Thursday, November 18, 1999 – November 24, 2000
The Streak started with a 72-57 home loss to Michigan State that tipped off less than twenty four hours after Jerry had dragged the cold and bloated purple-yellow-black body of his son from a piss-stained, tattered sofa in a storage unit, like his little boy was a bag of fertilizer. Before calling the police, Jerry had peeled off J.R.’s shit filled underwear and wiped away the soupy mess from his ass cheeks. He filled a trash bag with the various needles, burnt spoons, cloudy baggies, beer bottles and tin foil strewn about. Carrying it at arm’s length in a delicate pinch as if the contents were contagious, he walked to the third dumpster from the nearest one, drops of stale beer that leaked from the bottom of the pregnant plastic dotting his path.
None of his players were aware at the time. Jerry hadn’t told anyone. Their performance that night was simply the result of poor shot selection and superior competition.
He didn’t say anything the next day either, but word had gotten around via the senior citizen gossip mill, a factory whose production rivaled that of the town’s sororities. Maureen O’Malley’s son-in-law was the first officer on the scene. He told her, she told the beauty shop. They told their husbands, who brought it up at the deli. Everyone spoke in hushed tones, shaking their heads with lowered eyes, caught between the relief that it hadn’t happened to them and the realization that it could.
Everyone knew by the next game, a 63-58 road loss to Coastal Carolina. The whole team had attended the funeral, which took place the day before, all of them wearing ill-fitting suits either too tight or too baggy. A few tried to stammer condolences to Jerry, which he heard out as long as he could, eventually hugging them in an embrace far longer than social comfort allowed, palming the backs of their heads.
The closest he ever came to addressing it with the team was during halftime against Akron. It was a game that boosters and diehards had penciled in as an easy W when the schedule came out earlier in the year, though current reality found them down 31-22 at the half, on the verge of their tenth straight loss.
‘You know, I’ve got my problems,’ Jerry said, pacing with his hands clasped behind his back. ‘We all do. Hell, Akron has their own problems. But they’re out there executing!’ His voice cracked in a way that drew every eye to his, causing him to clear his throat and let silence settle in. ‘My God Almighty, box out! Rebound! Fundamentals!’
Akron outscored them 40-18 in the second half. The thirty-one point loss was the worst of Jerry’s career.
A 59-58 home loss to George Washington was their fourteenth in a row, breaking a school record that dated back to the program’s first year. Everyone began to feel the weight of it, though no one brought it up. The local A.M. sports talk hosts and callers who would normally be ranting and calling for Jerry’s head instead took on solemn tones, going down the schedule and trying to talk themselves into the next sure win.
The team held a player’s only meeting after a 79-67 home loss to Pennsylvania Tech, a game most had figured was their best hope to end the skid. It was Tech’s first win over the Redbirds in four years, and brought the total to twenty-two straight, dropping them to 2-22 on the season. The meeting was called by senior point guard Rodney Meeks, alarmed that Jerry had failed to deliver a single criticism in the locker room after the game. No yelling, no speech, not even an angry wave of the hand. He just muttered Monday’s practice time and walked into his office, closing the blinds.
Number thirty, the last game of the season, was a home loss to Eastern Kentucky so sparsely attended that the Bon Jovi snippets meant to pump up the crowd rang out over the silence like salt rubbed in the wound. Jerry had seen bigger crowds for Blue-Red scrimmages.
After an 0-2 start to kick off the following year’s campaign, Jerry and the Redbirds faced Indiana in a home contest that was compensation for Southern Ohio having traveled to Bloomington to pad the Hoosiers’ win column the previous two seasons. Despite the low odds, the town worked themselves up into a frenzy over the idea of ending the skid at thirty-two against their ’87 Goliath in Hollywood fashion.
With a pulsating home arena behind them, the Redbirds roared out to an early 33-20 first half lead, the crowd stomping and clapping with every rebound. The beat reporter debated whether or not he should mention the dead son in his article while he squirted mustard on a hot dog in the concourse at halftime. All of Custerville buzzed with energy brought on by the possibility.
But life rarely works out in Hollywood fashion for outmatched teams, and Southern Ohio went cold in the second half, losing 70-59, the thirty-third straight notch on the belt of failure. By the end of the third quarter you could hear the echo of every last sneaker squeak. Subsequent losses to Marquette and Rhode Island gave Jerry and Southern Ohio the distinction of having the longest losing streak in NCAA history.
‘Thirty-five,’ Jerry said in a whisper while visiting J.R.’s grave like he always did on the last Friday of every month, stabbing his hands into the pockets of his windbreaker and sighing while stray snowflakes did languid pirouettes in the air before landing on the frost-hardened ground. ‘Thirty-five.’