The gymnasium lights whine like bug zappers as they warm up, casting four long shadows across empty stadium seats. The banners — three blue, one white — hang from the rafters in downtown Chicago, points of pride for the most decorated friend-athlete ever. Of the seven title games, he’s appeared in four of them and won three, starting with his first in 2013.
What if I told you his dynasty that has since dominated the sport may have began dishonestly?
In the earliest days of Friendship Madness, there were no Twitter battles, no pretty website, no conferences. Brackets were drawn and updated by hand, and no copies any longer exist. The few scant social media posts that can be recovered from 2011 only create a very incomplete picture of the Lost Tournament. It’s unclear whether most friends even knew anything was happening at all.
“What’s Friendship Madness?” asked one of the first higher-seed Friends. “Do you mean March Madness?”
There, even at the very beginning, was Chris Lusk. He drew a 6/11 seeding, his only start outside the top seed in the FMAA’s seven-year history. Despite his lowest placement to date, Lusk fought all the way to his first Friendly Four; it wasn’t even called that yet.
I’d like to thank VCU for propelling me to the Final Four of @monkbernardo‘s Friendship Bracket. What can I say? I’m awesome.
— Chris Lusk (@chrismlusk) March 28, 2011
He’d lose to the tournament runner-up that year, but he made a resounding statement.
In 2015, the Committee on Infractions quietly opened an investigation into Lusk’s 2013 championship campaign. Documents later obtained outline alleged rules violations, including loosened shoelaces strictly prohibited during competitions by Section 9, Article 11 of the Friendship Code of Conduct, which states:
“Friends are to maintain properly tightened shoelaces throughout the span of contests to ensure fairness and homogeneity. Any shoelaces found to be loosened would give the offending Friend a competitive advantage considered in violation of the rules outlined herein.”
The documents, provided to The Friendly Times, show the equipment manager for Lusk’s Louisville team did not ensure the shoelaces for the Cardinals’ Elite Eight contest were properly tightened. Whether Lusk was aware of the oversight at the time — and whether it was done intentionally — is not made clear.
Though it may not appear it could make a measurable difference at first, the tautness of laces can have a dramatic impact on the performance of friend-athletes, according to Dr. Chris Miller of the Friendship Athletic Sciences Center at Texas A&M University. Miller — a four-time friend-athlete (2011-14) with a championship-game appearance (2012) — paints an example.
Simply put, the looser the laces, the more friendship flows.
“When we were kids, most of us played with water hoses on the front lawn. When you bent the hose, the water was constricted and less was allowed to escape against the building pressure. As you released the bend, more water was allowed to escape. The same is true for friendship with friend-athletes’ shoes, as multiple peer-reviewed studies have shown.”
Simply put, the looser the laces, the more friendship flows. It’s why the friendliest people at every party are the ones wearing flip-flops, even at sub-freezing temperatures.
When asked whether a friend-athlete would gain an unfair advantage in competition if his laces weren’t up to code, Miller replied, “Without a doubt, yes.”
By the start of the 2012 season, Lusk’s friendly skills shot him high enough on the friendship charts to earn a top seed in the tournament. Countless friendship moments at deadline and an undefeated record on his home court, The Library, left him atop nearly every leaderboard and a favorite to win his first championship.
“I felt that I was the best friend in the field,” Lusk said of the ’12 tourney. “I had shown what I could accomplish as a mid-major friend the previous year, and I was ready to put a death grip on the 1 seed.”
He has maintained that grip as a 1-seed in every tournament since, but he lost in the Elite Eight to Miller that season. However, winds of change would sweep through the FMAA landscape during the offseason that would lead to his eventual dynasty.
Friends who previously were unaffiliated with one another despite regional bonds began to band together to create conferences. One of the first was perennial powerhouse CMA, established by Jessie Opoien, Jake Lovett and Jeremiah Davis — all of whom trained in Ames, Iowa. Other allegiances began to form, including Lusk and his peers in Copeland Hall to comprise The Daily Conference, but it was clear early on that the CMA would be one of the strongest consolidations of friendship.
After dozens of interviews with game officials and the equipment managers present at the Elite Eight matchup in question, the committee felt it could present a case for shoelace tampering to the commissioner. The dossier could not definitively prove, however, whether Lusk was ever aware of the loose laces. Attempts to procure his phone records came up empty as he’d switched phones having not backed up his previous data.
“New phone, who dis?” he once replied by text message to the lead investigator.
By the time the investigation was completed, the 2015 season had just ended and the FMAA had crowned Lusk champion for the second time in three years. Though The Daily Conference held the lion’s share of the final eight competitors in the tournament, an all-CMA title game left many around the league with an extreme case of #CMApride fatigue.
The dossier also included documents that hinted at an unscrupulous attempt at a power grab during the 2013 season. Members of the CMA, who had trained with Lusk during a brief time in Louisville, allegedly conspired with him to further consolidate power.
Though the CMA had strong showings in the second and third tournaments — highlighted by trotting out two of the Friendly Four in the latter — it struggled to keep up with the top-heavy Big Eight Conference for quality berths and late postseason runs.
As conventional wisdom states, journalists are more than likely the wealthiest folks in any room.
The Big Eight’s main rival was The Daily, which routinely produced the most or second-most total berths and was consistently present far into the tournament. Of its premier members — Lusk, Lindsey Ruta Lusk and Luke McConnell — Chris seemed most primed to be poached.
The CMA had the preeminent TV contract and plenty of revenue to spread around because, as conventional wisdom states, journalists are more than likely the wealthiest folks in any room. No, there’s no worry the industry will come crashing to its knees. NO, YOU’RE CRYING.
During the Friendly Four, Lusk made frequent visits to side rooms rented out by the CMA, where a king’s ransom was offered him to shift his allegiance.
“Any such allegations are malarkey,” Lovett told investigators during a deposition. “I unequivocally deny any claims of wrongdoing. His change in allegiance was as ethical and fair as could be.”
Against the wishes of The Daily’s leadership, the Association approved conference realignment for Lusk and the CMA prior to the 2013 Best Friend game.
— Lindsey Ruta Lusk (@lindseyrlusk) April 7, 2013
The decision — and its seasons of aftermath — would lead to the creation of The Lusk Rule, which for the first time made allowances for married friends to helm separate teams if they so choose.
Realignment fundamentally destabilized the once-powerful Daily Conference. Documents show the shift in power away from Copeland Hall placed the conference at a marked disadvantage heading into the postseason, though it still produced key friend-athletes and standout performances despite. The erosion of its influence remains a concern for its leadership as upstart conferences and familiar foes earn titles and individual accolades with The Daily on the sidelines.
No further evidence of shoelace tampering instances was uncovered in the dossier. Following the 2013 season in question, Lusk competed in three more Best Friend games, winning two for his new conference.
The empty stadium ravenously devours all sound. An eerie silence drifts like a mist across the court, its center adorned with the four letters of its champion’s name — four like the banners that hang like silk trophies above them. The polished hardwood also bears the mark of another, three letters that have haunted the friendship world year after year. Which is the greater transgression, the more deserving of judgment: the blue rectangle hanging from the ceiling or the blue-and-gold circle painted on the floor?