March Moment: Lest We Forget, Sometimes It’s Good Just To Be Invited

Posted by jstevrtc on March 31st, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment?

Our final installment for this year has a pair of remembrances that remind us how just being part of the magic of the NCAA Tournament is something for which to be thankful. RTC correspondents Kraig Williams and Russell Burnett recount being in the crowd (and eventually on the floor) to see their teams earn automatic invites to the NCAA Tournament.  Butler may be a 5-seed but they’re still a so-called “mid-major,” and this is obviously the biggest storyline of this year’s Final Four.  These stories from Messrs. Williams and Burnett amplify how great Butler’s achievement is, and goes to show that if you think every single mid-major program in the nation doesn’t take pride in and hope from the Bulldogs’ presence in Indy this weekend, you’d better think again:

KW: I’ve always been a big college basketball fan, and fondly remember the days of filling out a bracket before I even knew how to pronounce some of the schools’ names. Growing up in Utah, I remember watching Keith Van Horn carry Utah to a championship game; I jumped on the band wagons of Duke in ’01 and Syracuse in ’03 to win bracket pools among my friends and slowly college basketball seeped into my blood. It wasn’t until last season that I had my ultimate March Moment.

As a student at Utah State University, we survived the adjustment from the Big West to the WAC only to surfer heartbreaks in the conference tournament year after year. Last season though, things were different. It was clear the Aggies were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the conference. Utah State steamrolled through Fresno State, somehow survived New Mexico State in the semi finals, and then came the dream matchup with Nevada on their home floor. Sitting outside the arena a couple hours before they would even let us in, it became apparent that this would be our night. Utah State students had the Nevada crowd nearly outnumbered, and when we got into the stadium it became clear that we would have the better team. Utah State jumped out to a 21-4 lead and the party began in the student section. After years of following the Aggies, and watching them come oh-so-close so many times, we were finally going to have a conference tournament banner to hang in The Spectrum. The clock ticked down, we shouted the “winning team, losing team” chant, and then we rushed the court in Reno like our lives depended on it. We spent the next hour or so just standing on the court, talking to the players, taking photos with the trophy, and watching our guys cut down the nets. That’s a feeling I’ll never forget, knowing that we weren’t going to be sweating bullets at home waiting to see if the selection committee would be nice enough to send us to the dance.

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March Moment: The Cinderella That Refused To See Midnight

Posted by jstevrtc on March 28th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this submission, correspondent Steve Coulter tells a tale of a very rare occasion on which he changed allegiances from the team he loved to a team that went on a tournament run that we’ll still all be talking about decades from now:

In my short lifetime there have been many memories from to the three glorious weeks referred to as March Madness.

There was Valparaiso’s miracle run to the Sweet 16 when I was only seven. I can still remember watching highlights of the Bryce Drew game with my dad later that day. There was #15 Hampton’s huge upset of #2 Iowa State when I was only ten. I stayed up that night with my brother, but as the game wore on into the night we both found ourselves sound asleep and kicking ourselves the next morning while watching ESPN. More recently there was Davidson’s Elite 8 run in 2008. Stephen Curry proved to be the littlest giant ever to step onto the hardwood in March, destroying the title hopes of teams such as Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin. They almost conquered Kansas, the team that eventually won the tournament, losing 59-57 in a game for the ages.

All of these have been great and there have been many more excellent games, moments, and stories in my 19 years, but I am a sucker for the underdog and March Madness is where David always has a chance to conquer Goliath. And no true underdog team has ever pushed against all odds and had so much success in the NCAA tournament in my lifetime or anybody else’s than No. 11 seeded George Mason, who in 2006 shocked the entire basketball world by becoming the most unlikely Final Four team in all of history.

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March Moment: A Standing Ovation, A Life Changed

Posted by jstevrtc on March 26th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this installment, Back Door Cuts contributor Mike Walsh describes how his March Moment changed his life and put him on a path from which he’s yet to stray:

Without a doubt, my defining March moment is from the 2001 NCAA tournament. It was my sophomore year at Saint Joseph’s University and as the assistant sports editor at the student paper, I was lucky enough to travel to San Diego to cover our boys as the No. 9 seed in the West bracket.

In the first round, the Hawks topped eighth-seeded Georgia Tech. It was the first tournament game I ever saw in person and watching my team win from press row was icing on the cake. In the second round, St. Joe’s drew No. 1 seed Stanford. On paper, it shouldn’t have been close. In the first half, it didn’t look like it was going to be.

But then, I and everyone else in the arena witnessed an unforgettable performance.

You know those games where the whole arena is buzzing with the prospect of an upset in the making? This turned out to be one of those games. You know those players who are suddenly thrust into the spotlight after a stellar showing on the NCAA’s biggest stage? St. Joe’s junior guard Marvin O’Connor was that player.

O'Connor (in red) in a Big 5 game against Penn

On the shoulders of the scorching hot shooting guard, who tied a career high with 37 points on 15-of-20 shooting, the Hawks wiped out a 14-point first half deficit and gave the top-seeded Cardinal all they could handle in the second half. For a while, it felt like it could be one of those rare instances where a No. 1 seed was sent packing on the first weekend.

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March Moment: The Spark(s) Of Spring

Posted by jstevrtc on March 25th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this submission, a Kentucky fan’s love for college hoops is cemented by, of all things, a game they ended up losing — but specifically a few seconds that were burned into his memory, thanks to a kind roll:

March has a funny way of changing things.  The NCAA tournament kicks off, and 65 teams get a shot to extend their seasons and for three weeks David and Goliath find themselves in the same shoes…win or go home.

It has a unique way of bringing out the best and even the worst in people, and sets a stage for Cinderella to flex her muscles. Simply put, March Madness is without a doubt the best three weeks in sports.

Most people have their favorite March memory, whether it be “The Shot” by Christian Laettner (which somehow find its way into every CBS broadcast), watching Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma square off against the Doctors of Dunk (Louisville and Darryl Griffith), or any moment in between.

As a Kentucky fan, I feel I have my own unique perspective of The Big Dance. Although the Cats have won two titles in my lifetime, the moment that stands out the most came in a loss.

In 2005, Kentucky was on a roll. After sweeping through the regular season with a 23-4 record, the Cats were poised to make some waves in the tournament. After a couple of close wins in the opening three rounds, the only thing standing in the way of UK and a Final Four berth was a pesky overachiever from East Lansing…Michigan State.

After playing the Spartans close for the entire game, Kentucky found itself down three points with just 19 seconds left in regulation. That’s when something spectacular happened. After a couple of misfires from behind the arc, Patrick Sparks chased down a long rebound with just two seconds left and let loose a prayer that would decide if the season would be extended. The prayer was answered. Overtime.

Although the Cats would fall just two periods later, that shot would change my life.

That’s the moment that I realized how much Kentucky basketball meant to me. I had been a UK fan since before I can remember but in the seconds surrounding that play it took on such a new meaning. As Sparks’ three-pointer bounced around the rim, time stood still. Although just an instant, it felt like it lasted forever and my heart didn’t resume beating until after the ball had found its way safely through the net.

The emotions that exploded after that one shot changed the way I looked at the game. Basketball wasn’t just a sport anymore; it couldn’t be. It was something so much bigger.

While jumping around the living room with my dad and little brother, hugging and high fiving, I realized how important it was. The way it felt to share that with them is something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. As I get older I’ll always look back on that day and smile. That day, that moment, is when everything changed. Isn’t it funny how March can do that to you?

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March Moment: The Garden in ’71

Posted by jstevrtc on March 24th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this edition, RTC correspondent Ray Floriani remembers a New York City night in 1971 that altered his perception of winning and losing, how he was affected by both, and how it all cemented his love for our game:

NEW YORK CITY – The intensity, excitement and general myraid of emotions packed into that March evening will probably never be duplicated. It was the ultimate heartbreaker. At the same time, this was the one. The game and experience that certifiably had yours truly hooked on basketball, notably college basketball, as the favorite sport. One that transformed a casual observer into a devout follower.

Mention “the Georgia Tech game in the NIT” and any St. Bonaventure fan who can remember gas being under a buck a gallon will recall the year (1971) , the date (March 25), the circumstance and how it played out.  A little background…

The 1970-71 season was my freshman year at St. Bonaventure. The previous March the Bonnies made it to the Final Four and if Bob Lanier hadn’t been injured late in the East Regional final against Villanova, who knows? UCLA’s national championship run might have been interrupted.

Larry Weise, St. Bonaventure coach from 1961-73

The team lost Lanier and a top notch lead guard in Billy Kalbaugh. There was optimism though as the returnees had experienced winning and approached the season with a positive mindset. Among the veterans returning for coach Larry Weise were Greg Gary, Matt Gantt, Dale Tepas, and Paul Hoffman. Gantt, at 6-5, was the big man.  An incredible leaper, Gantt was the prototype “frequent flyer” who could make life miserable for opponents five (or more) inches taller. Sophomore Carl Jackson was up from the freshman team (they had them back then). Overall, there was talent.

I had the good fortune to get into the program as one of the team managers.  It was a job I did four years in high school and would do four years at Bonaventure. The season went extremely well with the Bonnies, ranked high as 11th at one point, finishing 18-5.  Back then 25 teams made the NCAA tournament and with the East basically a group of independents, as Bonaventure was, you needed a great record to get in.  The Bonnies accepted an NIT bid. Again, in that day it was a 16 team field with all games contested at Madison Square Garden.

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March Moment: Three Reminiscences

Posted by jstevrtc on March 23rd, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this edition, we have submissions from three friends.  In the first, RTC utility man Tom Hager remembers a time he had to improvise a way to celebrate after two buzzer-beaters; the second has RTC correspondent Jason Prizoborowski barely escaping extended hoops deprivation; the third has Friend of the Program Mike Kiffney — he of the patented “Kiffney three” — showing his age by recalling how he met a legend from his high school, and making a prediction that will please fans of the Orange:

TH: My March moment came when I was 11 years old. It was Friday night of the first round of the NCAA tournament, and I was sleeping over at a friend’s house. He had no interest in basketball, but fortunately for me, he had fallen asleep by 9:00 that night. I spent the rest of the night watching some of the most exciting basketball I had ever seen in my life. I was sitting in the lower bunk trying to keep quiet as I watched Georgetown defeat Arkansas 63-61 on a buzzer-beater. I remember watching Nat Burton drive to the lane and sink a shot just before time expired. When head coach Craig Esherick was asked for his thoughts on the game winner, he actually looked a little upset. “The play was not designed to go to him…” was how Esherick began the interview, but stated that Burton was a senior, and had the experience to take the shot.

That same night, I watched what I still think might be the best upset in the history of college basketball, when a team I had never heard of (Hampton) with a bunch of players I had never heard of (yeah, Tarvis Williams) defeat highly touted Iowa State. After Williams sank a hook shot with a few seconds left, and Jamaal Tinsley missed his shot at the buzzer, I saw Hampton’s cheerleaders, players, and even coach Steve Merfeld jump in the air. I was doing the exact same. I ran outside my friend’s room and into his kitchen, where I could jump and scream (internally) over what had just happened without waking him up. By the time I was done celebrating, I had done more fist pumps than Tiger Woods and I was out of breath. I remember trying to go to bed that night but I was too excited to fall asleep right away, as that play ran over and over in my head. To this day, it is still my lasting image of the NCAA Tournament.

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March Moment: A Pearl of Wisdom

Posted by jstevrtc on March 17th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this submission, RTC contributor and bracketologist-in-residence Zach Hayes illustrates one of the many reasons why the NCAA Tournament is the greatest event in American sports — a good deal of the time, it’s not just about basketball:

There’s something different about growing up rooting for a mid-major.

It’s elementary rooting for perennial powerhouses like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina or Michigan State, teams that may experience hardship once a decade but can always be counted on to reload sooner than later, similar to playing the Rookie level on Madden.

When that special season comes along for a mid-major, the urgency is palpable, the intensity unmatched, the hope for that perfect slipper fit lingers. Fans of mid-majors often see their small, unknown program wallow in the depths of obscurity playing in front of 1,000 fans for years, unable to migrate up the standings. Then that miracle-working coach comes along, diamonds in the rough begin to fill out the roster, and finally the school faces that one opportunity to achieve the previously unthinkable.

For me, that team was the 2002-03 Milwaukee Panthers. For me, that coach was Bruce Pearl.

As any college basketball fan knows, the conference tournament is the be-all and end-all for mid-major programs. A team can suffer through a losing regular season, reel off three straight wins and find themselves in the Big Dance. But on the flipside, a team can coast to the regular season title, play one bad 40-minute stint and miss out on a chance that may never present itself again.

That was the situation facing the Panthers during Pearl’s second season at the helm and my first season with season tickets at THE MECCA, the downtown arena that Kareem and Oscar formerly patrolled for the Bucks back in the early-70s. The middling Horizon League program had been lingering in the shadow of Marquette in our own city and Butler in our own league for the bane of our Division I existence.

Then the perfect concoction came together for that 2002-03 season. We found a legitimate post player in Dylan Page, a sharp-shooting 2-guard in Clay Tucker, a steady point guard in Ronnie Jones and complimentary players like Jason Frederick and Nate Mielke that executed Pearl’s patented full-court press to a tee. It was a team incredibly easy to get attached to at 12 years old. Just me, my dad, our favorite coach and a mid-major trying to make a name for themselves.

Our Panthers ended up toppling mighty Butler in the Horizon finals. The court filled in a matter of seconds with gold-clad students lifting players into the air. The previously unimaginable had been accomplished. But all I remember from that moment is hugging my father and the beaming smile that covered his face. He’s taught at Milwaukee since 1982 and had experienced the lowest of lows with the program. It was for him.

We ended up losing to 5th seeded Notre Dame in the first round nine days later after Page missed a game-winning layup at the buzzer. The game ended around 11 PM on a school night, but of course my father let me stay up for the end. When Page’s miss trickled around the rim and out and the Irish celebrated at center court, I remember expecting the tears to stream down my face.

Instead, a smile of appreciation broke out. I looked over at my dad and he began to applaud.

We were too proud of them to do anything different.

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March Moment: Morrison And The Zags

Posted by jstevrtc on March 17th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this submission, RTC Big 12 correspondent Patrick Sellars illustrates one of the great aspects of being a college basketball fan — how a team with which you have no rooting interest or affiliation can somehow find its way into your heart:

It was my freshman year in high school, and I would say I was a modest college basketball fan at best. I watched the big games, the conference tournaments, and of course the “Big Dance” but I wasn’t a diehard like I am today. The team, but more importantly the player, that changed this all for me was Adam Morrison and his 2005-06 Gonzaga Bulldogs. The first game I watched the Zags play was the 3OT thriller against Michigan State in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, Morrison put up 43 points in the Gonzaga win. After this game I was hooked on Morrison, this shaggy haired, awkward, lanky, peach fuzz mustache flaunting kid with diabetes was draining NBA range threes over athletic guards, and he did it with passion and intensity that I haven’t seen in college basketball since.

Over the course of the season I saw every single game they played, I even talked my parents into buying the Fox College Sports West TV package so I could stay up late for all of their WCC contests. I lived and breathed Gonzaga basketball, and as a kid from Wisconsin with no affiliation to the school all my peers called me a “fair-weather-fan”. However, I didn’t care, because I was so enticed by the Gonzaga team.

As the rest of the season unfolded there were many great moments. Everyone remembers the Oklahoma State game with Morrison’s bank in three, Gus Johnson screaming at the top of his lungs “LARRY BIRD!!!! BABY!!!” I was euphoric, ironically Gus Johnson would make another call later in the year that still haunts my dreams to this day.

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March Moment: Tending the Hardwood

Posted by jstevrtc on March 16th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game.  For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment.  A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.”  Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents:  what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan?  What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

Our first submission comes from a friend living in California who grew up a George Mason fan and, at an early age, was given an important job:

Basketball players are really tall. And the “big men” generally live up to their name. Especially from the standpoint of a twelve-year-old sitting beneath the basket.

Long before Fairfax, Virginia adopted them as their very own Cinderella, the George Mason Patriots were working to perfect their “run-and-gun” style of play that earned them more victories than defeats in the Colonial Athletic Conference. It was during this earlier era that I was bestowed the high responsibility of drying the floor of player sweat in between plays. A trivial task? Maybe to non-12-year-olds. As they say, the harder they come, the harder they fall. And I don’t think the originator of that old saw considered leaping ability in the equation. When these guys fall, you hear it and you feel it. And if the fall had something to do with a wet spot – which for that day comprised the entirely of my existence – then you’d better have a good reason as to why that wasn’t taken care of when the ball was at the other end of the court. In these matters age most certainly does not matter.

Our author would gladly have wiped the sweat from Coach Larranaga. (AP/Jack Dempsey)

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #1: The ’79 Tourney – More Than Magic & Larry

Posted by rtmsf on March 18th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

The Hunter S. Thompson of College Basketball (submitted by Ray Floriani of College Chalktalk)

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – The NCAA tournament in 1979 turned out to be truly memorable. And not simply because of Magic vs. Bird. First, a  little background. I was writing and doing some photographic work for Eastern Basketball magazine. EB was produced in the Long Island home of founders Ralph and Rita Pollio and enjoyed a good following.  The three of us plus Rita’s brother Ray took a twelve-hour drive to Raleigh for the first two rounds. On Friday evening Penn stopped Iona (coached by the late Jim Valvano) and St. John’s upset a good Temple team. On Sunday it was the day still known in ACC country as “Black Sunday.” Penn upset top ranked North Carolina and St. John’s, who upset Duke in December’s Holiday Festival consolation, made it two straight over the Devils with another upset victory.

The following weekend it was off to Greensboro for the regionals. I traveled with EB writer Happy Fine. An extremely knowledgeable basketball analyst and excellent writer, Happy knew a good number of people and was well connected. We flew to Greensboro, had regular hotel rooms, credentials and ate at good restaurants and covered some memorable games. Greensboro Coliseum was half (or more empty) with no ACC representatives. Even the local papers billed the regionals as the “frost belt four.”  For the record, Penn upset Syracuse and St.John’s did the same to Rutgers in the semis. Then Penn edged St. John’s in a thrilling regional final. As the sign Penn fans held in post game celebrations read,  “weese going to Utah.”

penn-79-f4-team

Now in 1979 there was no Big East. Penn naturally was in the Ivy, but schools like St. John’s were part of ECAC regional affiliations while Rutgers was in the Eastern Eight (now Atlantic Ten). We did not cover the ACC at EB – only the “traditional East.” We had an agreement with the NCAA that if we got a team in we could get a Final Four credential (as in… one credential). As much as Rita tried, we could not secure a second for yours truly.  Happy and I would drive to Philadelphia (about 2 hours) and fly on the Penn fan charter – the bad news was that I did not have a ticket nor did we have hotel rooms in Salt Lake City. Talk about “survive and advance.”

We flew out Thursday morning , two days before the semis. Happy secured us a ‘room’ in the suite of  SI’s Curry Kirkpatrick. A heavy hitter on SI’s team, I met Curry through Happy in Greensboro and felt him humble and passionate about the game. An hour into the flight, Happy had already secured tickets for me to the semis and finals with the whole cost setting me back only about $30. No complaints, at least I was in. The charter was mostly Penn students and we had a great time discussing basketball with them on the flight out.  That night I went to the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) all-star game at the old Salt Palace, where the Jazz played. Pleased to see James Bailey of Rutgers star in the contest which had a number of solid players.

The Final Four was held at the Arena on the University of Utah campus. On Friday at open practice I met with Al McGuire. There was no ESPN back then. NBC televised the tournament and some national games. Eastern teams like Syracuse got maybe a date or two or national TV. McGuire wanted to know more about Penn so Rita arranged for me to meet with him.  She prepared a sizable portfolio on the Quakers. After meeting McGuire, quite a thrill since I idolized him and his coaching style since high school, he put the packet aside. In his unique style he jotted down key points about Penn. Their marquee players Tony Price and Bobby Willis. The multi-talented center Matt White. The coaching philosophy of Bob Weinauer. The streamers thrown after the first basket. Even the watering hole, Smokey Joe’s, which had cheap tap brews and great cheesesteaks. We met for about a half hour then McGuire gave me his card. Safe to say, from my vantage point, the McGuire meeting was a highlight of that Final Four (an example of his peculiar eloquence is below).

Got back to the hotel and Happy asked if I wouldn’t mind going to another hotel. No problem, even though I quietly arose at 7 a.m. that morning to go running. Seems Curry had ‘overbooked’ his guests. We arranged for me to stay with Mike Madden of the Boston Globe. I met Mike covering some BC games. We got along well and had no problems with the situation.

Saturday. Game day. Rode the NABC shuttle to the arena and one coach had a remark that could be etched in stone when he said, “there is no better day in basketball than today.”  He’s right because as special as the finals are, the semifinal Saturday gives you four teams all with national championship hopes and dreams. Penn-Michigan State was the first game.  The Quakers got inside Michigan State’s patented 2-3 matchup zone, but could not hit a thing, picking the most inopportune time to play their worst game. The margin was in the thirties in the first half as MSU cruised. The second game came down to the final minutes as Indiana State edged DePaul. Thought it was a special story that the same Ray Meyer who coached DePaul to prominence with George Mikan three decades prior was back in the limelight.

Through post game receptions with the NABC and media on Saturday night and into Sunday the talk was over Michigan State dismantling Penn and now Magic vs. Bird on Monday night. They told us Salt Lake City was dry. With the commerce dollars coming in that weekend, the city’s ‘good fathers’ probably looked the other way as the beer flowed like an amber cascade. Made some phone reports to Ralph but his phone was disconnected so we called the neighbor who would run across the street to get him.

magic-title-si

Met Basketball Times publisher Larry Donald on Sunday. It’s ironic that about a decade later I would be working for him. Snapped some shots around the picturesque Utah campus and chatted with students. Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton stopped by a media reception on Sunday evening. Sutton’s Arkansas team dropped a heart breaker to Indiana State in a regional final but the coach was cordial and an interesting personality to discuss the game with. Happy and Bob Ryan told Sutton about this young high school player doing some work in Boston, Patrick Ewing.

On Monday I went to a few NABC clinics. As a basketball fanatic I’m always looking for information on the game. Ohio State’s Don Devoe gave a great talk. Really impressed with a coach who would fall afoul to recruiting violations a few years later; New Mexico’s Norm Ellenberger also spoke about the fast break.  Back in those days they had a consolation game and Penn was thrilled to go out and prove they belonged. I ‘borrowed’ Happy’s press pass to get some photos on the floor. Penn played well and lost a tough one to DePaul. The Quakers gained back some respect, but unfortunately the game was not televised.

The final saw Magic Johnson’s Michigan State vs. Larry Bird’s Indiana State. A great game. Greg Kelser was an inside factor for the Spartans and, though there was no three point shot, Jud Heathcote had a few good outside shooters that kept the defense honest. Michigan State held about a nine point lead through the second half. That nine felt like eighteen as they were in command throughout.  Got on the floor for the post game awards. Snapped some shots then caught some of the post game press conference in a huge area to accommodate several hundred media. Shortly after, Happy and I went to the airport to catch our charter. It was a redeye and as we boarded, a Penn student brought a PENN sign from a side scoreboard at the arena. Why not ?

We flew cross-country in the middle of the night. Penn students slept. At times I stayed awake thinking about it all, wondering will Indiana State stay a major player or was this their “fifteen minutes of fame?”  Penn will be a major Ivy player, but was this like Princeton’s ’65 final Four run where everything came together?  Magic’s greatest attribute is his ability to raise his teammates’ games, and what a great story the DePaul resurgence was.

As years passed the ’79 final went down as a classic. In truth, for me, the whole weekend was.

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #2: The Open Road Leads to the Final Four

Posted by rtmsf on March 17th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

Roadtrippin’ to the Alamo City  (submitted by John Stevens)

March 1998.
 
98-ncaa-f4-logo
I was living with two friends at the time in an apartment befitting three guys in various stages of their education: one of us a few years out of college and still not playing it too fast and loose with his new income, most of which was being put toward his upcoming wedding; another fellow who was finding no stimulation in graduate school and was looking to upgrade his life; and me, breezing through the last two easy months before my college graduation, working enough at my cake-walk part-time job to keep me in pizza, beer, and the occasional night out (which usually involved pizza and beer).
 
It was also tournament time.  Our favorite time of year.  Feeling the wanderlust that an emerging springtime brings, my grad-school roommate and I decided that instead of watching our favorite event on TV as we’d done for most of the previous two weeks, we’d empty our bank accounts and take a road trip to one of the regionals — say, given the snow outside our window in mid-March, the one in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Not exactly a tough sell.  Turned out to be one of the best road trips I ever took.
 
Until the next week.
These F4 Fans Weren't As Lucky

These F4 Fans Weren't As Lucky As John

 
We got home from St. Pete and were going through several days of unopened mail when I noticed an envelope bearing the emblem of my college.  Specifically, the Office of Billing and Financial Aid.  99 times out of 100, that means a bill.  Not exactly something I wanted, having just blown a wad of cash to travel to an NCAA regional.  It was about as welcome as a positive syphilis test.
 
But wait, what was this?  Weeeeell, evidently some of the grant money awarded me many months ago never found its way to my account, so now that the mistake had been found, a check had been cut for me in the amount of $1500.  My buddy and I had just spent the last half hour reminiscing on what a great road trip we’d just had, but still sad because we didn’t know when our next one would be.  When I opened that envelope and saw that check, I looked at my friend and told him, “Don’t bother unpacking.  We’re going to the Final Four.”
 
He said he couldn’t part with the cash needed for such a trip, but I reminded him that I owed him a few hundred bucks from a previous debt and that we’d sort out the rest later.  To his credit, it didn’t take much persuading. The Final Four that year was in San Antonio, a city I’d heard too many great things about, so there was no way I was going to defy fate and pass up this opportunity.  I’d never been to Texas, never even been anywhere near that part of the country.  And it’s one of my favorite things to do any time of the year, but as the weather gets warm, is there anything better than packing up a bag and a cooler and hitting the open road with a friend? 

(photo credt:  interstate-guide.com)

Three days later, we were doing exactly that.  We bought tickets from a newspaper ad, left in the middle of the night, and drove for hours and hours.  Nothing on the radio but people talking Final Four basketball.  Constant analysis, endless interviews with coaches, former players, etc.  The farther south we drove, the warmer it got.  We started out wearing sweaters and jeans, and in a few hours we were in t-shirts, shorts and sunglasses.  It was one of the ugliest drives I’d ever been a part of.  It involved two dudes who reeked from being in a car too long.  But in its own way, it was paradise.
 
We found living quarters (we thought we were going to be shacking as far away as Austin, but avoided that thanks to the generosity of my buddy’s family) and went to find the epicenter of activity for the weekend.  We found the San Antonio Riverwalk by following the noise of the crowd, the sounds of  mariachis doing  renditions of college fight songs, and, um, Dick Vitale’s voice.  Every once in a while as you walked this gorgeous underground pedestrian street along the banks of the San Antonio River, you’d see groups of tourists floating by on large rafts, looking back at the walkers who were looking at them.  Sometimes the raft drifting by you would contain a school’s cheerleading or dance team squad, or part of its band, or the CBS studio crew (if Bill Raftery’s big smiling mug floating by on a raft doesn’t bring a smile to your own face, you need to visit your local neurologist, because you are officially incapable of smiling), and so on.  The biggest crowd response always happened when Dickie V would come floating by, waving and gesturing to the masses like a big kid.  I mean, my God, he’s been doing this for how many years?  And there’s not a doubt in my mind — he was still having as much fun as we were.

(photo credit:  c21unitedgroup.com)

We made our way to the Fan Jam and just owned the two-on-two shootout for a while, calling ourselves The Shammgods — the insiders applauded the name, much respect — and scoring many notable (and even upset) victories, including a single-shot victory over a couple of prepsters from NYC and an absolute trouncing of two cocky 14-year olds from Tennessee.  In our eighth — that’s right, you heard me, eighth — game I hit a cold streak and a couple of local college kids got the better of us; I still relive this cold streak in my mind every so often and the blood still boils.  We considered it an upset on the level of ’85 Villanova, but at that point I think we were such big favorites in Vegas, it wasn’t worth it any more.  We met former College of Charleston coach John Kresse who actually took a few moments from strolling with his wife to talk hoops and take pictures with us.  Near the ESPN set, we bumped into Steve Lavin who acted like he didn’t see or hear about our exploits at the two-on-two shootout; both of those guys couldn’t have been nicer.  It wasn’t just celebrity-sighting — when talking college basketball with them, they weren’t celebrities any more, just regular guys talking about the thing they love the most.
 
We all know the games from that particular Final Four were fantastic, no matter for whom you were rooting – Kentucky, Utah, UNC or Stanford.  There’s simply no way to describe the atmosphere at a Final Four game.  The best comparison I can think of is watching the end of a Pink Floyd concert when they’re doing the last number (Run Like Hell) and there are pyrotechnics and lasers like you never imagined and the stage is basically on fire.  Imagine that over three days of basketball.  The fireworks are constantly taking place on the basketball floor, and the energy and emotion of the crowd is every bit as urgent and electric. 

The Alamodome Has Hosted Several F4s
The Alamodome Has Hosted Several F4s

I had fallen in love with college basketball long before this road trip.  Even though I never possessed the skill to play it at that level, the sport has been a favorite distraction of mine ever since I’ve had functioning neurons in my brain.  But watching those games at the Alamodome and being part of the overall atmosphere of the Final Four that year… well, it was one of those few watershed times in a person’s life, like when you hear a piece of music or meet a person you know from the first nanosecond will always be part of your existence.  My friend and I drove the 20+ hours back to the humdrum rhythm of our everyday lives, and as I walked around my campus and worked at my job I saw people who probably once had similar watershed moments in their lives, but whose realities had become relegated to the process of just getting through the days, just surviving things — whatever those sticky, sinister things were.  Those were the days when I looked back on my trip as I looked at these people, and I decided — I will never fall victim to those things.  Whatever it entails, as often as I possibly can, I’ll always go to be a part of that event.  I will always have this in my life.

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Sweetest NCAA Memories #3: Loved, Hated, But Never Ignored

Posted by rtmsf on March 16th, 2009

memories

RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

An NCAA victory over Duke tastes a little sweeter, and a loss to the Devils hurts a little more.  Nobody gets passions as high as Coach K’s Dookies, and we received two submissions that perfectly illustrate that range of emotions.

We Shocked the World!!! (submitted by Rob Dauster of Ballin is a Habit)

“Just when people say you can’t, UCan. And UConn has won the national championship.” – Jim Nantz

I’ll never forget those words. It was just three days before my 14th birthday. Growing up in Connecticut, we never really had a pro sports team, so we latched on to Jim Calhoun‘s UConn Huskies. Despite being a team of national relevance for a number of years, Calhoun had never gotten his team to the Final Four. He finally broke through in 1999, barely hanging on against 10 seed Gonzaga in the Elite 8 before beating Ohio State for what many thought to be the right to lose to a talented Duke squad in the Finals.

Duke came in riding a 32-game winning streak (their only loss was the Cincinnati in the Great Alaska Shootout, don’t ask me why I know such things) with a roster loaded with NBA draft picks – William Avery, Trajan Langdon, Shane Battier, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette.

But the Huskies hung with Duke the whole game, trailing by just two at the half, thanks in large part to 13 points from defensive specialist Ricky Moore. The second half became the Rip Hamilton Show, as the junior with the silky smooth jumper finished his last collegiate game with 27 points.

The game ended in unbelievable fashion. With UConn up 75-74, everyone’s favorite pudge-ball Khalid El-Amin drove baseline and threw up an airball, which Trajan Langdan collected with around 15 seconds left. He brought the ball up court and tried to go one-on-one against Moore. Moore forced him into a travel. El-Amin would rattle home two free throws, setting up the finish. Langdon would once again take the inbounds and dribble into a double team before turning the ball over.

And that was it.  So what is my memory?

elamin2

Seeing Khalid El-Amin screaming “WE SHOCKED THE WORLD” before jumping into Jake Voskuhl’s arms.

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Verne Lundquist Just Had an Aneurysm (submitted by Patrick Marshall of Bluejay Basketball)

Being a big Kentucky fan most of my life, no one can forget the 1992 East Regional Final of Kentucky vs. Duke.  The game was spectacular but what made the Kentucky team so special were the players that were affectionately known as “The Unforgettables.”  Kentucky’s basketball program had been dragged through the mud four years before in a major scandal involving academic fraud and improper payments to recruits.  However, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods chose to stay with the program and as seniors in their first eligible appearance, they made a surprising run in the NCAA tournament that year to the regional finals against Duke.  The three-point shot has been one of the most exciting innovations in college basketball and the Cats’ love of the three-point shot is what established my love for these Wildcats. As the Wildcats drove deeper into March, I just had to watch that game.

laettner-baseline-shot
Back in the day I had this black and white portable tv and I remember taking it to high school musical practice so I could still watch the game while we had rehearsal.  I seem to remember that Kentucky was down somewhat big (12 pts), but some key threes got them back into the game and eventually sent the game into overtime.  As they battled in overtime it was down to what appeared to be one play.  Sean Woods drove to the basket and made an awkward bank-shot with 2.1 seconds left.  I was jumping around the room like mad and thought there was no way Duke would be able to get off a good shot – Kentucky has made it back to the Final Four.  However, it was not to be.  Duke inbounded the ball length of the court and Christian Laettner hit the storied shot that is now shown every year at tournament time.  Laettner finished his 10-10 shooting and 31 point night with a storybook ending as Duke went on the next week to gain back-to-back NCAA championships.  I just said to myself over and over, “How did John Pelphrey not react fast enough to stop a 2/3 court pass to Laettner at the free throw line.  Not only that, but he just stood there and watched him shoot it.”   Oh, I so hate Duke and oh what could have been.

The game had all the drama you could ask for with the lead changing five times in the final 31 seconds of the game and both teams combining to shoot 63% in the second half and overtime.   But that final shot is what is the most recognizable and memorable part of that game.  This season Kentucky fans not only have to watch the shot again, but have to re-live the whole drama and feel the punch in the stomach again with a new commercial including Laettner and now turncoat Rick Pitino. But in the end, this game is considered by many to be the greatest college basketball game of all time.  I know I will never forget it.

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