Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When a chant is more than just a chant

I'm standing 1,619 feet from sea level and wish I'd brought sunglasses. I know it's 1,619 feet because I'm staring down at the official marker. I'm not looking up because if I do the people around me who are taking pictures of the Hollywood Sign might wonder what's wrong.

Linkin Park's “Iridescent” just happened to rotate on my ipod, and now I'm fighting back tears as I hear the following lyrics.

Do you feel cold and lost in desperation?
You build up hope, but failures all you've known.
Remember all the sadness and frustration
And let it go.
Let it go.

It's six hours before the most important basketball game in San Diego State basketball history. I should be preparing for the basketball game I'm broadcasting the next day. There's a lot of things I should be doing. But I can't. I'm too nervous. I'm too excited. I'm too proud.

My hands are extra sweaty because they're holding my keys and cell phone. I have shorts with pockets. But my only SDSU shorts are basketball shorts without pockets. I'm already wearing an SDSU shirt and visor, but the idea of not wearing Aztecs shorts is absurd.

I've decided that I must climb the nearest mountain, literally, to celebrate the monumental climb my beloved Aztecs basketball team has accomplished.

Understand, my freshman year, we were 2-26. Didn't win a game in league. Both wins were against non-Division I teams. Now, we're 20-0, ranked fourth in the country, and playing in the biggest game of the season against an opponent that scares me and annoys me for reasons both personal and political.

Brigham Young University is 19-1. They are ranked ninth in the country. They have a player of the year candidate in Jimmer Fredette, who leads the nation in scoring, and much as I hate to admit, is pretty damn entertaining to watch.

Still, this is BYU. I don't like BYU. OK, that's not true. I hate BYU. I hate its association with the Mormon Church. I hate that the Mormon Church spent $22 million to defeat Prop 8 two years ago. I hate that when I once tried buying a six-pack of beer in Provo, the cashier looked at me and said, “are you sure you want to buy that? My uncle drinks beer and he looks much older than he is.” Most of all, I hate BYU because they're good and they just about always beat us.

Even when they tie us, like they did in a memorable 52-52 football tie in 1991, it was like a win for them because some crazy tiebreaker formula allowed them to be recognized as the conference champion.

That was 20 years ago. Feels like 20 minutes ago.

Understand, I went to San Diego State because of sports. Sure, it was cheap tuition, fairly easy to get accepted, the weather was incredible, it was far enough from home, and the girls were gorgeous. I'll never forget watching a SDSU-Miami game in 1990. I was a senior in high school. The Hurricanes were No.2 in the nation at the time. The Aztecs lost, 30-28, and would have won if any of the three missed field goals in the final quarter had been good. Little did I know, at the time, how many moments like that would define my Aztecs existence.

SDSU wasn't a national power then. But it was a program on the rise, or so I thought from watching that game. That's what everybody always said. It's a “sleeping giant.”

Well, the sleeping giant has erupted this season, and like a dormant volcano, the once-apathetic fan base doesn't want the lava to stop flowing.

I'm watching all this from Los Angeles, 127 miles to the north of San Diego. Thanks to social media, youtube and smart phones, it feels like I'm there. I'm instantly connected with Aztecs around the world – literally, considering one of my college classmates cheers on the Aztecs from his home in Sao Paolo, Brazil and is planning a trip to Las Vegas for the Mountain West Conference tournament.

It wasn't always like this. It's rarely been like this.

Those missed field goals and missed opportunities led to a defeatist attitude amongst my fellow alums. I'll admit that I'm as guilty as anybody. Assuming the worst. Waiting for the sky to fall. Knowing something bad to happen. This is what we did to numb the pain. We mocked ourselves. We feigned indifference. With each heartbreak, with each loss, with each embarrassment, it justified the apathy.

Over the last two years or so, that's all changed. It's still a process. But it's changing. I believe it started with Stephen Strasburg becoming the best college pitcher in the nation. A year ago, the basketball team won the conference tournament, which I followed from my laptop while in Taiwan with the Dodgers. They reached the NCAA Tournament, lost a heartbreak in the first round to Tennessee, then watched that same Tennessee team reach the Elite Eight.

Strasburg reached the majors this summer, and somehow lived up to the ridiculous hype. The football team went 9-4. All four losses were less than a touchdown. One was a screw job of the highest order by BYU, who had university-paid employees working a replay booth that missed an obvious call that was the difference in the game. The football team finished the season with a blowout victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl, in front of a near sellout crowd at Qualcomm Stadium.

Now the basketball team is 20-0 and the alums believe.

That's what makes the “I Believe” chant so special, and gets me so emotional.

Before each home game, the student body and other rowdies who call themselves “The Show” engage in a raucous pre-game chant that goes beyond pumping up everybody for the game.

The leaders yell “I.” The masses repeat the word.

Then it's “I Believe” and the repeat.

“I Believe That” and the repeat.

“I Believe That We” and the repeat.

“I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN” says the leader. And the place goes ballistic, bouncing up and down, the band playing along, chanting over and over and over, “I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!”
It's more than a chant about the game. It's a chant about changing attitudes and perceptions. These aren't the same ol' Aztecs that we witnessed as students. We no longer expect to lose. We no longer wait for something bad to happen. We no longer believe that we will lose.

Not anymore. Now we believe. We believe that we will win. And the more we chant it, the more we chant it together, the more the past disappears. The more the new future emerges.
Or as my friend Jen wrote on my Facebook page: “There shall be no talk of loss. Only victory. The culture has changed! We are no longer a mediocre school with a breezy attitude about our losses. Did we not learn anything from Hoke? We now play to win. Enough with Colclough's preemptive excuses! Enough with Sooosh's pregame jitters. No more rationalizations from Ferris! This is a freaking streak we are talking about. A FREAKING STREAK, I say! Streaks are like Haley's comet! Streaks are like sex in the third floor book stacks of the Love Library! Streaks are like the rolled tacos from Los Panchos at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday. We will win. I believe we will win!”

(UPDATE: As comments have noted, yes, we stole it from Utah State. And they stole it from Navy. Thanks to the Aggies and Midshipmen for coming up with a cheer worth stealing. Consider it a compliment. )

I believe that we will win. I believe we'll win tonight. I believe we'll win Saturday. I believe we'll win the regular season title and the conference tournament. Hell, I believe we'll win the freakin' national title. Why not us?

As far as we advance, I'll be proud. I vow not to be disappointed, or frustrated that it wasn't better, or stop believing. This is the best season in history. It's not even close. And it's still just getting started.

I'm crying as I type that. I was crying as I hiked through the Hollywood Hills three hours ago, my years as a student flashing through my eyes.

I was never among the rowdies for basketball games. There wasn't anything to cheer. Few cared. I was usually at press row anyway, trying to constantly get better as a reporter, and following the “no cheering in the press box” rule.

Deep down, I wished to be part of the Cameron Crazies – or any other rabid, loud, creative student bodies that affected basketball games with its presence and sheer will and intensity.

Now I get to vicariously do it. At the Rustic, my neighborhood bar. At the LA Chapter of the Alumni Chapter's official watch party at Barney's Beanery in Santa Monica tonight. Hopefully, in Tucson, for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in March.

This game does not define our season. Win or lose, we're going to the NCAA Tournament. But this game just seems to matter because … well, when have we ever won a big game when the entire nation is watching? When does the entire nation even watch or care about us? I can't blame them for wondering if we're legit, even though our 20-0 record and the No.4 RPI ranking should make it obvious that we're legit.

We're the newcomer. When you don't have the tradition, the outside world waits for you to fall back to your normal lot in the college basketball pecking order. Heck, they're waiting for us to do what we used to expect our team would do.

But not anymore.

I believe that we will win.

I believe that we will win.

I believe that we will win.

I believe that we will win.

I believe that we will win.


Jason L. Wright said...

No shout out to Utah state where the chant originated?

Scott said...


I belive.

I believe that.

I believe that he didn't know SDSU copied this cheer from USU, and failed to make it anywhere near as great.

I believe that we still laugh at the SDSU version of it. It is like a high school trying to get a "home court crowd" into the game.

Radio Nut said...

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Props to Utah State for its origination. I have a soft spot for all non-BCS schools and will be rooting for them. Traditions get stolen all the time. The music industry calls it sampling. SDSU stole it from Utah State. Many other schools have stolen the "Big Heads" under the baskets as opponents try shooting free throws from SDSU.

Lloyd said...

Thank you for expressing so well how I have felt for so long. Very encouraging and I hope all of us alums feel the same way.

Lloyd '91

Tony said...

Sampling became illegal about twenty years ago (Ice, Ice, baby)

Virginia Johnson said...

As a child growing up in Annapolis Maryland attending Naval Academy football games I have been hearing the I believe that we will win chant for years.

Now as an Aztec myself I was surprised to hear it when I attended my first b-ball game.

It's not Utah State that started this chant. It is in fact one of our nations oldest military academies and I love the fact that I get to chant it as a student at my own school!!

Go Aztecs!

Art said...

Great blog entry. That Miami football game was epic. Aztec for life.

Jamie said...

Nice piece of writing and emotion. Right there with you.

Thank you to Virginia for pointing out that USU did not originate the chant.

It's pretty high school to try to take credit for something that you didn't create.

Based on your football team's performance against the Aztecs this past season, it actually looked like you sent your Freshman team to play the Varsity. 41-7.

Now that was were the laughing was coming from.