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Defeat of Bull Run: The Failed Division I Experiment

Defeat of Bull Run: The Failed Division I Experiment

This will always rank among the greatest mysteries of the universe: Why was Stonehenge built? What was Fermat’s Last Theorem and how did he come up with it? How on Earth was Danny White, former athletic director at the University of Buffalo, not fired once his plans for The New York Bulls Initiative came rolling out of his mouth? With White having departed Buffalo in 2015, we will probably never know.

I don’t want to decry Danny White completely. He did do a lot for UB Athletics: He improved the facilities, raised money, got the alumni association excited about UB sports for the first time in forever, and many of his coaching changes were upgrades. He can be credited as the guy who made the Bulls competitive. On the bad end, he also just plump dumped both Jeff Quinn and Bobby Hurley, and god only knows what he was thinking. And being one of those hotshot wunderkind executives, he was basically in and out. But we can deal with that; this is Buffalo, after all, and no matter what the sport or what level of said sport, we don’t expect anyone to stay very long. White came in and did his time on the bottom rung. We knew he wasn’t going to stick around.

You remember The New York Bulls Initiative. That was one of the two worst things he did to the university. The quick refresher is that White created a brand change which would have emphasized the “New York” over the “Buffalo” in the “State University of New York at Buffalo.” It was a victory for the school, but only in the most perverse way possible: The only people who approved of the change were a handful of treasonous alumni active on prominent digital media; the same people who graduated from UB, packed their degrees under their arms, and bolted. The students at UB were indifferent, and the residents of Buffalo rejected it with a capital R-E-J-E-C-T-E-D. The people of Buffalo are already pissed about having to qualify their home state with the phrase, “No, not THAT New York,” which packs an innate hatred of New York City. To see SUNY’s flagship – one of the very few things Buffalo can lay claim to that New York City can’t – try and attract attention by latching itself to a place no self-respecting Buffalonian can stand was maddening. It counted on the idea that potential recruits didn’t know geography, and one wonders how long it took for touring students to make it to downtown Buffalo and realize Times Square was eight hours away.

After White’s departure, UB relocated its brain and rediscovered is proper identity. The university mopped up the damage from The New York Bulls Initiative and rebooted its inherited call sign. But a week ago, we got to see the real damage left by White’s grandiose plans. Now, I don’t want to call White a bad guy for this: If anything, he was a visionary who saw the big-time potential for UB Athletics and tried to act on it. No one can complain about that. The problem is that White misread the sports interests of longtime Buffalo residents. He was from the south, in college football country, and was naturally inclined to think a Division I football team is the keystone of all college athletics. He convinced the university of that idea to such a point that, to keep $2 million in athletic subsidies for football, UB cut baseball, men’s soccer, women’s rowing, and men’s swimming and diving. All in the name of a bad football team with no local media coverage.

Buffalo is a professional sports city. I’m not saying the Bills and Bulls can’t coexist in harmony here. Following the sports in Seattle has shown me that football fans can be fanatical no matter what level the sport is being played at. Generations of football fans in the Puget Sound megalopolis were grandfathered into football fandom following the University of Washington Huskies. When the NFL finally popped into Seattle and introduced the Seahawks in 1975, all those Husky devotees took one look at this weird newcomer and… Decided they had enough room in their hearts for both teams. Every sports memorabilia store in Seattle has a couple of racks given to the Huskies. Come autumn in Seattle, you’re hard-pressed to find people NOT dressed in Husky purple on Saturdays. Sundays, blue and green light up the streets – and the Space Needle – for the Seahawks. And hell, fans of the Huskies’ primary rival, the Washington State Cougars, have a presence in Seattle too, even though the Cougs play way the hell over in Eastern Washington. (And not the close part of Eastern Washington, either; the university’s city, Pullman, is less than ten miles from the Idaho border.)

Now, I’m not saying this CAN’T be Buffalo. I’m pointing out there’s a million reasons why it WON’T be. Keeping with the Huskies as my reference point since their harmonious coexistence with their local NFL team is what the Bulls are shooting for, we can start with longevity. The Bulls don’t have any. Yes, the football team was founded in 1894, but they’ve had a rough and inconsistent go of it. The team was never very good, and it was actually suspended in 1970 because the student body didn’t want to use its fees to fund that sort of shoddiness. When it was reinstated seven years later, the Bulls were a Division III team. They moved up to Division I-AA in 1993, then took their big leap to Division I in 1999, and after that… Well, they’ve won a conference title and competed in two bowl games. Eight of their players were drafted since 2000, including Khalil Mack, the decorated linebacker who was taken fifth overall in 2014 and is being credited with the Raiders’ turnaround. It’s better than the first years of their Division I status, in which they were ranked dead last in a field of over 100-some odd teams. It’s really not fair to compare them to the Huskies, but since they’re playing at the same level of college football, we need to clarify what the Bulls are up against. The Huskies created their football program in 1889 and have always been playing in Division I. They’re established as one of college football’s legendary powers, a team you would not be ashamed to show to an Alabama or Michigan fan. Playing in the nasty Pac-12 since 1917, the Huskies have claimed a couple of National Championships, many conference titles, and played in a hell of a lot of bowl games. They’ve never had a Heisman winner, but seven of their players have finished in the Heisman voter top 10, and they’ve had players win a lot of other individual awards. Their alumni includes established NFL luminaries including Corey Dillon, Lawyer Milloy, and Warren Moon. Just this last season, they were ranked in the top five, won their conference, and played against Alabama in the Peach Bowl. Yes, they got hammered by an unstoppable Crimson Tide team which many thought would win the National Championship, but you can bet that Nick Saban planned every which way for the Huskies. Had Alabama played against Buffalo at all, the Bulls would have been written off as one of the Tide’s schedule creampuffs. Saban would have rested any players who weren’t trying to impress an NFL scout.

The likelihood of Buffalo playing for the National Championship here isn’t improbable – it’s impossible. The dirty little secret of the FBS is that it holds some conferences in higher esteem than others. The Huskies play in the Pac-12, the harsh conference which includes USC, Oregon, and Colorado. Alabama plays in the downright brutal SEC, that conference smack in the middle of college football country where LSU, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Georgia are in a constant state of almost-war. Buffalo plays in the MAC, which people serious about college football see as a cute little sideshow. The people in charge of the college football cabal threw the MAC into the Group of Five, better known as “oh, those OTHER conferences.” The college football teams people have heard of and, you know, follow, are in a group of conferences called The Power Five. Those are the teams that get automatic bids to big, cool bowl games like the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl. They’re the ones that are ranked in the national polls to visit the playoffs and ultimately compete for the National Championship. Members of the MAC don’t get to go to those or play for a national title. Buffalo is an MAC team, which means that International Bowl invitation from 2008 is as good as it gets. And the backhanded write-off is justifiable; the Bulls have played against nationally ranked teams 14 times since moving to the FBS, and their only victory came against Ball State. The other 13 teams they’ve faced obliterated them in short order. Their best showing was probably the nationally televised game against Ohio State in 2013 which unveiled Khalil Mack to the football world, and they lost 40-20.

You’re free to argue that Buffalo hasn’t turned up with an enormous fanbase because it hasn’t been playing top flight college football long enough. A fair point, but Buffalo is never going to find that non-alumni fanbase because there are other factors in play which help connect fans to their favorite teams. Let’s start with the location. UB has its north campus and its south campus. South campus is easily located right on the northern edge of the Buffalo city limits, between Main Street and Bailey Avenue. That’s a convenient location with seemingly half the bus lines in the city, plus the rail stopping and starting there. Although south campus is the more scenic of the two, it’s north campus where the crux of student activities happen. North campus is the home of The Spine, UB’s response to a common university quad. Most of the classrooms are there, more students live there than on south campus, and all the athletic facilities are there – including both UB Stadium and Alumni Arena. Now, at most universities, the campus offers an idyllic setting: Syracuse University is set on the peak of Syracuse’s University Hill neighborhood, where it’s conveniently between the Syracuse Business District and Westcott, the local bohemian enclave. The University of Washington is on the southern peak of a gorgeous bluff overlooking Lake Union, in close proximity to The Ave, a lively small business strip on University Way. It offers incredible views of downtown Seattle and Mount Rainier. UB North is… well, if there’s such a thing as an island on land, UB North is it. A major pain in the ass to get in and out of, UB North is locked up in the center of a set of thruway lanes and parking lots in Amherst. It offers nothing photogenic, and if you want to walk down to an off-campus chow joint, well… Good luck with that. You’ll need to take the shuttle to south campus first. Any take-out orders on north campus WILL be delivered. Lots of college football teams offer great tailgating. UB North makes tailgating more trouble than it’s worth. As for public transit to UB North? Forget it. The campus gets a couple of inconsistent lines, so if you plan to take public transit to Bulls games, it’s easier to enroll and jump the Stampede busses. As for the stadium itself, it’s a bleacher version of a tool shack which was knocked up in an hour by your suburban uncle who doesn’t know anything about construction. It’s a converted track field with around 30,000 seats, and even a sideline seat is far off enough to require a telescope. Husky Stadium, by comparison, has 70,000 seats in a football facility that keep selling out.

In short, UB is under the delusion that a football team that regularly gets hammered by the Army Black Knights (which they do, since they play each other most years) that plays in glorified bleacher seating in a spot longtime Buffalo residents barely know how to get to is going to turn into Notre Dame. And this is a win/lose gambit to boot – with Buffalo’s football loyalty sole property of the Bills, anything less than national contender status will leave the Bulls somewhere around The Yukon. THIS is what the UB suits are trying to make into a national power, the thing four other sports teams were cut for. It was a resort so they could get a subsidy for the football team. Subsidies are last resorts. They’re grants to prolong the suffering of already-dead programs. You don’t see universities from the Big 10 using subsidies, because they have revenue. FBS Bulls football is a failed experiment which could rescue its dignity by swallowing its pride and dropping back a couple of divisions.

How many scholarships got dumped so UB could keep itself convinced of this charade? The football Bulls already play like a Division III team, so why keep pretending? Why NOT get bumped back down to the lower divisions? Anyone who felt pressure would be removed of it, and everyone could go back to enjoying football for fun again. Four sports teams wouldn’t have been unceremoniously ditched. No, UB wouldn’t have any power to attract big-name high school prospects to their football team, but guess what? They’re not doing that anyway! Buffalo has never been the place where players with serious NFL ambitions wind up. People who want to play football while they learn things are the only players who play for the Bulls, and that’s always going to be the case no matter what division the Bulls are in.

This is frustrating because of what the university is ignoring in its attempts to boost its helpless football team: The basketball team turned legitimately good right under everyone’s noses. Basketball is a huge college sport with millions of fans too, and the basketball Bulls have emerged as a somewhat known and respected commodity. 351 schools play Division I basketball between 32 conferences. Since being admitted to the MAC in the late 90’s, the Bulls have won the conference tournament twice, been to the NIT once, and received ultimate validation in 2015 and 2016 when they played in the March Madness tournament. They’ve been the regular season champions twice and the division season champions three times. Now, Alumni Arena is on north campus, so it shares a few of the same problems as UB Stadium. But the basketball team has a few distinct advantages over the football team besides being good. The Bulls don’t have an NBA team to compete with, and they’re in ideal position to kick off rivalries. Canisius is is slightly more storied team which has also made a handful of March Madness appearances. The Canisius campus is also located right in Hamlin Park. Niagara and St. Bonaventure would also be big local rivals, but the big advantage is that Syracuse University and the mighty Orange are two hours down the road. The Orange is one of the greatest college basketball teams in the sport’s history, and they play in the ACC. The blood rivalry would write itself if the Bulls moved to the ACC – it would pit New York’s largest private university against New York’s largest public university.

Furthermore, the cartel that decided the Bulls are ineligible to compete for football’s national title isn’t nearly as omnipotent in basketball. The college basketball structure isn’t as convoluted. 351 teams compete in Division I. All 351 have a shot at the National Championship. Yes, the NCAA still plays favorites with conferences, but there are still Cinderella teams in March Madness every year which can make deep runs and spoil the giants’ hopes. That gives the Bulls opportunities in basketball to make waves in ways the football Bulls can only dream of.

The emphasis on football also has the effect of ignoring Western New York’s greatest athletic talent resource. Yes, when Buffalo sports fans talk about their teams, they tend to lead with the Bills, but that’s because football is the country’s everywhere reference. Buffalo’s true sports roots are in hockey. The culture of the city revolves around hockey. Hockey – and ice skating in general – are leading off Downtown Buffalo’s redevelopment. The city has hosted several important hockey tournaments, and an amateur ice hockey tournament is held every winter. The city is home to many NHL professionals. The extent of football’s culture in Buffalo is… Well, what? The Bills? The Bulls? The fact that chicken wings are now tailgate staples? Well, what? You think about that. I’ll wait… Okay, get the idea? Buffalo is a hockey city at its core, and for whatever bullshit reason, its most prized university doesn’t have a team. This is one of the biggest no-brainers we’ve ever seen in the city; more so than even the Chicken Wing Festival. With the insane reserve of hockey talent running around upstate New York, the Bulls would go from nonexistent to contender within a few years – and that’s the worst case scenario.

The University of Buffalo is writing this off as a result of economy. It doesn’t have to be. All it would require for UB to keep the four teams it’s cutting and football is a little thought. And the ability to swallow pride and admit that Division I football at UB is a failed experiment. Yes, the university will have to swallow its pride, but so does anyone with the misfortunate to have to root for them.

Branding UB

Branding UB

About the time I was starting out at the University of Buffalo, the university itself decided to undergo a rebranding. Understand that the name of the University of Buffalo is nicknamed among absolutely EVERYONE because its proper name is so long it’s obscene: The State University of New York at Buffalo. It’s the flagship campus of the State University of New York system – or SUNY – a large state-funded education blanket which is comprised of 64 different colleges. And The State University of New York at Buffalo was always shortened to match its original name, the University of Buffalo, to make it easier to fit into a headline banner. Well, the university wanted more publicity, so instead of highlighting the University of Buffalo part of the name, some new guy in charge of marketing – someone who wasn’t from Buffalo, wouldn’t you know it – decided it was time to highlight the NEW YORK in the name.

It didn’t go over well.

The idea was meant to try to draw attention to UB, so while it worked, it only worked in the most perverse of ways. While there were a handful of bloggers and online writers and UB alumni who backed it because the title screamed “NEW YORK,” the populace hated it. Hated, hated, hated, Hated, HATED it. And why not? It was an idea that counted on potential UB students being failures in geography and being recruited on the belief that they were going to be spending their nights in bars down in the OTHER New York. How dumb did they think people were? Didn’t they get the impression – any at all – that some student who took the bait would eventually make his way to downtown Buffalo and wonder where the Empire State Building was?

But here’s the thing: Buffalo looks at universities and colleges in a rather obtuse way. Less than half the population there holds any sort of college degree, and the city in general is a place where intellectualism gets snuffed out. Buffalo is a traditionalist stronghold, which keeps it trapped in a bubble of its own making. As I’ve grown accustomed to pointing out, the city graduated less than half its population from high school until recently, and even now the high school graduation rate is still pretty pathetic. Those who do graduate high school aren’t always in a hurry to run screaming off to college to earn their doctorates, either. They’ll learn just enough to know the different between tomato and tomahto, walk into the first call center with a Now Hiring sign in the window, and that’s it. The rest of life is marry the high school sweetheart, drink, raise kids, and hope the Bills bring home that elusive Lombardi Trophy. My joke that ambition in Buffalo means earning a high school degree isn’t too far off the mark.

So yeah, it felt like the city’s many institutions of higher education needed to cause a shakeup. UB went about it in the most extreme way it could think of, which was to latch on to the city that no self-respecting Buffalonian can stand.

Although the people in Buffalo are always keen to jump in support of their own civic institutions, UB can come off like a slap in the face. The people in the area who haven’t attended UB are in the habit of forgetting it’s there. Its location – the South Campus is right on the city’s northern border, while the North Campus is plopped in a distant no-man’s land in Amherst – certainly plays a role there. And the university’s athletic programs aren’t exactly the University of Michigan Wolverines. Hell, they’re not even the Huskies of the University of Washington or the Northwestern University Wildcats. Although they’ve been steadily improving and getting more attention as of late, the Bulls are still a mediocre team stuck in maybe the worst conference in college sports. And even with winning records, they don’t exactly have the world going for them. What be the problem? Let’s count the ways: Their campus might as well be stuck in the middle of the desert; the stadium has a football field surrounded by a running track, which doesn’t exactly lend itself well to intimacy; the bleacher section at Wrigley Field can hold more people; their primary rivals don’t realize they’re supposed to be our rivals; they don’t have any local media coverage – the fact that they’ve been aired on national TV several ties in the last few years is a miracle that Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad all gave up trying to perform; and their nickname is one letter away from infringing on the copyright of Buffalo’s NFL team.

It’s funny how it took an advertising campaign like this to remind the people of Buffalo just how much they love the University of Buffalo after all. It didn’t seem like the people of Buffalo were giving a whole lot of mind to UB until this came along. When they did, it was sort of an offhanded bone. Maybe the kids went there, or maybe one of the football players made big news while playing in the NFL, but it all went the same way: With someone claiming they love and support this institution, but not really thinking about it until the NEW YORK was given lettering bigger than the BUFFALO. So this whole project leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I want to tell the University of Buffalo, “Well done!” On the other hand, I’m hoping the person who thought of it is shipped back to wherever he came from, where naming something after New York might work better.

To think, if the people of Buffalo had been paying attention to UB in the first place, this whole charade never would have been necessary. But I guess this is the sort of thing that happens when a city ignores its potential as a higher learning destination – even the stupidest and most degrading rebranding becomes a necessity, just so it isn’t left out of the peoples’ minds.

Buffaball: The Unknown History of Basketball in Buffalo

Buffaball: The Unknown History of Basketball in Buffalo

March Madness is set to begin this week, and Buffalo’s usual college basketball rooting interest – Syracuse – is out on a self-imposed ban. To make up for the loss, though, the UB Bulls picked up the slack. Accumulating a sparkling 23-9 record, the Bulls won their conference, picked up their first-ever NCAA tournament bid, and are now 12-seeded in the Midwest bracket with most onlookers pegging them a potential Cinderella team. People are starting to awaken to and embrace UB Athletics, and having gone to that school myself, I couldn’t be more thrilled. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope the March Madness brackets fall into chaos and fire!

Buffalo, however, doesn’t embrace basketball the way it does football, hockey, or even baseball. The sport has a flashy image here, perhaps because so many of the sport’s face teams – both college and professional – like to depend on players who are runners and gunners. Flash doesn’t reek of brutal, unrelenting physicality, and since Buffalo is a very ruffian city, flash and dash mojo isn’t something we’re able to relate to. But for those willing to look beyond the sport’s advertised razzle dazzle, there is a rough and tumble sport in which all the sports positives we want to pass on to the younger generation remain true: Defense wins championships. A great player can be overcome by good, old-fashioned teamwork. Work hard, practice, cooperate with others, and never give up or let up, and you can succeed. Basketball is also a sport anyone can play – the only real necessity is the ball. Really, it’s surprising more people in Buffalo don’t take to the hoops, and that’s just a shame because Buffalo has contributed so much to the sport. Here is the hidden history of basketball in Buffalo and how it made some powerful contributions to the sport we’ve come to know and love.

Yes, yes, the Braves. It wasn’t an especially long time ago that Buffalo was home to the Buffalo Braves, a fast break team similar to the Golden State Warriors teams of the last few years. The Braves are still around these days, plying their trade as the Los Angeles Clippers, and with the Clippers having been the poster children of terrible basketball until a few years ago, the Braves shadow still hangs over them; until Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, the Braves years were the only consistently good years in the team’s history, and even they weren’t out of control, video game records. Focusing only on the fact that the Braves are now the Clippers, though, ignores a bunch of more individual contributions from the team that are written on the NBA’s hardwood.

There’s no conversation about the Braves that can be a proper conversation without Bob McAdoo. The second overall pick of the 1972 NBA Draft, McAdoo is still the name most people who are knowledgeable on all things NBA associate with the Buffalo Braves. For the first five years of his career, McAdoo was a Brave and a possible all-time great. In the 1974 season, McAdoo became the most recent NBA player to average 30 points and 15 rebounds per game, and led the league in field goal shooting percentage. The following season, he was given the league MVP Award. Now, I don’t know if the people reading this are NBA fans, but if not, here’s something you have to know about the NBA’s MVP Award: They don’t give it to schlubs. The NBA gives us arguably the greatest displays of athleticism on the planet, and its MVP Award means more than it does in any other league. Consider that in baseball, the MVP is most often a guy who hits a ball three times out of ten, is on and off the field the other seven times, and therefore isn’t getting a ton of time on the field, and that’s not even covering the fact that there’s a controversy about how often pitchers are given the award. In football, there are no two-way players – you’re either on offense or on defense, and there seems to be a serious bias against defensive players in the MVP voting there as well. Hockey players frequently do play two ways, but 20 minutes a game is a lot. NBA stars are expected to play around 35 minutes of a 48-minute game in both directions. In any case, McAdoo was also a three-time scoring champion, five-time All-Star, and Rookie of the Year. While his NBA career ran for another ten years after the Braves cut him loose – and he reeled in a pair of rings on the bench for the Showtime Lakers – all of his great individual achievements happened during his first five years in Buffalo.

The Braves also helped usher in the era of coaching legend Jack Ramsay. Ramsay was by far the best best the Braves had in their eight-year existence. After leaving the Braves, Ramsay established his reputation as a coaching genius in 1977, his first year as the coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, by leading them to their first – and so far, only – NBA Championship. Ramsay coached the Trail Blazers until 1986, then took over head coaching duties for the Indiana Pacers until 1988, when he retired for good. Although no one would throw Ramsay’s coach cred against Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Gregg Popovich, or Pat Riley, he is still mentioned alongside others like Chuck Daly, Red Holzman, and Lenny Wilkens as one of the all-time great NBA coaches.

The accolades don’t stop there. The Braves actually produced a small handful of people in the Basketball Hall of Fame: Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Adrian Dantley, Dolph Schayes, and for all of two games, Moses Malone. McAdoo, Dantley, and Ernie DiGregorio were all Rookies of the Year with the Braves, and perpetual fan favorite Randy Smith was once the MVP of the All-Star Game.

Did you know, though, that the Braves were only the second professional basketball team in the city’s history? In 1946, the NBL created a team called the Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons, however, were apparently not sustainable, and the team got up and walked out after the first 13 games of its existence. Although they left Buffalo, that doesn’t mean they were dissolved, even though it was professional basketball’s wild, anything-goes era. The Bisons merely hightailed it to Moline, Illinois, a city in what was called the Tri-Cities area (it’s now called the Quad Cities area), and became the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. That lasted longer, until 1951, when the Blackhawks decided they needed to move to a bigger city and change their name a little, becoming the Milwaukee Hawks. In 1955, the team moved to St. Louis, and for the next 13 years, the St. Louis Hawks matured, came of age, won their only Championship, and were one of the marquee teams in the NBA. The good times didn’t last, though, but the Buffalo Bisons are still around, and in fact, they’re the best team in the Eastern Conference as I write this. You know them as today’s Atlanta Hawks.

Those teams don’t cover all the players who were born in Buffalo. The most notable Buffalo natives in the NBA are probably Bob Lanier, the Detroit Pistons great who owned a 20.87 PPG career average, and Cliff Robinson. Buffalo native Greg Oden was a first overall draft pick in 2007 who didn’t pan out. Christian Laettner, arguably the greatest college basketball player of all time, also came from the area, which is actually a little bit regretful because it makes it more difficult to properly hate Duke. I guess when that’s considered, it’s only appropriate that one of Laettner’s teammates, Bobby Hurley, is the current coach of the Bulls.

If you want to bring the whole of upstate New York into it, then get this: Today’s Sacramento Kings are the oldest team in the NBA, having started out as a factory team in the 1920’s called the Rochester Seagrams in Rochester, while the Philadelphia 76ers began as the Syracuse Nationals. There’s also the little matter of that basketball-oriented university team in ‘Cuse that produced Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Derrick Coleman, and several others who averaged double-digit PPG.

Could you imagine the Buffalo All-Star team? Jack Ramsay as coach, and featuring Lanier, McAdoo, Robinson, and all the others. I can surmise that if we were to put the Buffalo All-Stars against the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, 1986 Boston Celtics, 1996 Chicago Bulls, or any of those other all-time great squads, we would see… Well, uh, we’d see the Buffalo team get kicked to the curb in an epically one-sided stomping. (If we want to bring the rest of upstate New York into it, though, including players for the relocated teams, it would be a whole other story; any legend team brought to the hardwoord would find itself also dealing with Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Webber, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, and Allen Iverson as well.) In any case, though, anyone with respect for the sports history in Buffalo would do well to give basketball a chance.

A Different Kind of Viewing

A Different Kind of Viewing

Anyone can learn human body vernacular. Anyone can look at a nice, clean drawing of the heart and say, “now that’s a heart!” A guy going into a professional medical field, though, can’t learn anything just by looking at those drawings. Think about how scary that would be: You’re about to go under the anesthetic, and there’s a newly-minted doctor in front of you with the scalpel, and he’s saying something along the lines of that episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: “Don’t worry, I’ve pretended to do this operation a thousand times. Look, this time they gave me a real scalpel! Cool!” Yeah, medical professionals need to have a rather exacting idea of what your innards look like, and so one thing medical and health professionals do to train themselves is look at cadavers. It’s a lot like the dissection part of your high school biology class, except in this instance, you’re not looking at a worm, grasshopper, or frog. No, you’re looking at a very real dead human who’s been cut open, leaving organs exposed for all to see.

Since my area of study is based mostly on biomechanics and physics, I didn’t really expect to have an opportunity to view a cadaver at all, but it came up in my anatomy and physiology class. Since it was worth a few free points, I decided to sign up. The Professor said if we were nervous or unsettled by the fact that we were going to, you know, look at a dead human who was cut open, all we had to do was turn in the signup sheet and that would be that. We would show up at our lab time, hand in the form, leave, and free points were ours. If we stayed, there were certain rules to be followed: Above all, respect the body. No photographs, no recordings, no holding the intestines against our abdominal cavities and pretending we’d been cut open by Jason or Freddy. I gave a bit of thought to maybe trying to lighten the mood with a zombie joke, but decided against it. We were going to be looking at a person generous enough to donate her body to a scientific cause, enabling future medical professionals to learn useful information about the human body by cutting her open. If someone did the same thing anywhere else, it would be considered desecration, so the cadaver deserved respect for permitting it.

The only zombie joke made at the viewing came before me and the handful of classmates with me followed the Prof in to see the cadaver, and it came from the Prof himself, and he did it mainly to reassure us that there was nothing to be afraid of. “Don’t worry, the cadaver isn’t going to get up and walk off,” he said before taking us in. “If it does, I’ll give you all A’s.” It put us at a little bit of ease. He also said that if we felt uncomfortable, we were free to leave. Anatomy and physiology, however, is not a course many people take as an elective. Most people who take it do it as part of a larger program, which means it’s safe to assume that almost everyone in the class has at least some level of interest in how we look on the literal inside. No one who was with me to view the cadaver left or had a noticeably debilitating reaction to the sight. I always had a rather strong stomach, so I assumed I would take it pretty well, but I honestly had no idea how I would react. I’ve been to funerals and seen graphic slasher flicks, but knew better than to assume looking at a human cadaver would fill me with the same reactions as those.

I confess to a slightly lightheaded feeling as I approached the cadaver and watched the Professor carefully peel back the layers of skin, fat, and muscle covering the thoracic and abdominal cavities. Any thoughts about those zombie jokes were sucked out of the room instantly. It was clear in only a few minutes the viewing wasn’t a look-but-don’t-touch show. The Professor invited us to touch certain parts of the cadaver to get an idea of what they felt like, and strange as it may sound, that helped put me at ease because it drilled into me the fact nothing about a cadaver was out of the ordinary. First, my classmates and I felt the skin. It was dry and leathery, which made perfect sense since leather is basically dried skin anyway; in this case, it happened to be human skin. After the skin, we touched the layer of fat directly underneath the skin. The Prof asked us what our first impressions were and how they differed from what we thought the body might look and feel like. I expressed my surprise the layer of fat was so, well, organized and neat. By then, all the A+P students were familiar with the school Health and Wellness Association displays comparing five pounds of fat to five pounds of muscle. My classmates and I had expected the fat to look like the organization’s plastic model chunks: Large and unwieldy, spreading out in many random directions. The Prof explained the fat in our bodies is actually liquid, and it only solidifies at room temperature. He then asked us to observe our hands after feeling the fat, and we saw that our gloves were now covered in liquid because the fat had melted upon coming into contact with our body heat.

The Prof riddled us throughout the viewing, asking what we thought one thing or another was to see how our impressions of the cadaver compared to what we were expecting. To give us an impression of how embalming fluid acts upon a human body, he also asked us to touch the liver and note how hard it was, in contrast to when liver is cooked at home and flops around in the pan. He showed us the lungs and was careful to point out the small amount of soot which darkened them slightly, explaining that lungs are likely to absorb a small amount of soot no matter what. They were mostly white, though, which told us they were very healthy. For comparison, the Prof then pulled out a full pair of lungs from a longtime smoker and passed them around. When I got ahold of them, I was surprised by how hard they were; it might have been the embalming fluid acting on them, as I had always imagined lungs to be loose and floppy. The Professor also pointed out the stomach and gallbladder. The stomach looked harder than I thought it would, like the plastic used in milk jugs, while the gallbladder was deflated. The diaphragm was a lot thinner than I envisioned, and the greater omentum a lot bigger.

We didn’t get to see the cadaver’s heart because the heart is buried deep in the thoracic cavity. Fortunately, the Prof had a pair of extra human hearts which he also passed around. One was normal size and the other was enlarged. The heart was the only part of the experience that looked and felt the way I thought it would. It was thick but flexible. The enlarged heart had an opening to look at the atria and ventricles, and when I looked at it, I made sure to take a closer look at both the aorta and vena cava. I had learned about blood vessel thickness as far back as the third grade, and it was drilled into my head for decades: Aorta – thick, elastic, muscular. Vena cava – thin and brittle with valves. I didn’t spot any valves, and the vena cava looked like it had taken a small beating, but they generally both fit their respective descriptions.

The most prominent part of the cadaver was the intestine, which sat there like a beached snake before the Prof removed it to show us the aorta and iliac arteries and show us what an arterial hemorrhage looked like. The arteries felt solid, but I didn’t want to accidentally rupture them by pressing down too hard or something, so I didn’t. Along the way to the aorta, he pointed out where the uterus would normally be and showed us the appendix. The appendix surprised me the most, because it was the size of a string. Medical students are all familiarized with the appendix being something thick and muscular, about the size of a finger, from all the grade school drawings that make a point of showing it. The Prof explained the appendix only grows to that size when it becomes inflamed, d told us why a ruptured appendix is dangerous.

The head was covered throughout the viewing, so instead of giving us a look at the cranium, he took out a human brain and passed it around. It was another thing that felt nothing like I expected, and another thing which may have been hardened by the embalming fluid. The popular image of the brain, of course, is spongy and manipulable, like in the Halloween episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns wore Homer’s brain on his head, but it didn’t feel that way at all. It was so solidified, it could have easily been used to hit someone over the head to knock them out. My classmates and I were a little surprised by the size of it, too. The Prof asked us if we thought it was a child’s brain or an adult’s brain when he took it out. We correctly guessed that it was a full-grown adult brain, and the Prof said he was surprised by the size of it the first time he saw one. The size would make perfect sense if we were to hold it up close to our own heads and remember how many layers sat between our brains and the outside world to cushion and protect them.

I wanted to see more than time permitted, and there was a lot more to see. Nothing looked the way we imagined it, or the way our online photos pictured it. The Professor had told us going in that if the cadaver had any parts which were as clean as our APR photos, it would become legend. It was certainly interesting, though, and for everything that went wrong with my semester, I’m glad I got to partake in the lab.

Why I Question

Why I Question

My annual catch-up with Nanette ended up waiting a few days. She had just flown in on a flight from Malibu, and those travel change climate colds don’t wait for anyone. So instead of doing the how-ya-been routine at Grace Commons per normal, we ended up going to one of the local coffee shops a few days later for the latest highlights.

At one point, Nanette asked me if there was a place in my life now that filled the question cavity left in my heart after leaving Grace Commons. There really isn’t, and distance has been the determining factor in my ability to find one. While some people have asked me why I don’t simply attend the Wesleyan place across the street and down a block – thus completely missing the point of what made Grace Commons so important to me, why I went, and my entire fucking belief system – I’ve run into a couple of potentials. One was a dead end because of distance and time. The other, which was located right on the UB campus, was a dead end because it seemed unwilling to tackle a lot of the big issues I have.

During our conversation, Nanette once again presented me with the question many people, herself included, asked me a million times: Why? What is it that makes me, an outspoken disbeliever, attend this odd little church in an attempt to find some sort of spirituality? I gave Nanette my answer. It seemed like a reasonable answer, and at the time, it sounded convincing enough, at least in my own little world. Honestly, though, I can’t remember a single word of the answer I gave. A million times being asked that very question have resulted in about two million different answers, and that doesn’t even include the overlap. Through every iteration of the question and the explanatory statements I always struggled to come up with, I’ve been asking myself that very question. I hate organized religion, so what was the entire point of going into a registered presbyterian church during prime football hours? I would cite the old Catholic guilt theory, but I’ve never been Catholic.

Finally, I think I have the answer. Not one I was forced to improvise on the spur of the moment, but the thought-out, honest reflection that I’m really feeling. Of course, it came to me in the fashion of that perfect insult comeback in that I managed to think of it after our meeting, but here it is.

The first reason is that this world keeps putting the strain on us to pick and choose between either the wonder of knowledge and the wonder of imagination. Grace Commons was able to find a way to offer me both at the same time. I love the solid inarguability of those fun little things that give us greater understanding on the universe – maths and sciences – and am guided in large part by my vast imagination. And let’s face it, some of the stuff written in these holy books is pretty ridiculous. It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to see just how much of it was pulled from the air to go with what was thought to be scientific fact back in those days, and back then people believed that when it rained, the sky was obviously crashing to the earth. Yet, it’s my imagination which has been a primary source of comfort, companionship, and imagination for an enormous chunk of my life. I haven’t seen a science yet that has been a divinity killshot, and so I still remain open-minded about the whole god-actually-existing issue. Declaring a more positive form of atheism based on scientific evidence which – while disproving a lot of scriptures – has nothing to do with some all-powerful force that controls everything. Although I’m very skeptical and will ask for harder evidence than Jesus Toast to determine miraculous happenings, I’m still very open-minded about the idea of some supernatural being acting as a giant science puppetmaster. Ruling out the possibility of a deity just because another biological gap was scienced out of the equation would be going against something which, despite only being a part of my imagination, has still been enough to encourage me to better myself and reach for greater heights as a person.

We can call this my Mulder and Scully Node, in order to keep it simple.

The second, more important reason is that religion is a device people frequently use to find comfort and contentment if they’re doing it right. After I discovered Grace Commons, it didn’t take me very long to discover something odd about myself: I like my religious uncertainty. My inner peace comes from my right to ask big, mysterious questions about the nature of gods and religions and have them be taken seriously in lieu of the usual brush-off answers. I love to ask questions in Bible study groups and listen to their various interpretations of what one passage or character means to them. Questioning is my real religion, and I enjoy the uncertainty because it keeps me grounded and always in search of greater knowledge, both religious and scientific. Questioning is, ironically, how I manage to keep my peace and sanity in this odd little world. Some churchgoers pray or meditate or read through their favorite holy books. I ask difficult questions and demand answers beyond having a little faith, reading scriptures more, or the lord working those mysterious ways of his.

As you can imagine, churches that are able to provide me with such an outlet are rare and precious things. Most of them are exclusive worshipers of Cowboy Jesus who, when confronted with the big questions, will give out answers created to bring me closer into commune with the god they created themselves. I’ve never felt marginalized or pressured into conversion there. I was always free to be as critical as I thought was necessary. I felt a connection with the place that I had never had before at church or mosque because many of the others were damaged questioners themselves. Yet, they’ve always been able to challenge my perceptions of the scriptures, and the very idea of religion itself. I once asked Nanette what she saw in The Bible, since she accepted its logic imperfections, translation messes, and blatant plagiarism of other religions. She said, in a nutshell, that she saw a book about human beings and their imperfections and the consequences of their actions.

I once believed self-discipline and everyday prayer were the keys to getting on God’s good side. Now I’ve challenged and exploded everything I was ever taught about The Bible, which is okay since, you know, God doesn’t exist anyway. But there’s a wonderful irony in the fact that, during my misguided youthful attempts at being Mr. Altar Boy, it was only after going atheist and having everything I ever knew about my former religion wiped out by a wrecking ball that I started really thinking about and applying myself in a way reminiscent of the earliest followers of Christ.

If my old confirmation class had been like this, I might not have been scolded by constant parent/minister meetings. And I might have gotten something a lot more out of it than just resentment and contempt toward the Wine and Wafer Club and all those other brainless church traditions.

One Semester Down

One Semester Down

This was it. The end of my first semester at the University of Buffalo. There’s still a lot going on in my head, too much to properly write about, so I’ll sum up some of the big ones in bullet points.

1 – Halfway through, nothing was going right. My textbooks were late coming in, and I was barely keeping my head above water even in the subjects I knew I could be good at. Then my psychology course dropped a fact about the way our heads work which gave me a big hint about how to study better, so I adjusted my routine accordingly. It seems to be working, and during the rash of finals, I finally gave the kinds of performances that I expect of myself and felt like I can reach my full potential for the first time since about the sixth grade. (I hope.) Unfortunately, they came too late for me to reach my academic goals this year, but at least I have a better idea of what to do.

2 – I’ll definitely be holding on to my math book and my nutrition and math notes. I’m going to be needing them in the future.

3 – I’m dying to study more about psychology, but after giving it some real thought, I decided to stay in exercise science for now. I should note that I do feel a closer connection to psychology than to exercise science, because psychology deals much more with theoretical and abstract ideas, which I’m a lot more comfortable with than the more mechanical facts of science and math. I don’t want to become an aimless major drifter again, though, and after my chemistry light finally began flickering (way too late), I decided I can probably learn it after all.

4 – Speaking of chemistry, never, ever take that subject at the University of Buffalo if it can possibly be avoided there. It will do more to rip you off than the average televangelist.

5 – I knew going into exercise science that it was going to require large amounts of math, so I decided to try out a new way of dealing with it: I would learn to love math and enjoy it. That’s exactly what I did, too. I still need a huge amount of practice before my algebra basics are fully functional again, but I did learn the general ideas enough to know what I’m being asked to do and understand how it’s done. It helped that I had an excellent math teacher.

6 – My human nutrition class killed many of the things I thought I knew about the subject.

7 – Is it possible that by aiming for a cross-board B average, I was aiming too low? I’ve noticed that the step by step approach never seems to work very well for me. I always seem to make the biggest gains by aiming for the highest, wildest, most outlandish goals I can reach.

8 – It’s really incredible how pervasive the internet is becoming. In my first chemistry class, there were 500 people, at least half of whom were using laptops to pay attention to the lecture. In a class preceding my nutrition class, I happened to see the whole room using laptops for an exam before my nutrition class started.

9 – Can we please stop categorizing chemistry as a science? Please? I don’t care how many acids I pour, that course is a math course. You cannot teach a math course via a somewhat overmatched Professor who also teaches at a high school talking at 500 kids!

Bad Chemistry

Bad Chemistry

It’s an obvious fact of life at the University at Buffalo that the chemistry department is comprised of thieves, highway robbers, and extortionists. I have a short list of theories which could explain this:

1 – They concocted a bad mix and got a permanent high off the chemical fumes.

2 – They lost a bet with a badass loanshark and are using college as an extortion plot to pay him back.

3 – It’s secretly a religion.

How bad is the UB chemistry department? It’s one of the factors which is motivating me to consider changing my major to psychology. This isn’t exactly the fault of the subject material or the faculty, but the bureaucracy. My financial aid took forever to get diverted into my textbooks, so I’m weeks behind on the material, and UB chemistry is way ahead of me and doesn’t care. Right now, I’m not nearly as afraid of my math course as I am my chemistry course, which is terrible because when my catch-up finally began, I realized pretty quickly that it isn’t as hard as my math. And I’m currently passing my math!

By all means, chemistry is a fascinating subject. It explores the ways in which the smallest known particles in the universe react to each other, and how everything can be so different despite being made up of these particles. It’s humbling to think that, for all the differences in creation, me and the computer I’m typing this up on are the same thing. So I have healthy subject interest and a very understanding and sympathetic lab instructor on my side, but that’s about it.

Unfortunately, UB chemistry wants money. My course, which is the rudimentary foundation of chemistry, has made such a sickening demand on my wallet that the textbooks and equipment for it alone have turned all my scholarship money into kitty chow. The lab equipment I need is ludicrously overpriced. The textbook rental cost over $100 and was by far the cheapest option – somehow the department gets away with photocopying pages, tossing them into ring binders, and charging upwards of $200 for a package which isn’t an official textbook, so it can’t be sold back to the bookstore for even a fraction of the money dished out for it. The most outrageous aspect of the course, however, is the fact that the department actually charges an insane amount of money for a goddamn code.

Think about that: A code. A thing you input into a computer – in this case, which can only be used once, so don’t dare think about fucking messing it up – to access the webpage that lets you know what the homework assignments are. What the hell ever happened to just giving them out on paper, in class? This is a long list of loopholes students are being forced to jump through, and really, it’s inexcusable. God forbid you should be having financial difficulty, because UB chemistry will literally prevent you from doing any reading or work if you’re not able to pay for a little code on a piece of paper that fucking takes 30 seconds to write down.

Meanwhile, I’ve discovered a genuine fascination with psychology, and switching my major to psychology would mean never having to deal with the chemistry department again. I realize I would have to work my way up to a doctorate for it to be of any use, and it’s something I’m quite willing to do. If I stick with my current major, well, this is just more motivation for me to excel at chemistry: A good student would probably have an easier time catching peoples’ ears about the department’s behavior than a student who is barely getting by.