My first memory of college basketball was sitting at my great grandmother’s kitchen table in Bradenton, Florida in 1994. Corliss Williamson was featured on the front page of whatever local daily was covering the NCAA Tournament that year. His jersey said “RAZORBACKS” on it and I that was really cool. “Razor”. That’s a really demonstrative word for a second grader. There was a school called Temple. “That’s odd, but also kinda cool.” I didn’t know what it all was, but I was in.
The next year I was down in Brandenton again for spring break. My dad needed help filling out his office bracket pool and wanted to show me how it worked. I wasn’t exactly sure what this whole tournament thing was, but I liked the idea of filling out a tournament field. I’d gotten a college basketball book from the Scholastic Book Fair and read it religiously. I knew all of the teams. I’d studied that damn 40 page book from cover to cover. I knew Lawrence Moten from Syracuse, and I knew Tony Delk from Kentucky. I knew Cherokee Parks from that awful Duke team. I knew fucking LaVeldro Simmons from Tulane. Brackets unearthed something dormant in my DNA that year but it was college basketball that was truly unleashed. I loved the pomp and circumstance. I loved the passion. I loved the mascots and the uniforms and energy. I loved filling out that bracket.
1995 was a red letter year for me in a lot of ways, but it was the first time I was really, truly into March Madness. It was the beginning of something big. In the coming years I would sneak radios into school to listen to games during algebra class. I hand-made giant posterboards depicting the tournament each year, meticulously crafting the bracket down to the millimeter. It was an annual mental pilgrimage. It was Christmas.
Sneaking radios into math class evolved into cutting class in college to watch Northwestern State beat Iowa. That evolved into taking real-live time off from work to fire up CBS at 11am and watch 96-hours worth of college basketball without moving a muscle. These are the four best days of the year and it’s not even close. When those first conference tournament games would begin on March 1st (or Feb. 27 if you were the OVC) I knew it was time to party. The CBS NCAA Tournament intro music still gives me chills.
March Madness is as much a part of my soul as anything in this world. For a long time the only thing I ever wanted was to see a 16-seed beat a 1-seed. When UMBC did the unthinkable against Virginia two years ago I got so many text message from well-wishers. “Dude, this is really happening.” “Holy shit! The wait is over!” I was awestruck. Decades of waiting had finally paid off.
I crystallized my favorite sports moment a few years ago when I received a framed painting depicting Bryce Drew’s half-court heave that put Valpo over Ole Miss in 1997. Personalized by Bryce and Homer, no less. I always thought that Drew’s shot encapsulated sports for me in one beautiful shining moment. The mid-major. The upset. The ecstasy of a thrilling finish. There are too many sacred memories to recount.
But none of that happens this year. At 11am today (when this post is symbolically going live) there will be no Jim Nantz or Clark Kellogg. There will be no 4 vs. 13 matchup. There will be no overlap of four simultaneous games, daring you to switch from one to the other throughout the day. Nope. Today we mourn the one year we go without college basketball. A void whose depth is sucking up all of those vivid memories we’ve collected for decades and reflecting them right back at you into one horrifying realization that it’s not happening this year. There is no bracket. There are no upsets. There is no thrill. There won’t be any Tyus Ednys or Adam Morrisons this year. Today we mourn.
I know we’re all there at some level today. Probably cooped up indoors, ironically with nothing to do. The perfect few days to park it and watch the greatest sporting event in the world. But we can’t. And I’m empty as sports fan.
I invite you to share your favorite March Madness thoughts and memories. What does it mean to you? Why do you keep coming back to college basketball? What’s your favorite tournament memory? Who was the greatest team you ever had the privilege of seeing?
I look forward to it all.