…and here we go again.
It all started in the Spring of 2003. What began as a mechanism for a bunch of friends, getting older and growing up to keep in touch and visit with one another has blossomed into an annual tradition and “event”. As my friends and I began to leave our surrogate home in Gainesville, Florida, we started losing touch. One moved to Utah, another departed for New Mexico, and yet another for San Diego. Until that Spring, we were limited to e-mails, the occasional phone call and the annual “Holiday letters” (which are dreadful, by the way…). One of the crew, we’ll call him “Dean”, decided to invite everyone to his place in Salt Lake City, Utah for the weekend for a visit. He planned it all out that we’d buy some tickets for the opening round games being played on campus at the University of Utah and on the off day, we’d go skiing, have a nice dinner and check out the “nightlife’ in Utah. We all signed on and did it with the blessing of Dean’s new wife. We caught some quality games that weekend, but one game completely altered the course of our lives forever.
#2 Arizona vs. #7 Gonzaga
If you don’t recall this game, we have come to know it as the “Luke Walton” game. Double overtime, Arizona wins as Gonzaga guard Blake Stepp misses a three pointer at the buzzer. This game had everything… a growing buzz from the crowd as the rallied behind the underdog Zags… a Bill Walton sighting in the stands… star players stepping up and hitting big shots when it counted… great basketball play (Arizona’s offense running through Luke Walton in the post at the end of the game was fantastic)… and all of us screaming our heads off and having a blast.
This was our gateway drug and we were hooked.
After that game and that weekend, we vowed that no matter what happened and what developments came in our lives, that we would always attend the tournament opening rounds in the place of our choice (TBD a year ahead of time). Some of us have to miss a year here and there (work commitments, children, etc…), but most of the group has vowed to make the trip and it’s special every time. As we get older and our lives change, staying in touch becomes more and more important and the buzz of NCAA opening weekend means much more to me these days.
The past 5 years, we’ve attended the opening rounds in Salt Lake City in 2003, Orlando in 2004, Austin, TX in 2005 (this was a Sweet 16- we couldn’t get tickets to the openers this year), Salt Lake again in 2006, and New Orleans in 2007. This year, we head to Denver.
Each year we purchase the tickets well in advance and have NO IDEA who is going to be playing at our site, but the drama builds as the selection show nears and the ‘Bracketologists’ start spaz-ing out. I have attended an extraordinary amount of tournament games the past two years. While I missed the opening rounds due to a wedding in ’06, I attended the Sweet 16. They were right in my backyard (Washington, DC) and my employer, George Mason University, was in the midst of their well publicized run at the time. When they made it to the Final Four and so did my beloved Gators, I had to make the trip to Indianapolis (Don’t ask who I rooted for, it’s still a sore subject around my campus). Last year, I was lucky enough to have the Gators placed in New Orleans during their historic 2nd title run. When they made it to the Final Four, knowing that was the last time we were going to see that group of guys together, I had to make the trip to Atlanta.
This brings us back to Denver. Again, I got lucky Mason has been placed here to face the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. So to say that I have NO rooting interest is not completely true, but most times, we just show up and root for a good game and a good time.
I will be chronicling my trip this weekend through the Bleacher Report and not so much in a “running diary” type format, or doing a lot of play-by-play of the games. All of that stuff you’ll see on TV. I’ll be talking about the stuff Bill Rafftery, Gus Johnson and Billy Packer can’t tell you. The sight, sounds, smells of the games… the idiosyncrasies of the crowds… band, cheerleader and dance team rankings… and the moments off the court and appropriately, in the bleachers, that make our annual journey special. Here’s a sample (names are changed to protect the not so innocent):
2003: Between games, I took a phone call from my then girlfriend and a discussion began about whether she should move to this apartment that she was looking at. Long story short… the conversation took forever and I missed half of the Duke/Western Michigan game. We broke up that May. I still get hell for this with the crew every time I touch my phone around them.
2004: In the off day between games, our trip to Daytona Beach became eventful, including my still record, 22 beers consumed over the course of the day, leading to the now legendary falling asleep in the 2nd row of a game the next day, as well as the sighting of a certain star player for Mississippi State “cat calling” some woman from across the street in downtown Orlando.
2006: The whole crew ended up hitching a ride during the dinner break with the Hartford Company’s executive ‘outing’ of some sort. They just got on the bus that they totally didn’t belong on and started eating and drinking these people’s free food. Think ‘Wedding Crashers’, but with 8 guys and much louder and obnoxious than Vince and Owen.
2007: Just a mess all around. This one had everything, Dean getting “motor boated” in a restaurant at 3am, a Habitat for Humanity build at 7am when we got home at 4am the night before, our friend “Pedro” yelling at Corey Brewer of the Gators, “Coach better take you out! You’re up by 30, you could break an ankle!”, only to discover that Corey Brewer’s mother was sitting directly in front of Pedro. Ms. Brewer’s head turned around without her shoulders moving… picture Linda Blair in the exorcist. It was ugly.
Who knows what this year has in store this year, I’ll keep you posted.I would be remiss not to mention the other highlight of the trip, “March Madness bucks”. We all put $20 into a pot upon arrival and in turn get twenty fake $1 bills. During the course of the weekend, you can bet these dollar bills with others in the group on any and everything EXCEPT outcome of the game (wins and losses). For instance, I bet Pedro that DaJuan Wagner would take more “bad” shots than Chuck Hayes has dunks, or I bet Florida wins by 40 points (an actual bet vs. Jackson St. last year which was “covered” when one of the bench scrubs hit a buzzer beating 3 pointer while up by 38). Other famous “madness bucks” bets… Number of times Nick Fazekas dunks vs. times he gets dunked on, number of times the band will play the fight song, whether a team will put 5 white players on the court at once, etc…
Opening weekend of the tourney means buzzer beating baskets to win games, scrappy underdogs taking ‘Big State’ school to their limits and sometimes winning the game outright. Opening weekend brings joy to some ‘mid-major’ school each year and crushes the hopes and dreams of a contender. It sparks debates on talk radio shows throughout the country and begins ridiculous wagers amongst friends and co-workers. This year… I didn’t even fill out a bracket. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as excited as ever, but it’s about my boys, not about the baskets.
We’ll see if I feel the same 8 minutes into game 1 on Thursday.
I hope you’ll share the ride with us.
Part II of the Denver Chronicles will be posted Friday after the first round games…