Submitted by Amerikaner Sportsfan
I asked the staff at the Sun if a sports essay was allowed. What’s the pitch? Well, I told them I had on the ground reporting involving the most magical cinderella run in the tournament’s history. I was told to write a minimum of 500 words and avoid vulgarity. Read on for an introduction to the experience we in the sports fandom world call March Madness.
March Madness is a marketing term for the NCAA men’s division 1 basketball tournament that decides its champion. It is a single elimination tournament of seeded teams one through sixteen in four regions culminating in a Final Four that settles the immortal champion. One game each round. Tried and true blue blood teams that have won plenty of titles and no name colleges with no chance to win making an appearance as they won their small conference title and get an automatic bid (they get a cut of the TV contract deal money for each round they play in). It is in March, and the many upsets cause the madness.
I grew up playing basketball all through high school and even one year at a D3 school before I realized I hit my ceiling and transferred to a Big 10 school once I figured out picking a school for the chance to play basketball and not the academic program was a mistake. My son plays still, and I coached him in junior high. I have a close college mate who lives south of Indianapolis while I live in the Chicago area. The NCAA spreads out sites for games so with the rotation either my friend or I play host for the other, and we make attending games a tradition. We’ve seen March Madness together for nearly a dozen occasions since graduating college. Our sons now can join us. This year both of our cities were hosting, and due to scheduling, we could see two weekends of games. We bought our tickets well in advance and set the proper school absences up in preparation. Our wives could take turns hosting two extras who would be loud on off days for the tournament when we were not at the arenas.
Indianapolis hosted an opening round, and for the uninitiated, the opening round has the wild pairings of heavy favorites and weak underdogs as well as frisky mid-seeds. The magic happens this weekend, and you see four games one day broken up by a multi-hour meal break to pump money into the host city and then a follow up duo of games two days later. This weekend is the most fun of any weekend, and I’ve seen all rounds of the tournament. You can buy a tee shirt with a small college’s mascot that you will never see again. There is a college that uses billikens as a mascot. I bought that shirt years ago. Chicago hosted what are called the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds of the tourney, where the better teams play superior ball but the magic of potential upsets is lacking and the arenas can be bigger a la a football stadium converted to half use to host a basketball game.
What makes it special? My friend and I were Purdue grads expecting Purdue to be seeded at the Indianapolis site for a quasi-home setting, but alas, they were jobbed. We adopted teams to cheer for, and with Kentucky seeded in Indianapolis, we knew no matter what, we would cheer against Kentucky. Games started a little after noon, so we arrived and followed the throng of people streaming into the arena. Everyone is hopeful. Your team has a one in sixty-four chance just like any other. The college kids who make it there add an energy to the experience that pro sports lack. They will get loud. They will scream stupidly for hours as only the young can. The coeds add Honey Shot potential for the cameras. The Honey Shot is when the television producer has the camera cut to a cute female fan in between a play, which is how Pam Anderson was discovered and with the right implants, halter top and cowgirl hat it might start a sports journalism career. Their energy is infectious. They get complemented by the colleges bringing their bands and playing music throughout the games. Sometimes they butcher contemporary songs and other times they nail “Seven Nation Army”.
It’s also an opportunity for alumni to show up. It’s not just a fanbase a la pro sports events, but the actual alumni use these weekends as mini-reunions. We did. I know others did right near us as we sat next to Michigan alums and they all swapped stories of time on campus, how the team looks now and how teams of yore played. In the meal break between the two sessions, you talk about the two games you just saw and connect with strangers at the bars and restaurants right around the arena. If you’re blessed with great games and great weather, you get a multi-block party atmosphere as everyone is happy and riding the wave. By going to games, you mention other big games you saw and the hope for magic moments at this event. We just so happened to be treated to one involving Kentucky and a little college from northern New Jersey called St. Peter’s.
As a bit of background, Kentucky is as blue blooded a college basketball program as they come. They have won titles, had hall of fame coaches, had plenty of stars go through their program and are a perennial favorite to compete for the title. They currently are coached by an Italian scumbag who has used dirty recruiting methods, leaving behind sanctioned teams wherever he has coached. The other thing they have is a fanbase that is devoted to them, that travels well and knows the game even better. They make any game fun to attend. Female Kentucky fans will bedazzle any surface they can on their UK attire. Whether age 6 or 60, there will be sparkle, pizazz and sequins on a jacket or shirt, sometimes both. As the game began, we saw that 80% of the arena was Kentucky blue and little St. Peter’s had about 50 fans. We looked around and decided we were all in on St. Peter’s.
In the earlier session, my crowd had made mini-friends with some guys around us and with a couple beers and many jokes, we had a good crew of fifteen guys cheering and joking in unison. This small crew would be a troll army against all the UK fans around us. Kentucky was an 18 point favorite (that’s a point spread) over the helpless St. Peter’s team. St. Peter’s was small. Literally, they were not a tall team. They didn’t bring a band. They had no cheerleaders. Their 50 fans were mostly family members. It was David vs. Goliath. We just hoped for a decent game, forget the upset of the tourney.
They hung around. Longer they hung around, more we needled at Kentucky fans about the little underdog that didn’t know it was supposed to be an exhibition. At the half it was tied, and we were having fun seeing the bedazzled UK fans look anxious. The game resumed and St. Peter’s stayed in it. The UK crowd was nervous all second half as they couldn’t shake the little underdogs. Kentucky fans thought it was over with 3 minutes to go and an 8 point lead, cheering and doing their war whoops for their tribe. It’s all about the team as these top programs recruit one and done guys who move to the NBA. Problem was the St. Peter’s team didn’t flinch. Their white boy with a wispy mustache hit a 3 pointer and then a miraculous floater that bounced for what felt like 5 seconds to tie it as the clock wound down. After five minutes of overtime, the little 15 seed St. Peter’s team stood victorious.
There was no band to play for them and no cheerleaders for the cameras to show going wild. They had 50 fans in a crowd of 19,000. I had a friend call me to say he thought he saw me on tv going nuts at the win, and I said “maybe because they had no fans and wanted anyone on camera who looked happy”. Despite the excitement and the hangover from that rush, we were treated to another overtime game that pushed our night after midnight. Everyone left the stadium in a good mood talking about the little St. Peter’s team that could. We got home at 2am talking nothing but basketball on the way home and explaining to our sons strategy, heart and what they just witnessed. We had nothing to do the next day but sleep in, catch up socially, and watch a day’s worth of games at other sites on television. We texted some other Purdue friends to get online and snatch up Kentucky fans’ tickets that were now on the secondary market. it took some cajoling but two friends managed tickets in our section. Now we had a bigger stable for Saturday.
If you paid attention to sports reporting on the tournament, much ink was spent on explaining how great it was to see St. Peter’s win three games. They were a 15 seed, and only the tenth 15 seed to win a game. They managed to win three. We saw them win the second game Saturday, and this time they had no band but did have four cheerleaders and a dance team. Their dance team did not have flashy outfits, just black leggings and a white tee shirt that read “St. Peter’s Dance Team”. They were bigger girls. They had a femme black guy on the squad. It was like watching a team out of a 2020 time warp as they wore Black Lives Matter warm up shirts and wore masks. It didn’t matter. Their team won, and led from wire to wire. The single serving friends we made around us all were losing it at each basket, and we taunted Murray State fans that the St. P “Peacocks” were taking flight. Ca-Caw! When the game got tight and the white boy with the mustache shot a three (by this point we were shouting DOUGIE anytime he touched the ball), as he let it go, I said, “It’s good.” Play long enough, see enough games, and you know. My son grabbed my arm as we watched the shot fly, and when it hit we looked at one another stunned and wide eyed with excitement. My son couldn’t believe a bench player was taking the big shots, but I reminded him that you gotta take an open shot and not be afraid. I’ve been telling him this for six years so maybe seeing it in person from a Sam Rockwell looking player shorter than me will get the point through.
We repeated this process the next weekend in Chicago. We were treated to good games, but our real pain point was that St. Peter’s was playing our Purdue the same day. We couldn’t watch it. We had to settle for live look ins on the jumbotron. Damn St. Peter’s was hanging with highly ranked Purdue. We didn’t need the live look ins as we received texts in our group chat from fellow Purdue alums who critiqued the coaching strategy. It did not matter. St. Peter’s was a cinderella team of destiny. We spent the second weekend enjoying clinical basketball from Kansas and playing two on two with our sons in my driveway freezing our asses off. I could carry my friend, but the combined powers of our teenage sons were too much for our old joints. My wife made a lasagna for the day between games because my friend’s wife informed mine that the boys had to eat more than nachos, popcorn and slushies.
On Sunday, the St. Peter’s cinderella run came to an end, and my friend and I parted. I know sportsball is considered a waste of time in these parts and that it is silly consumerism and woke. Please make fun of me for this. Panem et circenses. I’ll just remember this when the debates and presidential primary season returns in eighteen months (March Madness for nerds). Flippant dismissals do not matter when you don’t get it. I played as a kid. My dad coached me. I first went to March Madness with him. He can’t go anymore. I don’t pay much attention to the sport in season, but I know if games are in my city or my friend’s, I’m going to be there. Now my son will be in tow. It’s magic and these are memories that last. It’s a fact. My dad cemented it by calling me about me being able to see the St. Peter’s upset of Kentucky, and he said, “I haven’t been on edge like that at the end of the game in years, I was forcing your mom to wait in the car like in ’92-” to which I finished the sentence saying, “when we made mom and aunt Jane late for dinner to see Laettner hit that shot.”
It’s three weekends in March, allowing you to forget all about the sport until the next March. For a couple days, a city has a carnival atmosphere, and you talk to people you never will see again, but in that moment, you are losing it over a game, a call or a play with them. Just get some friends to join you and enjoy a weekend of the madness. Make new single serving friends. Wear your school colors. Enjoy life.