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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Reflections on March Madness

I had figured I'd follow March Madness like mostly everyone else, by watching games on Thursday and Friday nights and sneaking a peak at Yahoo! or ESPN.com for scores every now and then during the day. I'm not emotionally connected to any particular team, so I figured I'd just watch the most compelling action (given that CBS decides that for you) and hope that I could catch early on whether a #15 or #16 seed was doing the unthinkable.

Wednesday afternoon, about mid-afternoon, I got a call from a long-time, close friend who told me that he had an extra ticket for the Friday night games at The Wachovia Center in Philadelphia and asked if I would like to join him. "Sure," I said, as I have some fond memories of attending NCAA playoff games at what's now the Wachovia Spectrum with my father. "That would be great." Connecticut and Kentucky, here I come.

About a half hour later another friend called, asking me to the afternoon session. That's about as close an example of lightning striking twice in the same place that I can think of as having happened in my life, except this would be much better than lightning -- call it winning a lottery -- twice in two days. I declined the second invitation because my schedule didn't permit my blowing off work for most of the day, and, in doing so, I passed on the chance to go to the Villanova-Monmouth game in what was a charged atmosphere because Villanova was playing in its home city. That was a bummer, but even with my love of hoops my life is such right now that I only can afford so much spontaneity.

Having given up tickets to the 1992 Duke-Kentucky regional final to go with my then-girlfriend (now wife) to a wine tasting, I knew that I could have been tempting basketball fate again. That was the last time I passed on going to an NCAA tourney game in person, and, well, would I be passing on another all-time game again? I confess that I did switch over from work-related stuff to Yahoo! a few times to track the scores of the games at the Wachovia Center, only to be relieved that Villanova won and that no one was talking about the Wonder of Wachovia the way old enough Philadelphia Eagles fans talk about the Miracle of the Meadowlands.

I made my way down I-95 (which is almost a contact sport -- if the trucks don't get you the potholes could) into Center City Philadelphia, only to hit a traffic snarl right off the Vine Street Expressway owing to both the Friday afternoon rush and St. Patrick's Day. Ultimately, I met my friends for a drink and some appetizers off Walnut Street, and then we drove down Broad Street (and you gotta love South Philadelphia, where people park on the median and get away with it -- and have since I can remember) to the Wachovia Center. We joked that the UConn-Albany game would be over in the first five minutes, and we thought that UAB-Kentucky would be the compelling game of the night.

It's nice going in comfort. While the Wachovia Center lacks the intimacy of its neighbor to the south, the Wachovia Spectrum (where, among others, Dr. J and Moses Malone played for the 76ers' title team in 1982-1983 and where that fabled Duke-Kentucky game took place), it has good sight lines and there was nothing bad about being in a Club Box for the games. Sitting in our area were several NBA types, including 76ers scout (and former Villanova and Celtic player and NBA coach Chris Ford and NBA all-time great, former Celtic and current head honcho for hoops at Minnesota, Kevin McHale). They were pretty much left alone, and we settled into our seats to watch the first game.

I want to establish that I did pick UConn to win this tournament, and I didn't expect to go to these games and spend any emotional fan energy. After all, I have no real connection to any of these schools, the closest being that an office neighbor's son graduated from UConn last year. Armed with that, I was going to watch some spirited college hoops, I thought, and that was it.

But then the SUNY-Albany Great Danes showed up.

Big-time.

No one told them that they were supposed to make a demonstration for about six minutes, perhaps even score the first hoops, and then fade away and lose by a respectable seventeen or so. If they were supposed to have been told, then the memo got lost.

Because Albany, you see, came to play. The bright lights and the presence of Billy Packer and Jim Nance didn't overwhelm them (I was quite grateful not to have to endure that dynamic duo of college hoops broadcasting malpractice while watching the game), and the crowd got into it the way passionate Philadelphia crowds can. That's the risk for a top seed at any of these venues -- fall behind to an underdog, and the underdog captures the crowd's hearts and suddenly about 3/4 of the 20,000 or so in attendance is pulling against you (which typically is about 3-4 times as many fans as the underdog's gym holds).

The risk materialized for UConn. Albany was up a few at the half, played fluid basketball, got after the Huskies on defense and took good shots. Most importanly, they didn't turn the ball over. UConn, in contrast, looked in a daze. I doubt that Rudy Gay impressed the NBA scouts with his sleepwalking act, and I'm sure Josh Boone didn't have Kevin McHale returning to Minneapolis saying "I've got to get this guy." I also doubt that any Albany player vaulted onto the "must-have" list of one of the NBA scouts, but all had to admire the Great Danes' grit.

And then the game got even more interesting. Because UConn didn't come storming out of the locker room to blow out Albany right after intermission. Instead, the Huskies played as though someone was spiking their water bottles with Ambien. The Great Danes continued to play crisply, and they were up twelve with about ten and a half to go.

That said, this was the conversation the three of us had at halftime.

Me: "Boy, this would be great if it could stick. Grown men would actually be crying at this kind of upset."

Friend: "Lot of time left. A lot can happen."

Me: "I suppose you're right. Albany will play well for a total of 33, 34 minutes, and then their ride will turn into a pumpkin. UConn could go on something like a 25-4 run and the game will be over."

Honestly, that was the conversation, and it was partially correct. Albany lasted about 35, 36 minutes, but it was around a little before that time that UConn stormed back, thanks, in large part, to PG Marcus Williams, and by the time the game ended UConn won by about 12 (okay, it might have been 13), but it was precisely that big type of run that ruined Albany.

What happened?

First, UConn woke up.

Second, Albany got tired. They couldn't cover inside and outside the way they did for the first 30 minutes, with the result that UConn's shooters were getting good looks in the last 10 minutes. There's a reason you play a somewhat tough non-conference schedule and a brutal conference schedule -- to give yourself the experiences necessary to rebound from a bad half. To UConn's credit, they played well enough to win. They needed to find a different gear, and they did.

Yet, most of the cheers were for Albany (except for those of the UConn faithful). The Great Danes were great indeed, and they were very fun to watch. The game was a lot closer than the final score, but, yes, we're still awaiting a #16 to upset a #1 seed. It has never happened since the tournament went to 64 (now 65) teams, and we might have to wait another 25 years for it to happen. But watching the #16 have a 12-point lead on a #1 seed with 10 and a half to go was about as exciting as it could have been.

The game also marked another chapter in a personal journey for me regarding the NCAA playoffs in Philadelphia. My father, who is long-since deceased, and I went to two Final Fours in Philadelphia, the first in 1976 and the second in 1981. (It is a profound shame and virtual scandal that in its quest to squeeze every last dime out of this tournament, the NCAA has forsaken some of the true college basketball hotbeds in the country -- most prominently, Philadelphia -- for the multi-purpose stadiums that hold 50,000 plus people (and give most of them bad seats for hoops). I was a teenager then, and there's something great about going to a big-time event with your dad.

In 1976, we watched two undefeated teams play in the Final Four. We saw Indiana, coached by then-Bobby Knight (with his plaid sports jacket), which had a starting lineup of Quinn Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernathy, Scott May and Kent Benson, and we saw Rutgers, coached by Tom Young, who had, among others, a PG named Eddie Jordan (now the Wizards coach) and a SF named Phil Sellers, who was Rutgers' star (there was also a fine young center named James Bailey, who went on to play in the NBA). Indiana played John Wooden's last Final Four team and won a high-scoring affair in the first round, while Rutgers ran into Michigan, coached by Johnny Orr, and lost in double figures. Michigan had Phil Hubbard and Ricky Green, a super-quick PG, on its roster. In the final, Michigan played great in the first half, taking a five-point lead into halftime, and, thereafter, it was all Indiana. The Hoosiers played an even better second half, an almost-perfect one, and won 86-68 to give Coach Knight his first national title. It was a great weekend, seeing the Final Four in one of the best cities to watch a basketball game.

(There was an interesting quote from Arizona PG Mustafa Shakur, a Philadelphia native, regarding Arizona's pending meeting against Villanova today. Shakur indicated it would be exciting going up against some of the Villanova guys he knows from Philadelphia or summer leagues. He said that playing against them at the Wachovia Center would be great, but not as great as playing them either on the playground or at Penn's Palestra. I think that most Philadelphians would agree with the Arizona guard's sentiments about the venue. A Final Four will not take place at Penn's fabled Palestra, but it it were to the drama and intensity would more than make up for the 41,000 fewer fans the building can hold).

We had a great time in 1976 with one of my dad's closest friends and the friend's hoop-playing brothers, and we returned with them to the Spectrum in 1981 to watch Indiana vie again for a national title. The semifinals pitted North Carolina, led by Al Wood, against Virginia, with Ralph Sampson. Indiana, led by a sophomore guard named Isiah Thomas, was pitted against LSU, led by a guard named Howard Carter. Wood had a career-like game against UVA, scoring something like 44 points, and Indiana handled LSU rather easily. The week of the game was marred by Knight's allegedly thrusting a reporter into a trash can. At dinner the night of the semifinals, I even met Bill Mlkvy, the two-time first-team all-American from Temple (he played in the early 1950's) who had one of the best nicknames of all time --the Owl without a Vowel. Great nickname. Very nice man, too.

Well, a sad thing happened the day of the national title game -- the President was shot. The game went on anyway (whether it should have was another story, as some argued quite eloquently that respect for the office alone should have caused the game to be delayed at least a day), and Isiah Thomas played his last game for Indiana and led them to a win over Carolina. Thomas turned pro after that season, and Coach Knight had his second national title. There was something about Indiana hoops then -- they played smart, they played hard, they had a lot of talent, and, quite frankly, the combination proved too much for most opponents. Isiah Thomas that weekend was just that much better than everyone else.

I'm probably not doing those experiences justice, but they were amazing. The whole arena was alive, lots of huge names in college hoops were in attendance, and you had lots of big names -- Wooden, Smith, Knight, UCLA, Indiana, Carolina. Most importantly, I was with my father and his friends, and we had a great bond generally and specifically over this stuff, and there was a warmth and bunch of smiles and excitement that I hope every father can share with his son. It was very special.

(In between, we went, in 1978, the Eastern Regional at the Spectrum, where we saw Syracuse with Louis Orr and Roosevelt Bouie, Maryland with Albert King, Georgetown with Craig Shelton, John Duren and Sleepy Floyd, and Iowa with Ronnie Lester and Bob Hansen -- to our great surprise, this white-haired coach from Iowa called some great trapping defenses, and, yes, it was Lute Olson's Hawkeyes who made it to the Final Four. But we also got a taste of John Thompson, Jr. and his first really good Georgetown team, and we had no doubt we'd see more of the Hoyas in years to come).

After that, the Final Four and Regional Finals drifted away from Philadelphia, and by 1986 my father had contracted cancer and died several months later. I suppose that the magic of going to games like these lost its luster, because I had lost not only my father, but a dear friend and someone with whom I enjoyed sharing experiences like those very much. Oh, I still liked watching games like that, especially for teams I really cared about, but the urge to go had left me a bit. While I did enter the lottery in 1992 and win four good seats to the 1992 Eastern Regional, which featured UMass with Marcus Camby, Seton Hall with Danny Hurley, Rick Pitino's Kentucky squad and Duke (with Grant Hill and Christian Laettner), after watching the Sweet 16 round I felt that Duke was so much better than Kentucky that it wouldn't be a contest. So I didn't feel that badly about giving up my tickets, and, I suppose, part of the reason was that while I cherish my friends (and the group I went to those games with is a great trio), I missed going with my father.

My father-in-law joked at our wedding that when he heard that I gave up tickets to the Duke-Kentucky game to go to a winetasting with is daughter, he had two conflict thoughts. He said, "As a future father-in-law I was gratified, but as a college basketball fan, I was appalled." I'm sure that my father would have shared similar sentiments, although it might well have been the case that had he been alive I would have gone to the games (as it was, my then girlfriend now wife told me that it would have been totally okay for me to blow off the winetasting because she knew then, and knows now, what a big hoops fan I am). At any rate, I am better off for having passed on the Duke-Kentucky game, and I am grateful for the opportunities presented me last week.

I found I actually hadn't left college hoops because of my father's passing. I'm glad I had the chance to go to the games on Friday night, because my attendance there helped rekindle that warm feeling, one that I thought I couldn't replicate, about special, spirited events like that again.

My host made the night a special one simply by including me.

The Great Danes made the night an extra-special one by reminding everyone in the country why the games are played in the first place and why the champion of any league deserves a berth in this wonderful tournament.

And, yes, my bracket remains in tact (my four Final Four teams are still alive) and my son, of all things, is a Duke fan.

To top it off, my mother told me last week that I was looking very well-preserved, especially compared to that coach that people think look like me. A native Philadelphian and sports fan, she knows a lot about the game and was very supportive of my father's and my love for basketball. That said, she hasn't kept totally current on the college game, as witnessed by the following exchange:

Mom: "You know, I saw that coach who looks like you on TV the other night. My God, how he's aged. You look so much better than he does."

Me: "Which coach are you talking about?"

Mom: "The guy who coaches Syracuse."

Me: "Jim Boeheim."

Mom: "That's him. He really got old looking."

Me: "Mom, Jim Boeheim is at least 15 years older than I am."

Mom: "Really? I thought he was your age. Now wonder why you look so good."

March Madness, indeed.

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