Stream of consciousness...
Plenty of people take the first 2 days of the NCAA Tournament off from work, meet up with friends, make one last plea to spouses, do the total immersion thing. But you really aren't a degenerate, a true and total degenerate, unless you have eaten three meals in the same bar on a Thursday or Friday in March -- one from the lunch menu, one from the dinner menu, one from the late menu, outlasting at least two shifts of bartenders and servers. Then, you know.
Prepare for rambling here. It is hard to explain this to people who don't get it in the first place. But to have been there in the Wachovia Center a couple of years ago when the Great Danes of Albany took mighty UConn to hell and back before succumbing -- to listen to 90 percent of 20,000 people raucously enraptured by a group of underdogs whose names they barely knew, well, you really did have to be there. And to be there even once in your life is never to leave again.
I once saw 16th seeded East Tennessee State rim out a potential game-winner against Oklahoma. I also once saw Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs in the championship game against Kansas. It was an all-Big Eight final against Larry Brown/Danny and the Miracles, and it was played in a small arena in Kansas City, and it was a riot. Tubbs nearly jumped to the ceiling after the first whistle against his team and a veteran official went over to him and said, "Will you please calm down? We're all nervous enough as it is and you're just making it worse."
I also saw Tubbs in a regional final against Villanova. He was griping in the days leading up to the game that coaches outside the East got no respect. He said, "I know, maybe I need to change my name. What do you think of Tubbsimino?"
Let's just say Villanova coach Rollie Massimino was not amused. Rollie. I can remember at the Final Four in 1985, he sat at the huge press conferences and told warm, charming stories while a bunch of Philadelphia writers -- whom Massimino had been snapping at all season -- sat in the back of the room and asked each other, "Who is that guy?"
That was Rollie. John Chaney was the guy who walked around the lobby of an Atlanta hotel the night before his last regional final and handed out leftover soul food to total strangers, serving from a tray.
Rambling here. Totally rambling. When Chaney lost the last game, it was always a tearful spectacle, all hugging and sobbing and laughing in between. For many of the other city teams, usually underdogs, there was quick and bitter disappointment. Soon, though, there was the renewed glow of validation that only this tournament can bring to its invitees.
Oh, they just love getting here -- getting to the arena, just soaking it all in. Some of them are nervous, some hilarious. One time, La Salle assistant Joe Mihalich (not the coach at Niagara) pointed to an opposing coach in the building with a sketchy reputation and said, "He has only two rules: be on time and no smoking on the bench."
Those La Salle teams never made a run. There's nothing like a run, especially when it comes out of nowhere. Penn's run to the Final Four in 1979 was like that, silly magic. A couple of Chaney's runs to the final eight were like that. Villanova in 1985 was completely unexpected. And it is still easy to remember the morning of the game. After an all-night poker game -- completely the fault of Bob Ford, by the way -- the phone rang a couple of hours past sunrise with the terrible news that former Villanova coach Al Severence had died in a Lexington hotel room that morning. (Bob Vetrone was rooming with him.)
This tournament is life, in many ways -- or, at least, the best part of it. In a hard-bitten sports city, it is a wonderful vacation: 3 weeks, no complaining, just fun.
It's always better to play on the second day -- you get more time to live the dream. Temple played the first game out of the box last year at Denver and was eliminated before lunch in the Mountain time zone. That's no way to go out. The Owls had a similar ending one year in Boise -- they lost by about 30 -- and Mike Kern kept asking, "They came all the way out there for this?" (I think it was his lede the next day.)
On the way home from Boise, the office said to stop in Oklahoma City and cover those games. I got off of the plane, walked into the arena, put down my bags in the press room and looked up at the television to see Valparaiso's Bryce Drew hit that famous three-point buzzer beater to knock out fourth-seeded Mississippi State. I remember running out to the court to catch the end of the celebration. I remember trying to imagine what it sounded like at the moment the ball fell through the net.
Once. You only have to see it once. It gets you then, and it never lets go.