to (again) explain how idiocy led to an armcast.

(So I was trying to fish Doritos out of the vending machine ...)

The next night I reluctantly invite my civilian, non-blogging friends to a sports bar. I’m not sure how to incorporate them into whatever this is. Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstoh sit near a corner TV, fixed on the Heat’s collapse against the Spurs. Zach Harper presides over a laptop, consumed with a running Daily Dime Live chat. Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus is dressed more casually than anybody -- he’s wearing a purple Huskies sweatshirt. Rob Mahoney’s at center room, leaning forward so as to chat with shorter bloggers. Beckley circles the area like an orbital electron, making friendly conversation with all.

As I talk with more prominent writers, their lack of job security floats to the surface. Those whom you think have it made fret over short contracts and absent promises. Some guys aren’t getting paid for work that’s certainly worth more than some bloodsucking hedge fund.

By the time my civilian friends show up, I have a whole new perspective. Thirty minutes earlier, I would have described someone as, “He’s a big deal … super successful.” Now, the intro goes, “He’s struggling like I am … just doing a better job of it.”

The next day is a lot of R&R from the exhausting conference I’m not attending. A webcast here, a nap there. Mostly, I’m reading TrueHoop recaps and waiting for the geek afterparty.

That event is preceded by a dinner. Big dogs hunch over at one table (Royce Webb, Henry Abbott, Kevin Arnovitz, John Hollinger, David Thorpe) leaving an adjacent “kid’s table” to be comprised of mostly younger bloggers. I wonder: Who among us will make it to the professional table?

The division between striving and established veers my thoughts towards Rob Mahoney of Off the Dribble. Nice as he is, Rob’s combination of talent and youth (he’s still in college), draws out insecurities. Over the weekend’s course, many people remark on how shocked they are by Mahoney’s birthdate, while jokingly cursing him for it. It’s difficult for a group so committed to ranking teams and players to avoid ranking themselves and others. Kidding about Rob’s precociousness is one way to address real insecurity: If Mahoney makes you feel like Salieri, it’s best to gulp that truth with a humor chaser.

I’ve towed more civilians to the afterparty, as I’m an idiot. One of my best friends gives the impression of being quite overserved -- due in part to the wild, improv-honed gesticulations that he’s prone to. My buddy’s enjoying the hell out of that TrueHoop house band, inching closer to Henry Abbott as I shudder.

Beckley’s wafting around the room on his charisma jet pack. I’m tending to friends, indulging in small talk, pretending to have fun. The next morning, bloggers will play each other in actual basketball -- where Mason and Mahoney always shine. Beckley and I will briefly hug and make vague plans to hang out before our flights leave. We won’t follow up on those.

The Bay-bound flight takes off, and I can’t help but talk to the guy on my right. He’s wearing a black “Google Engineer” shirt, thin-rim glasses. He’s listlessly thumbing a copy of Pacific Rims (the book about the Philippine Basketball Association). Of course he’s a Sloan attendee, and of course I regret striking up the conversation. I admit to being in town for the conference, and keep it vague when pressed for details. The conversation ends when I awkwardly mumble, “Listen … um, I need to nap.”

Ensconced in my basement-level Oakland apartment, I revel in the sleepy nook’s serenity. The world is under control, here. My laptop’s blinking, it’s Beckley on Gchat. We spend the next few hours Internet-yapping about the Sloan social scene, gossiping in the absence of real gossip fodder. My girlfriend asks, “What are you smiling at, over there?” It just feels good -- even cathartic -- to have finally met my friend. For the first time ever, Beckley and I share experiences that come from the real world.