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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Madness Is Here!

It is mid-March, that means five things: 1) The Ides of March are upon us--are your friends and supporters truly friendly and supportive? Et tu? 2) St. Patrick's Day will turn 25 year old Jewish guys of Polish-Somali-Panamanian decent into Green Beer chugging-Guiness sipping-"where's my Green Top Hat" wearing fools 3) I need to get a card for my Dad's birthday next week 4) I need to get my tax crap together to pay for my portion of the "stimulus" bill and 5) the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship, aka March Madness, is here!

Far and away the best sporting event in not only America but the world (yeah, yeah, 3.8 billion people watch the World Cup--but it earns bubkus because U.S. television money isn't there because we don't care. Before you harp on my provincial and jingoist stance, ppphhhhlllllbbbbtttt! I watch parts of the World Cup, I have lived in Europe during the World Cup and know the passion it generates--It ain't the Fianl Four so big deal). No other sporting event has 63 games (64 if you count the stupid "play-in" game they added a few years ago) over on ten days over two weeks spread through out the country where half the games, though it seems like every game, comes down to the final seconds. Nothing comes close--though NHL playoff hockey does have its share of tight games and exciting finishes but now I'm drifting into World Cup territory for many SoCals.

March Madness, who came up with that moniker? Dick Vitale? Final Four, another great name that has been appropriated by other sports and even companies; "Hey Dick who is in our Final Four for West Coast Environmental Control Management Oversight Developer?" Thank God for ESPN because it was made for the NCAA's and the NCAA's were made for ESPN and together in the mid-80's when the two got together both exploded.

When I was growing up the NCAAs consisted of who was going to lose to UCLA in the Championship as John Wooden's Bruins won ten titles in twelve years. With only sixteen teams in the tournament it only took four games to win it all as oppossed to the six in a row now required, but Wooden and UCLA just played the format they were given--and always won.

When I was in high school in Brussels our news of the tournament came in delayed scores and reports in the International Herald Tribune, the English daily; or via the Armed Forces Radio Network broadcast out of Germany that we were able to pick up. Thirty years ago, 1979, was the most anticipated match up of my lifetime between two of the greatest players of all time and we had to wait until the next morning to see who had won between the Michigan State team of Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the Indiana State team led by Larry Bird. Setting the stage for a decade of combat in the NBA, the game was won somewhat handily by Michigan State but that was almost a sidebar to the personal match up between Magic and Bird.

Two years later I was in California for college and finally able to watch some of the early round games and the finals. There was no live coverage of any of the first round games, we had to watch them on tape delay at 11:30 at night--but being in college we could care less! We would stay up and watch the upsets and last second shots that ended one teams season and allowed the other to play at least one more game.

More importantly to watching the games in college was the begining of The Pool. My friend Wes and I devised our own bracket pool, one that seems to have been spontaneously spawned across America over the ensuing years. With increasing "points" for each correctly predicted round, we began our annual tradition with the 1982 tournament I believe--the year Freddie Brown of Georgetown through the ball away to James Worthy of North Carolina in the closing seconds costing the Hoyas a shot at winning the game. What is more widely remembered today about that game was the game winning shot with about 15 seconds left hit by a freshman, Michael Jordan. Anyway I believe that was the year we started The Pool.

After I graduated in 1984 (Wes had diplomad the year before) we got together our pool members, me, Wes, Schnell, BT, Buddy and Rocky for the 1985 tournament. Wes and I shared an apartment on Redondo next to the Reno Room parking lot in Long Beach and we had cable. And ESPN had signed a contract to carry all of the games on the opening Thursday and Friday. The tournament field had expanded to 64 teams so ESPN would have coverage from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. bringing us all or parts of all 16 games each day. With Dick Vitale anchoring coverage in what now is a cheesy studio set up, ESPN would break into game coverage for exciting finish after exciting finish. About every two hours when games were winding down we would see last second shots and blocks from game after game after game. It was nirvana! And ESPN showed the die hard sports fan what we had never seen before, all the drama in one day over thirty-two teams playing a one and done tournament.

Since that year we added Don, Wes' Dad, to the pool and it stayed that way until about ten years ago when we added Pete. Wes and I are in the LA area, Don is in Escondido, Schnell works in Colorado, BT dodges rain in Seattle, Rocky is in Portland, Buddy is stitching people up in Pensacola and Pete is painting houses in New Jersey. Eight guys with the same routine for over two decades, with the exception of Don, before careers we had The Pool, before wives we had The Pool, before kids we had The Pool. Once a year I know I will communicate with each of these guys catching up on our lives, ribbing about picks and years past, keeping the friendships and the relationships active.

But all that is mushy stuff we don't analyze or think about. What matters most is whether Memphis can get out of the West or if Syracuse will upset Oklahoma in the South. It's tournament time baby!

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