The Sixth Man

In all my years at Western Carolina University, first for four years of undergraduate studies and now grad school, I’ve always had one dream; to see the big black plexiglass building wall-to-wall with hysterical Catamount fans. I did finally get my opportunity on May 12, 2001 at 2pm when I received my B.S. in Communications, but that crowd was not the type of crowd I have always wanted to see in the RAC.

For five seasons, I’ve attended every home basketball game that did not conflict with my academic schedule. I’ve seen basketball talents such as Bobby Phillips, Dondrell Whitmore, Joel Flemming, and Jarvis Hayes all adorn the purple and gold uniforms. I’ve seen the hardwood undergo cosmetic changes. I’ve seen the stunning upset of the College of Charleston a few years back in Ramsey as well as many other memorable games.

In all that I’ve experience and endured as a hardcore catamount fan, I’ve always held on to the hope that one day, Cullowhee would become a basketball powerhouse and opposing teams would shudder at the mentioning of the RAC. So far this season, I have received my wish to some degree. The women have been dominant at home and with the exception of UNC-A and the Citadel, the men have had a strong home showing as well. But in all of the winning that is taking place in the Cullowhee Valley, I’m still not pleased.

This past weekend, I thought I’d make basketball my number one priority. I’d wake up, get dressed and catch our beloved Cats as they scratched and clawed to another victory. The women handled their business in crunch time and I left the RAC only to return later to see that house was looking full. I thought to myself, “Is my dream finally becoming a reality…is my quaint University in Cullowhee finally becoming the place that I had always envisioned?”

I sat in my seat in the area where I can always be found during the games and just soaked in the atmosphere. As the game progressed and the Cats started to lose the lead, I began to notice the crowd becoming more involved, and then it happened!

The crowd was on its feet!!! At the buzzer…Overtime!!! Kevin Martin saves the day!!! The fans were raising collective fists into the sky, babies were smiling, and somewhere out there, Henry Logan was thinking…”Who is this skinny freshmen who’s going to challenge all of my scoring records.”

Then suddenly and without warning, double overtime!!! Casey Rogers just saved the day!!! The fans were jumping up and down, the player’s family members were checking their watches, and somewhere out there, Joel Flemming was saying to himself, “My replacement is pretty good.”

It was Catamount basketball at it’s finest. Then, just as quickly as my dreams had become reality so did the nightmare that has plagued even the finest of basketball programs. After all of the fighting, all of the enthusiasm, all of the reflection of great catamount moments, the once-frenzied crowd sat and watched as the Citadel got ahead by two, then four. During the last few possessions of the final OT, the crowd just sat and stared. There was no sound in the arena except for the constant buzzing of the overhead lights. Even when the ball was in our hands and the score tied, I could still hear the lights. Worse yet, I had to sit down because I was blocking the view of a spectator behind me who was standing up only a few moments earlier. In fact, as I looked throughout the arena, there were only a few spectators standing along with me. What happened to my dream?

Then…as if someone had spotted Bin Laden sitting in the stands, everyone proceeded quickly towards the exits with 30 seconds left on the clock. With dejected looks on their faces, the players continued to play through until the final buzzer. 105-97 was the final score.

Myself and my entourage kept our seats until the end, even sitting there watching the court until all of our Catamounts and even the Citadel left the floor, as a sign of respect for the battle both teams had endured.

As I sat, I thought about the last few plays of the game. I pondered how we could have lost such a spectacular game. Then while in deep thought, I received a revelation and a possible solution to what may have contributed to the home loss. I asked myself, “Who lost the game, the players or the fans?”

Yes, the Cat Pack kept the spirit of winning alive with their new revolutionary free throw distraction technique, but the rest of the Catamount faithful merely sat with legs crossed and observed. Yes, a few dedicated fans still had hope in their eyes knowing it would be a two-possession game in order to just tie the score, yet much of the crowd was scrambling to find their Keys.

Although the players decide the outcome of the game, I have to wonder if the fans decide the spirit of the game. In basketball terminology, there is a term called the “Sixth Man.” The “Sixth Man” is usually the first player off the bench that enters the game and provides a spark to the first unit. In most cases, he or she ends up playing more minutes than some starters. Although the men’s basketball team is full of individuals who can fill that role on any given night, there are times when the players look to the fans to jumpstart the game; to keep the spirit and intensity high. They look to us to lead and to take charge. This past weekend, I believe we caused the turnover that cost us the victory. We dropped the ball when the Cats needed us most.

I challenge all of the Catamount faithful to be the “Sixth Man” that our athletic teams need to be successful. I do have other dreams, which I’ve held onto over the many years such as Southern Conference championships, NCAA Tournament berths, and national recognition as one of the best teams nobody has really heard of, but without the “Sixth Man” my dream and our success may never become a reality.

Julian D. Rance