It was the flashes that always stuck with me. The ball levitates from a referee’s hand at halfcourt, two tall guys jump toward the outskirts of heaven and the perpetual motion machine comes alive.
And the flashes. Early days, it was thousands of Instamatic camera. Later, it was the built-in flash from thousands of cell phones, all capturing that opening tip of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.
It was dizzying and surreal, sitting there a couple of rows away from the court, wearing my Sunday best, laptop yawning alive, as the opening tip of the NCAA championship game arrived. By fate and fortune, my seat was usually next to my friend, the late Ken Burger, from the Charleston, S.C., paper. Burger, among many philosophical observations shared with me over the years, once noted that “the reason so many kids play soccer is so they don’t have to watch it..”
As I look back at the 11 Final Fours I attended over a 12-year stretch, the memories collected are the odd ones. Push come to shove, I could probably go Wiki-free and name all the sites in order. Maybe the champions. (Arizona in Indy; Kentucky in San Antonio; UConn in St. Pete; Duke in New Orleans – nope, blew it already.)
I wish I were more of a sports savant to better remember the winners and the losers and the players. Instead, the hoarding space in my skull is filled with snapshots of flashes from other peoples’ snapshots; Ken Burger philosophy; the wee-hours post-finals buffet in the media hotel with unwinding and storytelling till dawn; the Saturday night adrenaline rush of two gamers, a column and a notebook produced in a four-hour window; time-killing among the hum of the Riverwalk and the fluorescent nightmare of the Mall of America; the time with colleagues, the thing I most miss as print journalism withered and left so many of us stranded.
To steal the TV phrase that is nails-on-chalkboard to my ears, I got “my ticket punched” to a lot of great events. None did I appreciate and revere more than the NCAA Final Four. My first World Series, as a long-time baseball guy, was a dream. An Olympics overseas was incredible. For years, though, I imagined myself in those courtside seats at a Final Four.
I fell in love with college basketball my freshman year at Memphis State. And like the first time you fall in love, you get your heart broken.
First time, it was by a legend from my own hometown. Richard Fuqua, who I still argue is the best high school player ever in Chattanooga, scored 42 points (six above his season average) to beat Memphis State in the NIT semifinals. The next year, after an amicable parting between myself and the academics at Memphis State, the Tigers made it all the way to the NCAA finals only to have Bill Walton put up his incandescent 44 points on 21-for-22 shooting, the best offensive performance in the NCAA finals.
I take some solace that the University of Memphis won the NIT this year – wearing Memphis State throwbacks – and that Oral Roberts washed out before it could become a major story and that Louisville didn’t even get a bid. I still had the Michigan vs. UCLA conundrum the other night, much like picking sides in some “Real Housewives” reality show.
I know enough hoops to have won more than my share of office bracket pools and I still watch as much as I can. (Watching I love; listening to some of the pompous broadcast voices is medieval torture.) I don’t know the players as well as I used to when I had AP poll and All-America votes, but that Jalen Suggs kid at Gonzaga is going to sell a lot of sneakers these days and I’m convinced that Mark Few is the basketball equivalent of Nick Saban with a personality.
I’ll get a little wistful on Monday night, and more of things will flutter up around among the hoarded memories.
And I’ll be standing next to my big-screen TV when the opening tip goes up.
All the better to experience the flashes.