For me, it started in Philly, where the Big Five can be close to religion. Philadelphians are a passionate lot (as Kobe well knows), and the five (now six) division 1A college teams inside the city limits can draw a fanatic following, whether they're playing each other in the old Palestra or the new MegaBank-of-the-Moment Center.
The first round of the NCAA has turned into a religious holiday for many, and this year my wife (The Voice of Reason), my friends and I are choosing to worship. We've arranged care for the kids with my parents for the day, who don't really understand our fascination with this event, so it means even more to us that they agree to help. The congregation is gathering at America's Original Sports Bar and the service lasts approximately 11 hours. What makes it communal is the nonsense that we spew at each other between the nail-biting finishes. What makes it holy are the miracles that we invariably witness.
- "HOOOoolyyyyy CROSS!", Bob exclaims as we walk in at 11:45. #14 Holy Cross is only 2 points behind #3 Marquette, 14-12. It's too soon to be a big deal, so Bob uses the joke while he can. I wonder how long he's been saving it.
- The first beer arrives at 11:55 AM. It's part of the tradition of the tournament - the first beer has to arrive before noon. There's something liberating about snubbing social norms. We feel free and a little giddy.
- Matt walks in the bar and pulls up a seat. He has a 7-day-old baby at home. He's our new hero.
- There are three early games and they're all on big screens - with a small TV in the corner alternating between Fox News and CNN. It's there to ease our guilt about ignoring the real world for 11 hours. We can glance over occasionally, and feel like we're still good citizens for reading the news ticker.
- It turns out that Bob's joke didn't need to be used that early. Holy Cross is playing their hearts out - well enough to be a Cinderella-Sweet-Sixteen-kinda team. Except that Marquette came to play, too.
We watch two talented, focused teams play good solid basketball for the entire second half. Aggressive defense. Hard fouls. Precise, quick ball movement. And gutsy shooting. In the end, it's Marquette's Travis Diener who makes the biggest shots, and we're robbed of a big ending by a stumble and a steal that puts the game out of reach for Holy Cross.
When the game ends, the bar breaks into applause. It may be the best basketball game we'll see played all day.
- Al and Bob are doing their best Norm and Cliff impression. They just don't know it.
Bob: We concluded with Andy the other day that you might be able to induce diabetes if you ate 30 Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
The Voice of Reason: Why 30? Why not an even 3 dozen?
Al: I spotted him six.
Bob: Yeah. Eating 30 Krispy Kremes is one thing. But 36 is just crazy.
- The highlight you're probably seeing replayed today is from the Cal-NC State game, made even more spectacular because is was announced by Kevin Harlan. With 12 second left in overtime, NC State hits a three to take the lead, but Cal answers by racing down the court and draining a three with 5 seconds left (by a freshman, no less). And then NC State races down to the other end and just misses answering themselves.
The game itself was competitive, but sloppy on both sides, and marred by officiating blunders at the end of regulation. The consensus opinion is that we wanted that to be the ending of the Holy Cross/Marquette game.
- The Voice of Reason: If I give you this credit card, can we start a tab?
Hot Waitress [taking card and walking away]: Sure, sweetheart.
The Voice of Reason [stunned, to Matt]: I'm sorry - did she just call me "Sweetheart"?
Matt [meekly]: Can I watch?
- The Southern Illinois (#11) vs Missouri (#6) game had something like 20+ lead changes and we were apparently wrong about Holy Cross/Marquette being the best game of the day. Missouri's center, Arthur Johnson, carried his team to a five point lead, but somehow the Salukis came back and tied the score at 71 with Missouri still having the ball for a last shot.
But the Missouri player accidentally charges into Saluki Jermaine Dearman with five seconds left - and the official blows the call. He rewards Missouri with a foul on Dearman, who fouls out. Irate, he walks back to the bench to find the rest of his team on the edge of their seats, with their arms linked. He slides into place, another link in the chain.
Missouri only drains the second free throw, so Southern Illinois is down by just one point with 1.5 seconds left. They get a decent look, but the shot doesn't go in. Before the shooter can walk off the court, a Missouri opponent is shaking hands with him. Good game, indeed.
- On the corner TV, Fox News is talking about French President Jacque Shirac. We can tell this because they have a graphic behind the announcer with the word "Shirac" and a picture of Shirac which only a rival campaign manager would love. Honestly, he looks like he's yelling at someone for mispronouncing a wine.
Leave it to Fox News to pull something like that. Why not go the full nine yards and just put up a picture of Pepe LePugh? Or Napolean?
- The biggest "almost" upset comes from (#15) Utah State, who battled (#2) Kansas for the entire game. They pull within 3 points with 46 seconds left, but Kansas outlasts their charge.
- A commercial for the movie "Anger Management" comes on.
Al (dryly): That'll be funny.
John(increduously): Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson?
Andy (dryer still): Finally, they're together. Finally.
- University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (#12) has traded punches with Notre Dame (#5) for 47 minutes. More accurately, they've traded punches with Notre Dame's guard, Chris Thomas, who is literally willing his team to compete. He is scoring, rebounding, and dishing the ball. This would be a 20 point blowout if not for him.
UM-W wasn't even supposed to be here. They made the tournament when they upset Butler in their league championship game. They are lead by senior guard Clay Tucker, who leads the team in scoring, assists and is second in rebounds. And they find themselves up by a point, with under a minute to go, and they have the ball.
Their shot balances on the rim, but falls out and the Irish get the ball back and score on a loose ball putback by Torris Francis with 35 seconds to go. The Irish lead 70-69, but UM-W doesn't call a timeout. Instead, Clay Tucker calmly dribbles the ball across half court and waits for the clock to run down. If they make it, the Irish (and Thomas) won't get another turn. And if they miss....
With 8 seconds left, Tucker starts his drive to the lane, looking for the shot to ice it. Notre Dame's defense comes in waves; one too many waves it seems. Because rather than shoot, Tucker finds 6' 8" UW-M forward Dylan Page, by himself, under the basket. The pass is made and Page goes up above the rim and lays it in the cylinder.
And it rolls around the back of the rim.
And the game is over. Irish win, 70-69.
We watch Page walk numbly to his bench with his team and start shaking hands.
We all know the feeling. It's an emptiness. A throbbing too intense to be fully realized. A failing that hurts oneself most because it hurts others more.
We look at each other. We exhale and shake our heads. We give our hearts to a 21-year-old kid that we just noticed. We want it to be different. We want to heal it. We want to heal him.
But we're reminded that religions don't provide miracles, they provide communion. This wasn't the miracle we wanted to see, but it's the communion we wanted to feel.