Enduring a rough childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, Carson Medley often used the quiet solitude of a basketball court as an escape from the abusive, unpredictable atmosphere of his home.
“A basketball court was the kind of place where you could take a ball by yourself and you could play Larry Bird or you could play Magic Johnson,” said Medley, the son of a Vietnam War veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. “I think that was the stage where I realized that I might also be a writer someday.”
Through the years, as Medley’s competitive basketball path eventually came to an end, he continued to cultivate his talent for writing. Today, he’s a thesis editor and advisor in the department of graduate studies at Chico State, and the author of a novel and four screenplays. He’s also working on his doctoral dissertation on redshirt student athletes and has three other books that will be released soon.
While his own hoop dreams are far behind him, the call of the court has stayed with him.
One day, while standing in the concessions line while the Wildcats played at Acker Gym in 2015, he started chatting with a fellow fan from visiting Cal State Dominguez Hills. The Wildcats, in the midst of what would be a 10-game winning streak, had become a model for poise under pressure, discipline on the court, and academic excellence under Head Coach Greg Clink’s leadership—and the rest of the California Collegiate Athletic Association had begun to take notice.
The fan asked Medley, “What in the world is that special sauce you folks are drinking up here in Chico?”
Ask Clink that question, and he provides an honest answer.
“I don’t think there’s a secret sauce,” Clink says in an understated way. “We recruit great guys, we build great culture, and we have a way that we operate every day.”
Medley had finally found his story.
He chronicled the men’s basketball team and Clink from March 2015 to April 2016, a season in which the Wildcats went 22-7 overall, including 16-4 atop the CCAA. The result is a robust, thorough, and entertaining 506-page book, Through the Red Door: The Eternal Season of Coach Clink and the Division II Chico State Wildcats.
Medley’s book is much more than a look back at a college basketball season. It’s an homage to the individual parts that move the story along at Chico State, including Wildcat coaches, players, trainers, and fans. Medley also pays close attention to the daily grind of practices, each meticulously planned out to the minute by Clink, while following the ups and downs during a game and experiencing the rigors of traveling with the Wildcats throughout an entire year.
“I wanted to write something that transcended basketball,” Medley said, noting his inspiration drew from John Feinstein’s best-selling narrative on the Indiana Hoosiers, A Season on the Brink.After Medley offered Clink an example of what his book would look, read, and feel like, the coach approved the request and granted Medley unprecedented access to the team.
“He was in the locker room with us during games, he traveled with us a couple of times, he was in most of our practices, he’d sit in on coaches meetings,” Clink recalled. “He was like a fly on the wall.”
From this perspective, Medley was able to obtain what Clink called “an insider’s view.”
“Most people just come and see the games. Sometimes, people come to practice,” said Clink. “But most of the time they don’t get to see or hear about what we do when we’re on the road traveling or the things that we deal with on a daily basis.”
Medley and Clink agreed that this book would be as authentic as possible.
“Not everything in the book makes us all look good,” Clink said. “But I think it’s a very honest portrayal of what our basketball program is about.”
While Chico may be on the smaller side, it isn’t a unique city in terms of Division II basketball. In fact, Medley confesses, “every small town probably has these stories.”
But Through the Red Door is about doing more with less, a common trait of Division II athletics programs, and excelling along the way.
“It’s about coaches doing coin-operated laundry in Los Angeles between games,” Medley said. “It’s about assistant coaches moonlighting as a bartender at a local pizza joint, or [the team] playing in front of 34 people sometimes.”
Along this same vein, in getting Through the Red Door to the shelves, Medley self-published on CreateSpace—doing more with less.
“I’ve always felt like a Division II writer,” he said. “I didn’t have the big agent, I didn’t have the big press, I didn’t have the photographer. When you go at it, you do it on your own.”
Medley’s process for writingThrough the Red Door was painstaking, almost torturous. Throughout the season he covered the ’Cats, he filled every inch of a prodigious writer’s notebook with handwritten notes, front and back and top to bottom, as well as 11 yellow-papered legal pads, and dozens of 3-by-5 notecards, as well as accumulating hours of digital recordings.
“I go through and take small notes of everything that I see, then I go back and it turns into this,” he said, thunderously plunking down hundreds of pieces of paper that he’s transcribed from his notes.
Carving out time to write around work and spending time with his family was a challenge.
“I’d get up every morning at 4, write until about 6:30, get to work every morning at 7,” Medley recalled. “Then, I’d start writing again after my kids went to bed.”
The book’s first draft clocked in at 670 pages and around 270,000 words.
“I had to get it down to 160,000,” he said.
Additionally, Medley was the book’s photographer and was forced to select only 40 photos to appear in the book from among the 1,400 he took throughout the year. These photos appeal to every aspect of the game: players preparing mentally for tip-off, coaches discussing halftime adjustments, and the very human reactions to wins and losses.
Eleven drafts later,Through the Red Door accomplishes all of this, employing an open, unfiltered narrative. It makes its debut on February 14, a fitting date for a book which Medley sees as a valentine to Chico State and college basketball.
And yet, as with every declaration of love, he’s a little nervous of how it will be received.
“If this were fiction, I wouldn’t care,” Medley said. “But with nonfiction, particularly this book, there are so many lives, like at least 400 real, live, breathing, human beings whose facts I had to get straight.”
He, Clink, and the team will be at the Chico State Wildcat Store on February 14 from 10 a.m. to noon for reading and signings, and forward Keith Datu will rap a theme song he created for the book. Medley also plans to do signings at Barnes & Noble and The Bookstore later this spring. For more information and to purchase copies, visit Through the Red Door.