There have been countless baseball fans that have gone out during a summer, made their way across the country, and in the process checked out every ballpark in the major leagues. It’s interesting, but not necessarily a feat that you’ll think twice about the next day.
However, listen to the sports fan goal from the one and only Ned Hirsch, and you’ll come away not just impressed, but in almost disbelief at what he has set out to conquer.
“I’m on a unique quest to see all 351 Division 1 men’s college teams play in person,” Hirsch explains. “The way I accomplish that is by attending conference tournaments such as this one.”
Which is how I came in contact with this college basketball trail blazer. He is sitting courtside for this year’s Horizon League tournament at Joe Louis Arena. Hirsch loves the game, but don’t think for a second that he wound up here in Detroit by accident.
“I need four more Horizon teams. I’m so glad this league is doing a centralized tournament. I’ll be picking up the two Wisconsin schools (Green Bay and Milwaukee), Northern Kentucky, and Oakland. The other six I have seen before.”
The innocence with which Hirsch describes having to “pick up” this team or “grab” that one, it’s akin to hearing an excitable 9-year-old rattle off the last few baseball cards he needs to round out a particular set. In a fame-obsessed society where someone like “Marlins Man” can become a household name, Hirsch goes about his stadium-hopping more quietly. Sure, he’ll do interviews like this - and he’s received his fair share of ink over the years - but at his core, Ned is just a hoops fan that wants to see a fun ballgame.
“Since I don’t necessarily have a rooting interest with a lot of these teams, I just want good basketball. I like to see close games.”
Throughout this journey, Hirsch has been lucky enough to witness many of the sport’s all-time greats.
“I remember seeing Steph Curry when he was at Davison. I saw Michael Jordan when he was a sophomore at North Carolina. Watching these players while they are still developing, before they are as well-known, and then getting to see what they become; it’s just very interesting to be a part of.”
You can count Hirsch as one person that has been happy to see the Horizon League move all of its tournament games to Detroit. He’ll use some down time on this trip to visit the Henry Ford and Motown museums.
“I think it is great that the conference has picked Detroit to host. I’ve been here twice before, once a number of years ago for a Tigers game. Joe Louis Arena is historic. I know it’s being torn down in the next year or so, but I think it’s a terrific place.”
After this set of games, Hirsch will have seen a whopping total of 322 Division I teams. That's out of 351 total. While it seems as if the finish line is just around the corner, Hirsch has come to realize that getting there is trickier than it might appear at first glance.
“This quest never really ends,” he said. “Because they periodically add new teams to Division I, and then those last 29 schools I need are hard. They’re the last ones for a reason. They might play in obscure towns that are hard for me to get to, and also not all of the conferences have a unified, central tournament venue like the Horizon League has gone to. Some of the conferences don’t invite their entire membership. The Southland conference in Texas only invites the top eight.”
So goes the lifelong mission of a truly unique basketball fan.
Anyone that meets Ned Hirsch walks away from the conversation with a smile on their face and a genuine appreciation for the mission he has set out to complete. Judging by Ned’s unrivaled passion for the game of basketball and the tremendous volume of teams he’s tracked down to this point, you have to think that sometime in the near future, he’ll get to that elusive 351.
It’s like Tom Cruise tells Dustin Hoffman’s character at the end of 1988's Best Picture, “Rain Man.”
“You’ll make it.”