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"I was a really nervous kid," Sam Perkins says.
Sam's now 32. He's a friendly guy who's known for occasionally telling long stories. Back when he was young, Sam says he had a lot of anxiety about bad things happening to his parents.
"But especially my dad, which is crazy," Sam says. "I used to, like, want to go with him to the store because I thought I'd protect him. I was this really little kid, and my dad was this massive human being, so I don't know what I thought I was going to do.
"And I would always ask my dad for reassurances, like, 'You're always gonna be here?' And he wasn't gonna raise me like that. He said, 'No, like, there's gonna be a time when I'm not gonna be around any more. That's just how it is. But I'll always be with you.' And I really didn't realize what that meant at the time."
A Family Tradition
Sam's father, Jack, played college basketball at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst during the 60s. He was a 6-foot-6 forward.
Sam didn't inherit his father's height — but he did develop a love for basketball.
When Sam and his younger brother were little, Jack would drive them two hours from Boston to Amherst to catch UMass games. Back in the '90s, when John Calipari was coach, UMass was one of the best teams in the country.
Sam’s dad also introduced Sam and his brother to a much lower level of college basketball. The America East conference is Division I – but it’s a far cry from big-time leagues like the Big East or ACC.
In 2002, when Sam was 17, Jack bought tickets to the America East conference tournament. It was being held that year at Northeastern's Matthews Arena in Boston.
"And I remember that weekend, Saturday and Sunday, it was unseasonably warm," Sam says. "It was, like, 60 degrees the first weekend in March. It was raining. You walk into the lobby at Matthews, and it feels like going to a venue from the 1920s. And then you step into the arena, and the walls are gray. You've got the beams coming down. And the iron girders. And the pillars and the rafters. And the roof, the wooden roof, you could hear the sound of rain rat-a-tat-tatting off it.
"And Matthews was leaking. There was water running everywhere in there. It so added to the atmosphere of, like, desperation that these kids had of trying to get to the Big Dance. And only one team is making it through. Only one team. And you know they're going to be a low seed and they're gonna get blown out. But there was just amazing basketball and amazing storylines, and I fell in love with it."
Sam can still remember watching the Hartford Hawks and the Stony Brook Seawolves and the Maine Black Bears with his dad.
"He was a guy who just sat back and took it all in," Sam says. "And he would talk to me during the games and about players that he respected, or things that were going on on the court. I feel like, at that tournament, I was able to stop and take in the moment a little bit. I'm glad I did because it was one of the last things that I ever got to do with my dad. That tournament and then the following year's tournament. And then he was riding his bike in from — he worked at the U.S. DOT. And Nov. 17, 2003, he was riding his bike into work. He got hit by a van that was going pretty fast and he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He had heavy bleeding in the brain. He shouldn't have survived, but he survived for another month and a half. He passed away on Jan 4.
"I had been a good baseball player and, after my dad died, baseball -- I hated it. Because I never noticed his absence more than when I was playing baseball."Sam Perkins
'I Didn't Know What To Do'
When his father died, Sam was 19 years old.
"I didn't know what to do," he says. "I had been a good baseball player and, after my dad died, baseball — I hated it. Because I never noticed his absence more than when I was playing baseball. But during that time I kept going to the America East games, and that was where I felt the closest to him. Like, I would think about what he would be saying during these games, or what he would be doing. I'd look over my shoulder, and he wouldn't be there, but I could imagine these conversations with him that we'd be having. And just something about that felt like I was close to him."
Sam went to UMass Boston, a Division III school, but he kept attending America East games. He followed the conference in 2004 and then again in 2005 and again in 2006. In 2007, he graduated.
"I didn't know what I was going to do with the rest of my life," Sam says. "I had a degree in English from undergrad. What am I gonna do with that? I don't know. But I just kept going to these games, so I started writing and I started badgering people — publications, online sites. Like, 'Hey, can I write about the America East? You don't need to pay me anything.'"
Editors started taking Sam up on his offer. For the next couple years, Sam traveled to games that no one else wanted to cover.
Sometimes Sam's friends would go with him. They'd all pile into a hotel room and then go to games.
"I'd be with my press pass covering it on press row, and they'd be heckling me from the seats and just insulting me, and it was really great," Sam says.
Sam found he liked writing about basketball. But he really loved writing feature stories about these America East players.
"It's different at the America East level," Sam says. "I don't mean to sound corny. But it is. It is different than big-time college basketball. These are not kids that are gonna be famous. And I started thinking, like, these kids that leave everything and give everything and it means so much to — all their careers kind of amount to is being echoes in an empty arena. Well, maybe I could do something about that and I could change that? And I could write about them and then there would be something out there that said, like, 'Hey, these people, they existed. And this is what they did.'"
'One-Bid Wonders' Is Born
So in 2010, Sam and his friend Matt Whitrock decided to create their own website. It would be called One-Bid Wonders and it would be devoted to covering America East basketball games and telling stories about players from the conference.
At first, Sam says, the site's only reader was his own mom. But then the website gained a following.
"Becoming a sports writer would have meant leaving the America East behind, and I realized that's not what I wanted to do -- that the America East was why I was writing."Sam Perkins
"Then viewership started growing," Sam recalls, "and I was thinking, 'Hey, maybe I can become the next, I don't know, Bob Ryan, or maybe I could become the next John Feinstein or something — that I love writing about college ball."
Sam went to grad school to get a journalism degree and worked odd jobs to make money, but he kept pouring time into the website.
And eventually Sam did get opportunities to become a full-time sports writer.
"But becoming a sports writer would have meant leaving the America East behind, and I realized that's not what I wanted to do — that the America East was why I was writing," he says. "That's what I loved writing about."
The Website Grows
So after grad school, Sam took a full-time job as the editor of a small-town paper and he stayed focused on getting more readers for his website, One-Bid Wonders.
And Sam gave writing opportunities to young kids who also wanted to write about low-profile college basketball conferences in the Northeast.
"We picked up a kid named Doric Sam, who was a student at Stony Brook," he says. "And he started covering Long Island stuff for us. And then we added a young kid who grew up in the same city as me. Was a lot younger than me named Martin Kessler. Maybe that rings a bell."
Yep, that's me. After I graduated from college in 2013, Sam let me write for One-Bid Wonders. I remember talking to Sam at games and hearing about his crazy travel plans.
"I was going to three, four, five games a week," he says. "All over the place. Not just in this area, man. I was putting miles on my car."
"I just wanna be clear," I say. "You would be working a day job, but then you would still drive from, like, Boston to --"
"To Burlington or Orono," Sam says. "Or Vestal, New York. Or Long Island, yeah. And then come back and work the next morning. Yeah, it was crazy. Going on, like, two or three hours of sleep."
Sam says he wore out five cars traveling to games. At the time, it seemed to me like Sam just loved what he was doing. And everyone seemed to love Sam.
During the 2013-14 season, Sam put up a donation page on the One-Bid Wonders website so that readers could support his travel costs. $5,000 came in.
And that next summer, Sam met two business guys at a wedding and started talking to them about investing in the website.
Then in October, 2014, I got an email from Sam. The subject line: "We are funded."
"Hey Martin, OBW's gonna be officially funded," the email began. "Just had two investors buy in as partners with me, enough to fund the site completely for all this season, so that I can quit my job and do it full time. Really exciting stuff."
Now Sam could focus entirely on running One-Bid Wonders.
"I got pretty emotional to think that some other people believed in my crazy idea," Sam says. "And that was a really amazing feeling to feel like, 'Hey, this hasn't been for nothing.'"
Then the season began.
"I was writing every single day like a maniac, and it didn't feel the same anymore," Sam says. "And I was just living in libraries and coffee shops just churning stuff out, writing 35 features in the month of January and not sleeping. And I was just, like, 'This isn't fun.'"
Sam’s hair started falling out – something that hadn't happened to him since his father's death.
"And then every game I would go to, I didn't feel my dad's presence as much any more," he says. "I realized that I had been chasing my dad's ghost through these arenas and gyms and along these back roads in these nowhere towns for 12 years, 13 years, and I just was never going to catch him. And I kinda needed to move on."
After that season, Sam decided to shut down One-Bid Wonders.
"I wondered for a little bit," he says, "did I make a difference to anyone? Was it worthwhile? What was the point? Did I just waste this amount of my time?"
But soon he learned he had made a difference. Sam started getting texts and calls from former players and coaches and fans saying how much the website had meant to them.
A New Calling
Now, Sam works as a special-ed teacher with elementary and middle school students. He doesn’t watch much college basketball anymore.
"And I'm really happy with what I'm doing now, but I wouldn't be where I'm at if I had not covered the league the way that I did," he says.
And now, Sam is a dad. Seven months ago, he and his wife had a son. He's named Jack — after Sam's dad.
And since Sam doesn't go to many basketball games now, he's found a new time when he feels his dad's presence.
"When I'm with my son, yeah," he says. "And I think about my earliest memories are around him. He would take me for walks in the carrier and just talk to me about stuff. I feel my dad when I'm with my son. It's really powerful. I don't know how else to describe it other than that.
"More than anything, I hope that I can duplicate just a little bit of the experiences my dad gave to me and the connections he gave to me through something with my son. If I can be 1/10th of the dad that my dad was, I'll be real happy, and I'll have done a good job."
This segment aired on March 11, 2017.
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