Strotman: How Shaka brought me back

$81 per class.

My Marquette career was, oh, probably 45 minutes old in the summer of 2008 when my Father—dropping me off at Abbottsford Hall prior to Freshman Orientation because my Mother was caring for my cancer-ridden younger brother—told me the rough cost of each one of my classes.

“Every time you think about skipping a class,” he told me as we loaded boxes into the elevators, “just remember it’s $81 of mine down the drain.”

Point taken. Get to class.

My freshman year, I went to class—alright, so I missed a few U.S. History classes in Haggerty Hall on Friday mornings; sometimes Mug Night gets the best of an 18-year-old kid. I also found a love for writing (that would come in handy later in life) and switched my major to journalism (thanks, Homer).

I also fell in love with Marquette basketball. I wasn’t exactly a die-hard Marquette fan when I arrived on campus. I was a hoops fan and knew Dwyane Wade, of course, and it was impossible to miss the conversations at the keg about what the “Three Amigos” coming back for their respective senior seasons might mean for MU’s Big East and potentially Final Four hopes.

An 8-1 start. A victory over Wisconsin. Nine straight W’s to open Big East play. Ranked No. 8 in the country with a first-year head coach. All-American play from the entire backcourt.

And a date with UConn. It was a Monday afternoon in late February and the Huskies had slipped from No. 1 to No. 2 in the AP poll after an instant classic against Dejuan Blair and Pitt the previous week. Marquette, on the heels of wins over St. John’s and Georgetown, were back at No. 8 as the Wednesday evening matchup approached.

That afternoon, I walked into my Monday theology class in Cudahy Hall—about 500 feet from the Al—and daydreamt for 50 minutes: Does Burke play much or will Buzz start small with Lazar to pull Thabeet out?…Does Jerel or ‘Nic get the A.J Price assignment?…Maybe the matchup comes down to those impressive freshmen, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker…What if—

“Also, a reminder for Wednesday that I take attendance,” my professor said knocking me back into reality as the final minutes of class ticked down. “You’ll get a fine seat in the student section without going early and waiting in line.”

Oh, right. The Wednesday tipoff was set for 6 p.m., meaning doors opened at 4:30 p.m., meaning the line was going to start around noon, meaning…I had no shot of joining my friends.

If I went to class.

Admittedly, there wasn’t too much internal dialogue about what to do. Nearly 14 years later, I can tell my parents that the $81 of a missed class was worth it.

We met outside Straz Hall and walked together to the Bradley Center like we had done 16 times before that season. We enjoyed a few homemade mixed drinks out of Mountain Dew bottles (options were limited at 18, OK?), enjoyed the balmy weather, and talked Marquette hoops for hours. I texted those friends (more on that later) while writing this, and they all admit that line still being a core memory to this day. I’ll bet some of you reading this remember it, too.

We all know how the game went. Dominic James connected on an early 3-pointer that erupted the Bradley Center in a way I never heard it before or after. Then he broke his foot. Then AJ Price became Allen Iverson for 40 minutes. It began a stretch of 8 losses in 10 tries to end the season of a team that could have—and would have—gone to the Final Four.

Bummed? Of course. Dejected? Not in the slightest. My Marquette fandom had hit an apex.

Around the time of that game, I started a small blog that caught the attention of the guys at MarquetteScout.com. That gave me a platform to be seen by the Marquette Tribune, which earned me a job covering women’s volleyball. A year later, Andrei Greska and I started the website you’re currently on right now. I covered two Sweet 16s and an Elite 8 team from press row, getting up close and personal with my sports heroes. Every single interview in the Al, every game covered courtside, and every Buzz postgame presser was a dream come true.

I was all in on Marquette basketball.

And then I was out.

You have to understand something before I begin here. I’ve always loved Marquette basketball. That kid in the line outside the Bradley Center—the same one who two years later cried tears of joy inside the Cleveland media room in 2011, and a year learned to tie a tie inside a New York hotel before the 2012 Big East Tournament because of how big a deal I thought it was to be covering my team at the World’s Most Famous Arena—never left. My love for Marquette basketball never left.

But apathy truly set in during the later years of the Wojo Era. I couldn’t fake not caring. If you can believe it, I felt the same way watching the upset win over No. 1 Villanova as I did sitting in the Bradley Center upper deck four days later when they Katin ISO’d the game away in a home loss to Providence.

In late February 2018, as the late-season crash-and-burn de jour was ramping up, I swore off Marquette inside Schoolyard, downtown Chicago’s old Marquette bar following an 8-point loss to DePaul. I was done with Marquette until something changed. And I meant it.

Call it fair-weather fandom, but I was consistent. I didn’t watch Markus Howard break Jerel McNeal’s scoring record, and I didn’t crawl back when they were ranked 10th in the country in February 2019.

I also tried not to bask in their losses (though maybe I got a cheap shot or two in on Twitter). I was admittedly too harsh at times and may have burned some bridges. I’m regretful for that, but that underscores how passionate I was.

I was offered a ticket to a February 2020 game against Butler. I passed, watching Parasite for the first time and The Academy Awards that night. I couldn’t tell you if Marquette won or not.

I simply didn’t care. The program I loved so much, the one that represented the university and my alma mater that I would have chosen 100 times over again, was going nowhere. And that sucked.

The day Marquette and Wojo parted ways, I texted my Marquette friend group and told them I was all-in on the next coach. Dennis Gates? Let’s do it. Porter Moser? Intriguing. Shaka Smart? We can dream. There was new life in my program. I was ready from Day 1 to ride out the transition period and the lowest of lows because I knew where the right head coach could take it one day.

I just didn’t expect Shaka Smart to do it so damn quickly. 

The eye test tells us what Shaka has meant to Marquette basketball. Thirty-two wins and counting. Eight victories over ranked teams, including two in the top-10. A defense that is relentless in every sense of the word. An offense that moves with grace but will also knock you over if you get in its way. A group of coachable, likeable, hard-working, really-fucking-good-at-basketball players. All in just shy of 22 months.

We see all that. But we feel what Shaka Smart has meant to us.

Marquette basketball’s Instagram account posted a quick postgame video of Smart in the locker room after the Notre Dame victory in early December. His commentary couldn’t have been more appropriate:

“I want you guys to know, this game was very, very meaningful to a whole lot of people. Every game is meaningful to us, but this game means a lot,” Shaka told his team. “We came in here and made a lot of people happy because you guys played the right way.”

I felt like Smart was talking to me. I felt like Smart was talking to you. Because he was. Smart was the right man for the job at exactly the right time. He relishes in the history of the program. He understands its importance. Hell, he was born in Wisconsin 11 days after Marquette won the national championship.

He’s invigorated the program, but he’s also invigorated our collective fandom. Whether you remained a die-hard in the dog days of the Wojo era or fell off the wagon like I did, you’re starting to feel it again every time Marquette takes the floor. You’re starting to feel it more in everyday life, too.

My brother just graduated from Marquette. We went to National Marquette Day and celebrated a 64-56 victory over Butler last year. We’ll be in the stands together tonight against the Huskies. My wife, a Badger grad, has made the Marquette-Wisconsin rivalry an annual road trip from Chicago for us each of the last two seasons. Not a coincidence.

My communication with fellow alums—the same guys I waited in line with 14 years ago—has improved and increased. We didn’t need Marquette basketball back to have a special friendship, but damn it sure makes it even more fun.

Mixed into pregnancy announcements and formalizing of bachelor party plans are thoughts on whether O-Max Prosper could sneak into the first round. We take a break from congratulating someone on a job promotion or discussing our family’s next vacation spot to debate the importance of Stevie Mitchell and Ben Gold. Dozens of texts get passed back and forth during gametime. I know a bunch of you can relate, and I know it’s picked up more over the last two seasons.

Days after Shaka was hired, we decided on an annual trip to a Marquette road game. All 10 of us together, cheering our team on. We kicked it off with Butler a season ago, and we’re all flying into Cincinnati this coming weekend for the Xavier tilt. We’ve got our eyes on New York City next year knowing what the roster could look like.

I truly feel like I’m back in line outside the Bradley Center. 18-year-old Mark and his awful buzz cut are anticipating every moment. There’s hope in the air. Fans are connected. And Marquette basketball matters again. Where it goes, only the next 3 months, 3 years, or 3 decades will tell us.

All I know is I’ll be willing to spend $81 to find out.

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Categories: Columns

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3 Comments on “Strotman: How Shaka brought me back”

  1. John Meyer
    January 12, 2023 at 10:30 am #

    Welcome back! To those of us who never left (54 years) we understand your frustrations and disappointments, but we seniors know that ALL pain is temporary and better times and teams are always just a new season away.

  2. David Harris
    January 13, 2023 at 12:49 pm #

    Sweet Story!
    Our group of 6 former roommates/frat brothers/fanatics has kept in touch since’72..
    Peace, Love and Hoopiness

  3. Tim S
    January 24, 2023 at 1:43 pm #

    Welcome back, Mark. Another fantastic article, just like the old days. You have a great gift of writing from the heart.
    PS- Your Dad was right!

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