Growing up you hear about sports being a metaphor for “life.” It teaches you to play by rules, you learn to deal with adversity, you develop the skills of teamwork and cooperation. And then there’s the sheer joy of just playing the game. For me, it invariably involved balls of varying sizes and shapes and, through genetic good fortune and some great early coaching from my Dad, I became pretty adept, a “good athlete.” One of the ways you learn about sports, about how to play, about how a game works, is simply through observation --- watching others do it. Going to Bay Shore High School football and basketball games when I was in Middle School, I pictured myself as Howie Swanson, the quarterback, or gritty little Eddie Parker, the defensive-minded point guard. Television, of course, allowed us to watch the greatest athletes in every sport display their skills --- at first in black and white but later in “living color” --- and on larger screens. Sometimes we’d even get to go to Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden (the old one, on West 50th Street) to actually see the stars in person.
The NCAA collegiate men’s basketball championship began to take on meaning for me around 1964, with the emergence of the UCLA dynasty. Prior to that I had been aware of Ohio State (with Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Larry Siegfried, and Bob Knight) and Cincinnati (with Oscar Robertson, Paul Hogue, George Wilson, Tom Thacker, and Ron Bonham) and their early 1960’s rivalry but Ohio was somewhere “out there” in the middle of the country. UCLA and its Hollywood sheen, with John Wooden coaching Walt Hazard and Gail Goodrich (a quick little left handed guard --- the perfect role model!) leading their full court zone press --- now that was something to watch! Their incredible seasons (30-0 in ’63-’64 & 28-2 in ’64-’65 and on and on from there) were inspirational, as was the line of All-Americans from Hazard to Walton, as they dominated college basketball from 1964-1975. So that’s when I got hooked on March Madness and I have been ever since. In the 1970’s and 1980’s my friends and I would make regular trips to “the Garden” to see the great college hoops teams like Bob Knight’s undefeated Indiana group in 1976. Watching Darrell Griffith’s 1980 Louisville Cardinals lose to New Rochelle’s Jim Valvano coached Iona (we were all teaching in Westchester County at the time) was one of the great spectacles of college basketball for us. (That Louisville team went 30-3 and won the National Championship that year)
We’re actually going to the Garden Tuesday night to the NIT semifinal, since the NCAA tickets at the Garden this past weekend were prohibitively priced (even the Regional games at Barclay$ in Brooklyn co$t a ridiculous amount). The point is, college basketball is great fun and March Madness is one of the great sports spectacles we have. All that said, how crazy has this year’s tournament been? By the end of the first weekend 41% of those who filled in the Brackets on ESPN’s website (where you can fill out “up to 25”) were busted! While I’m a big “underdog” fan (who isn’t, right?), it was shocking to see the defending national champs, Villanova, leave in the Round of 32. In fact, my “East Regional” bracket was a total disaster, failing to get ONE correct pick for the “Sweet Sixteen.” Thank goodness I’m not a betting man. In the Midwest I didn’t do much better (ONE out of four). In the West bracket I got 2 out of 4 and the South showed 3 out of 4. Six out of sixteen would be a great baseball batting average but, as “bracketology” goes --- that sucks!
Nonetheless, we’re headed into Final Four Madness (which CBS might call “Apesh*t April” if they could get away with it) with Pacific Northwest teams lining up against Carolina teams. The Cinderella South Carolina team, with coach Frank Martin (whose haberdasher is straight out of The Godfather’s Little Italy), are sentimental favorites, no doubt, as they take on the “always a bridesmaid” Gonzaga Bulldogs (from Spokane, WA). The “Zags” have qualified for the tournament every year since 1999 and twice made the Regional Final (Elite Eight) but, like the Gamecocks (yup, that’s South Carolina’s mascot), this is their first trip to the Final Four --- so there’s some sentiment there, too.
The other semifinal is between the Ducks of Oregon --- making their first Final Four appearance since 1939 (when they won the tournament) --- against the University of North Carolina, who lost last year’s championship game at the buzzer to Villanova. In a record 20th Final Four appearance, UNC will be the favorite but the way this tournament has gone, who knows?
If you’re not a basketball fan, you probably stopped reading this a while ago --- and that’s fine. My love for the “college game” (I’m not much of an NBA fan simply because the players are too good and there are few surprises) helps make this one of those times of year --- like the World Series, the US Open in tennis, the Super Bowl --- that brings pleasure in the moment and with a history. It’s not just watching superb athletes and great coaches execute a sport that one used to play, hoping to achieve their level. It’s remembering Gail Goodrich and Bill Walton, Quinn Buckner and Darrell Griffith, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird competing on this exact same stage over the years. It’s Michael Jordan’s shot and Grant Hill’s pass to Laettner, it’s Kris Jenkins launching that jumper as the clock runs out and the Walton Gang losing to David Thompson in a Final Four semifinal in 1974. All of those memories, all of that history, is wound into this tournament every year.
Remembering what it was like to watch these spectacular athletes in the flower of their youth fulfilling the dream every ballplayer has about winning a championship is its own little Fountain of Youth for the spectator who used to play Saturday morning one-on-one games with his best friend, narrating a play-by-play in his head: “And the clock is running down. Johnson is backing Schaeffer down into the low post. There’s only a few seconds left. He turns and shoots the jumper and . . .”
Saturday night, 6:09 p.m. CBS. The Final Four.