Saturday, March 19, 2005

My Time Of Year

Day 3 of Big Dance madness. The NCAA men's basketball tournament is by far the best sporting event of the year. No matter how many high schoolers and college freshmen go pro, the allure and power of The Dance remains. (Still, think of tournaments where Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett might've played.) Nothing can diminish its intensity. Even Sixteen seeds, none of whom have ever beat a One, are electrified by the spectacle.

(Thirteen & Fourteen seeds as well -- Bucknell smacked Kansas? Vermont did Syracuse? The Dance is not choreographed, baby!)

When I was a kid, the entire NCAA field consisted of 22 teams, usually dominated by John Wooden's UCLA squads. Teams had to win their conference in order to compete. Because of this, the NIT, which established the first college tourney, put on a great show of its own, and was sometimes more entertaining to watch (this ended in 1975 when the NCAA expanded its field to 32, then to 64 in 1985). You never knew who might win the NIT, as opposed to the NCAA where, for the better part of a decade, the Bruins marched predictably to the Final, taking out Purdue, Jacksonville, Florida State, Memphis State, or whatever team was served up for sacrifice. The two breaks in that march came in 1966, when Texas Western's (now UTEP) African-American starting five smashed Adolph Rupp's apartheid Kentucky squad, and in 1974 when the NC State Wolfpack, led by "Skywalker" David Thompson, vanquished Marquette.

Many of my happier sports memories are tied to the Dance. NC State's other victory in '83, over Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma (boasting Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, perhaps one of the most talented teams never to win a championship) was a beaut to watch, last second jam by Lorenzo Charles to win it all. Villanova's sharp performance against Patrick Ewing's Georgetown in '85 was one of the finest offensive displays I've ever seen. Then there's Indiana's Keith Smart, hitting that smooth jumper to beat Syracuse in '87. And while not a great game, the '79 match up between Larry Bird's Indiana State and Magic Johnson's Michigan State had tremendous marquee appeal, a preview of the Eighties NBA.

The greatest Dance game, and for me the saddest, was, without doubt, the '92 East Regional final between Kentucky and Duke. Edge of your sofa shit. I was especially invested in this game because the Wildcats were my team. When Rick Pitino left the Knicks to take over a sanctions-straddled Kentucky program, I went with him. I lived in New York at the time, and was energized by what Pitino had done in his brief stint as the Knicks' head coach. His full court pressing style, willingness to run and shoot the trey whenever open got the Knicks back in the playoffs, but ultimately, Pitino's type of game was more suited for the college level. Within two years he turned Kentucky around, got them out of sanctions, and began recruiting some of the finer high school ballers nationwide.

I was convinced that Pitino would become the next Wooden -- or at the very least, another Mike Krzyzewski -- a fast-forward Wizard for the three point age. So when he faced Coach K in that regional final, I felt this was the breakthrough point. This was where Pitino would usher in the New Age of college hoops.

He came close. His squad, while extremely talented (led by Jamal Mashburn), was not quite on the level of Duke's power trio, Grant Hill, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley. Still, the Wildcats played as equals, primarily late in the second half, answering every Duke basket with one of their own, every great play with an even better play. The teams shot a combined 63% in the final 25 minutes, including overtime, where it was clear that whichever team had the final possession would win. To this day I do not understand why Pitino, who coached a brilliant game, did not put a big man in Grant Hill's face to stop, deflect or hurry his in-bounds pass. Hill had to throw it nearly full court. Why let this son of a Dallas Cowboys running back see the whole floor and take his time to plant and pass? I know -- double team the player receiving the ball. He'd have to catch and shoot immediately, so better to have two men in his face rather than in Hill's.

Well, we saw how that worked. Laettner, who was having one of his best offensive performances (31 points, 10 for 10 at the stripe), executed the catch and shoot flawlessly.


Man, that really depressed me. I hadn't felt that crushed since the Reds came back to beat my beloved Pirates in the '72 NLCS (Roberto Clemente's last game). I could barely watch the Final Four the following week, knowing in my heart that Kentucky should be there.

That's what you get for caring too much. Part of the American fan's pitfall, the place where emotion burns so hot, reason and sanity can barely breath. All fans have felt it at some point, and I'm willing to bet that the Big Dance has broken more hearts than any other event.

Me, I don't get as involved as I used to (I like to save my pain for the New York Jets). But I'll be watching every game I can (btw, I picked Oklahoma State to take it all -- just a hunch). Who knows -- if Pitino's Louisville Cardinals make a run and end up in St. Louis, maybe the old passion will return, along with the hurt. A seasonal reminder of why fans are mostly nuts.