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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