One shining father: What March Madness’s moments mean to me
I have faded childhood memories of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls defeating Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz for the 1997 NBA title. I can hazily recall a memory of bringing a Pepsi can to Shea Stadium’s bleachers for free admission to a Major League Baseball game.
But I vividly remember the day I truly fell in love with sports. It was almost two decades ago now: March 21, 1999.
I was 8 years old, and it was while I was seated next to my dad in the middle of the colorful language, expression and passion that was the Temple University Owls student section.
What a hoot.
My dad and I had driven the hour-or-so south from New York City’s northern suburbs to Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
The Temple students had driven up the Jersey Turnpike from their north Philly dorms, ready to cheer on the underdog Owls team against Mike Krzyzewski’s vaunted 1998-99 Duke Blue Devils. Duke was littered with future NBA talent — the likes of No. 1 NBA Draft pick Elton Brand, future LA Clipper Corey Maggette and future multi-time NBA champion Shane Battier.
Both groups — us, the father and son, and they the, well, hydrated Temple students — were there for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s Elite 8 round.
The Elite 8: the very same round of games that will crown regional champions and Final Four contestants this weekend.
I was the definition of wide-eyed and bushy-tailed — smiling from ear to ear with my $7 souvenir event program in hand as my dad and I found our seats behind the basket for the Elite 8 game between the sixth-seeded Temple Owls and the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils.
Pepe Sanchez. Lamont Barnes. John Chaney. Those were the names, the forgotten heroes of March Madness past that I cheered for as the underdog to beat dominant Duke on that day.
Little did I know at the time, but this was the start of the best annual tradition a son could ask for.
Nineteen years, 2,000-plus westward miles and countless basketball games later, I still have that 1999 program. It’s one of nine NCAA Tournament programs I scoured my cabin for this week, finally finding them in a pile amid my other books, magazines and mementos that I shipped cross-country to my home north of Silverthorne.
Brushing the dust off the program’s cover, it was just as I remembered it: 194 pages of tattered, ripped-out and scribbled-on advertisements, rosters and articles.
And, of course, the bracket.
That year, 1999, was also the first time I can remember seeing a bracket. I remember my dad giving me one on a weekday morning before he drove off to work. Moments later, I hurried to catch the school bus after I stuffed dozens of scanned copies of the bracket into my JanSport backpack for my third grade friends at Fulmar Road Elementary.
There I was, handing out March Madness brackets in the hallway between Mrs. Radak-Golder’s and Mrs. Jones’ classrooms like I was peddling coupons for extra recess hours.
This past week, as I turned to page 40 in that old 1999 program, pages nearly falling out, I almost couldn’t make sense of the chicken scratch my 8-year-old self had made on that 1999 bracket. Names written in marker, crayon, pen and pencil, erased, re-written and, eventually, scribbled out or etched in stone by permanent black pen.
It spoke to the imagination of an 8-year-old.
I do remember why I changed my bracket so much. Because, like many other kids, I acted out my March Madness dreams. I pretended to be those St. John’s players hitting the game-winning shot, mimicking the roar of the crowd as I bounded around my bedroom — even if my game-winning reverse dunk was only on the Nerf hoop hooked to the inside of my door.
That bracket chicken scratch? It spoke to the possibilities of the single-elimination NCAA Tournament.
And, more than anything, looking back, it spoke to the beautifully competitive, chaotic and random realm that is sport.
There on Page 40, I had written in the team my 8-year-old self had wanted to win the NCAA Tournament: my dad’s alma mater, New York City’s team, the St. John’s Red Storm. Back then, they were led by Ron Artest. He was a hard-nosed, physical New York City-native from the Queensbridge housing projects who’d eventually continue to grow to become an NBA All-Star, one who’d eventually change his name to “Metta World Peace.”
Talk about random. Talk about possibilities. Talk about passion.
I had St. John’s winning my hypothetical 1999 championship. But, along the way, I had chosen different schools for them to defeat in my imagination. According to my chicken scratch, at least.
First Michigan State. Then Tennesssee. And, according to my third grade handwriting, it seems I settled on Bob Huggins’ Cincinnati Bearcats.
A St. John’s Final Four win with Ron Artest hitting the game-winning shot? Of course, that never happened. The reality was St. John’s would lose a heartbreaker to the Scoonie Penn-led Ohio State Buckeyes in the regional final at Knoxville’s neon orange-painted Thompson Boling Arena. That grainy television picture I’ll never forget.
But the reality was also that my dad went out of his way to give me the chance to see the excitement, the competition and the pageantry first-hand. Attending an event like that as an impressionable kid, it’s experiences like those that help us transition from loving an individual athlete or a team to loving the totality of the sport, the competition, at its core.
And that’s because what is sport, what is basketball — what is March Madness — if not a dreamy powder keg of passion and possibilities?
It was precisely that in 2003, when my dad and I drove up to Albany and scalped tickets — two different times — before we entered the Pepsi Arena. The randomness of March Madness? It gifted us 10th row, sideline seats to see my future alma mater, Syracuse University, advance to the Final Four thanks to Carmelo Anthony’s teenage heroics.
It was precisely that in 2005, when — speaking of Albany — my dad and I drove down to Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center to see the 16-seeded SUNY-Albany Great Danes nearly pull off the impossible: Knock off the top-seeded UConn Huskies.
Thirteen years later, the David vs. Goliath 1-versus-16 seed matchup finally proved unlucky for the Virginia Cavaliers earlier this month. After 135 games — including UConn’s eventual 2005 win over the Great Danes — Virginia became the first top seed to ever fall to a 16-seed.
Congratulations to all you University of Maryland Baltimore County Retriever fans out there!
And it was precisely that — passion and possibility — a decade ago this coming week, back in 2008. That’s when my father, my cousin Jay and I met up in Detroit to see a young, budding shooter by the name of Stephen Curry send the more than 55,000 people at the football stadium-turned-basketball arena into a frenzy with every 3-pointer he launched.
Watching — seemingly miles away — from the elevated basketball court in the middle of the Detroit Lions’ sparkling new stadium, Curry was almost like a dancer under a spotlight on the grandest of hardwood stages.
He was that good.
And, yes, he may not have had the chance to get the final shot off in those last seconds to knock off the eventual national champions, the Kansas Jayhawks. But in leading the massive underdog, 11-seed Davidson Wildcats to scratch and claw one shot away from a Final Four, that pipe-cleaner thin, baby-faced assassin performance from Curry was certainly a preview of what was to come for the NBA superstar — and for us basketball fans.
Through the years, my dad and I have attended 11 different NCAA Tournaments together.
Some years is was just us two, like when he came to visit me at Syracuse in 2010, staying in my dorm room after watching Bob Huggins’ West Virginia team advance to the Final Four. It was awesome, even if it was from the very last row in the Carrier Dome.
Some years we brought family members. Like that time my cousin Matt joined us in Buffalo for a first round that featured my mother’s alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth, upset big, bad Duke. That was the high point of the trip. The low point? When my father threatened to leave Matt and I behind after a jaunt into Canada (well, we deserved it).
Whoever was with us and wherever we traveled to, March Madness typically — scratch that, always — delivered.
Through the years — according to my programs from 1999, from 2001 through 2008, and from 2010 and 2014 — we not only got the chance to see Steph Curry and Carmelo Anthony play, we saw six eventual national champions. We saw Hall of Fame coaches such as Jim Calhoun, Roy Williams and Gary Williams work their magic on their way to their first national championships.
And we met fans, people, from all across the country. The hopeful Bear fans from Southwest Missouri State. The proud Boilermaker fans from Purdue. Heck, even the happy-to-be here Thunderbird fans from Southern Utah.
I’m reminded of how fortunate I am for all this each time I cover a snowboarding or skiing event these days. For example, at January’s X Games in Aspen, I couldn’t help but notice the kids there with their dads, smiling from ear to ear when superstars like Shaun White and Chloe Kim walked by their outstretched hands.
Not every father is fortunate enough or willing enough to create these kinds of memories with their sons or daughters. As a child and young adult, perhaps I didn’t appreciate my dad’s efforts enough. Perhaps I didn’t appreciate how cool it was to share a passion like that with the man who is your hero from as early as you can remember.
These days, I hope I do. I think I do. Reminders like those at the X Games provide perspective. But so do the father and son scenes I stumble across at the Silverthorne Rec Center.
There is nothing cooler to me than seeing a father and son play a one-on-one basketball game. It reminds me of all the sacrifices my dad made, such as standing underneath the hoop to rebound thousands of shots in an open gym. He didn’t have to be there.
And that’s why each time I see a father and son together on the court, I take time to go over to the child and tell them how lucky they are to have a father who is there with them. How they should not take it for granted.
How I wish my father was there too to play one-on-one versus me.
So, as March Madness comes to a close, to all the dads out there, whether you prefer the basketball courts or the ski slopes, don’t forget how much being there with your sons means to them. As one myself, it means the world.
And to all you young Steph Currys out there, thank your dad for being there with you.
As for mine? Well, Dad, thanks for being not only my best one-on-one opponent to this day, but for being my top teammate as well.
I love you, man. But the next game’s to 21, by 2s and 3s.
Make it, take it.
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