March Madness recalls local legends

IMG_0096As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 19, 2017.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship, better known as March Madness, kicked off last Tuesday, with 52 games scheduled through the weekend. Is your bracket busted yet?

“March Madness” entered the American sports lexicon in 1939, but in reference to the state high school basketball championship in Illinois, not the national collegiate tourney. The name only became associated with the NCAA in the 1980s, thanks to sportscaster Brent Musburger, who was familiar with it from his work in Chicago before joining CBS.

The 68-team tournament has given us other memorable terms, including Bracketology, which refers to the science of predicting the field and each round’s winners. In theory, every squad has a chance to run the table at the Big Dance, and I’m always rooting for a Cinderella or two to emerge.

According to the American Gaming Association, more than 40 million people filled out March Madness brackets this year. Beyond office-pool wagers, however, it’s easy to understand why college basketball’s annual extravaganza is so riveting.

While the NBA Finals have given us just 19 Game 7s in 70 years, the NCAA men’s tournament offers the drama of 67 such games – do or die for both teams – in three weeks. Having local quintets in the mix – the University of Rhode Island and Providence College both earned berths this year – makes the nationwide event even more compelling.

Brown University was the first Rhode Island school to receive an NCAA bid, in the tournament’s inaugural year. Brown was one of eight entrants, losing to Villanova 42-30 in the opening round.

The Bears returned to the tourney 47 years later, in 1986, and faced powerhouse Syracuse in its own Carrier Dome. Legend has it – or perhaps it was just my father’s whimsical musing as an alumnus – that Brown’s coach, Mike Cingiser, advised his players to grab the ball and run out of the Dome should they happen to score first. To their credit, the Ivy Leaguers were actually up by one midway through the first half before losing in a blowout.

URI has been to the tournament nine times, making a terrific run in 1998 that included knocking off top-seeded Kansas. The Rams came tantalizingly close to reaching the Final Four that year, but a late-game meltdown against Stanford resulted in a heartbreaking 79-77 loss in the quarterfinals.

Of all Rhode Island teams, Providence College has danced the most, with 19 tournament appearances and two thrilling advances to the Final Four. In 1987, a young Rick Pitino all but willed a group of overachievers, led by Billy Donovan, to the national semifinals, where they faced Syracuse – the same team that had obliterated Brown the previous year. The Friars’ three-point shooting, instrumental to their success all season long, finally betrayed them, and they lost to the Orange by 14. Meanwhile, Pitino and Donovan had been launched into basketball greatness.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1973, Providence made its first trip to the Final Four, squaring off against Memphis State in St. Louis. After Ernie DiGregorio whipped a did-you-see-that, 30-foot behind-the-back pass to Kevin Stacom for a lay-up on the game’s second play, PC seemed destined for the finals. Then Marvin Barnes, the team’s star center, twisted his right knee and March Madness turned into March Sadness for Friar fans. A 49-40 halftime lead evaporated as Memphis State exploited Barnes’s injury to win going away, 98-85.

Every March, I hear myself wistfully telling anyone who will listen – my kids, their friends, total strangers – that PC would have played undefeated UCLA for the national title in 1973 had Marvin not gone down. It’s as sure a marker of spring as chirping birds and blooming crocuses.

This year, the tournament’s famous nickname will become a misnomer by the last three games, with the semifinals and championship straddling the first weekend in April. Coincidentally, on the same day the NCAA men’s tourney wraps up in Phoenix, a different kind of madness will get underway in Boston.

Go Red Sox!

Dreams from my own la la land

jw_lsa_bball001-rw1The author drives to the basket in a game between La Salle and Central at Rhode Island Junior College, now the Community College of Rhode Island, in February 1978. Providence Journal file photo. Column published in the Providence Journal, January 15, 2017.

Lying on my side at 6:30 a.m., I look out my bedroom window at a tangle of tree branches against the gray dawn sky before surrendering to the bliss of an REM slumber – and, it turns out, a few special moments at the TD Garden.

In my dream, I am playing basketball for the Boston Celtics. Fifty-six years old, 5 feet 8 inches, and on my game, I deliver a no-look pass to Al Horford for a slam dunk, drop a three-point bomb with Steph Curry in my face, and streak on a breakaway after picking Kevin Durant’s pocket.

But then, as often happens in my dreams, everything goes slo-mo. My legs turn to rubber, and I feel like I am hefting an orange wrecking ball to the hoop. My layup caroms off the side of the rim, as does my put-back attempt. I try again – and, bizarrely, the ball morphs into an unopened bag of Light ‘n Fluffy egg noodles that drops softly through the net just as the horn sounds. The crowd goes berserk. I pump my fist – in my dream and, apparently, in my bed because suddenly I am awake.

“You O.K.?” my wife, Deb, asks, lying next to me. I notice the morning sky has brightened.

“Never been better,” I say, laughing.

My dreams are rarely so triumphant. More often, I am like Danny in the movie “The Shining,” running away from an ax-wielding madman. Or I am roaming the hallways at La Salle Academy, trying to locate – without success – the classroom for an exam I must pass to get my high school diploma.

The word “dream” possesses an interesting duality. On one hand, it describes the images and emotions passing through our minds as we sleep – from the ordinary to the outlandish. On the other, it references our goals and aspirations when we are awake.

“Dream” derives from the Old English verb “dremen,” which meant “rejoice; play music.” That makes sense when you consider how often the topic has been mined in popular song – from Arlen and Mercer’s “This Time The Dream’s On Me” to Wilco’s “(Was I) In Your Dreams?” A 60s pop band from Britain went one step further, calling themselves Freddie and the Dreamers.

In the charming movie musical “La La Land,” Emma Stone’s character, Mia, sings about her inspiration for becoming an actress – a beloved aunt who once leapt without looking into a freezing Seine River: “She captured a feeling, sky without ceiling, sunset inside a frame … Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.”

Dreams usually leave us questioning what prompted them. Freud famously said they were the fulfillment of a wish. Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” had a more physiologic explanation for the ghostly visit of his former business partner, Jacob Marley: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”

I subscribe to Freud’s theory to explain my Celtics dream. As a 12-year-old, I spent hours in my basement mimicking Pete Maravich’s dribbling wizardry. I fantasized about making it to the NBA, despite my woeful shooting mechanics and less-than-promising genetics – Mom was 5 feet 1 inch and Dad was 5 feet 7 inches.

“You can’t bounce balls all your life,” my mother said one day when I came upstairs. Sure enough, six years later, after two or three tryouts for the team at Brown, the buzzer sounded on my basketball dreams.

Recently, sleep brought me more REM absurdities: I’m on a cruise – actually, the Block Island Ferry – and Bruce Springsteen is performing on the top deck. But I’m stuck in steerage, like Jack Dawson in “Titanic.” I finally sneak my way upstairs and catch a glimpse of the Boss and the E Street Band before being whisked away by a bouncer. I trip, and now I’m falling overboard in slo-mo …

I awake with a start beneath a sea of covers, and the spirits in the night are gone.

My thrill of victory and agony of defeat


As published in the Providence Journal, January 18, 2015.

In January 1973, a month shy of my 13th birthday, I won the Providence Recreation Department’s free throw shooting contest. At Zuccolo Rec Center on Federal Hill, I made 13 of my 15 attempts.

I was thrilled — and astonished.

From youth basketball through high school, I was a pass-first, shoot-second point guard. When I did get to the foul line, my accuracy hovered at 50 percent. The 87 percent I shot at Zuccolo to win the contest was an aberration.

Had a high-tech gizmo called 94Fifty Smart Basketball been around back then, my free throw shooting might have been less like Wilt Chamberlain’s notoriously ugly attempts.

Introduced in 2013, the 94Fifty promises skill improvement via digital diagnostics. As you practice dribbling and shooting, sensors inside the ball send data to your smartphone, where an app translates the information into immediate feedback: “Bend those legs.” “Point your elbow.” “Flick your wrist.”

(For teenage players, I would add, “Get a summer job.” The 94Fifty retails for $179.)

The makers of the 94Fifty say it’s “like having the best coaches in the world with you every day of the year.” That may be true, but the smart basketball is a far cry, literally, from the coaches who barked from the sidelines when I played. For that, you’d need Old School 94Fifty, which I imagine might sound like this:

After I dribble the ball off my foot: “Ringling Brothers is coming to town — why don’t you join?”

After I travel — run without dribbling — on a layup attempt: “Take a bus next time!”

After I throw an errant behind-the-back pass on a two-on-one fast break: “Quit hotdogging, mustard king!”

After I go 3-for-10 from the foul line during practice: “Are you a mason, son? You’re throwing bricks up there!”

Political correctness wasn’t a priority for my old-school coaches; winning was. That’s why I loved playing for them — I wanted to win too.

My coaches would have welcomed the 94Fifty’s smart technology for the improved shooting and dribbling technique that it promotes. But they didn’t always equate smarts, or even thinking, with success on the court. They knew better.

Basketball rewards quickness and improvisation. Split-second actions and reactions, rooted in practice scrimmages and pickup games, deliver advantage. Deliberation usually spells doom.

I recall one coach’s plea during a frantic timeout in a close game: “Don’t start thinking on me now!” We got his point: trust your instincts and just go play. There’s a reason the word “unconscious” describes a shooter who can’t miss.

In “The City Game,” Pete Axthelm characterizes basketball as jazz to baseball’s chamber music and football’s symphony: “Basketball flows past like a river, like a song.”

Until a foul is committed — then the river freezes, the song stops.

During free throws, basketball shares baseball’s focus on the individual. Success or failure is a solitary act, and a player’s thoughts can become the greatest foe. A hush comes over the gym as I bounce, bounce, bounce the ball and look to the rim …

Of all the coaching chestnuts I heard growing up, one is imprinted in my memory like the Voit logo on a ball: “Free throws win games.” To which I make the following amendment: “Or not.”

I know firsthand.

As a senior at La Salle Academy, I was awarded two free throws with 10 seconds or so remaining in an epic overtime game against archrival Bishop Hendricken. The score was tied as I stepped to the line and tried to quiet my mind. La Salle’s tiny old gym was electric.

My first shot felt awful, yet the ball dropped through the net. The basketball gods were with me — but only for that moment. My second attempt clanged off the rim and bounced out of bounds.

With our team up by one, the game came down to a frenzied scramble at the other end of the court. The ball sailed into the hands of Hendricken’s point guard — a pass-first player like me. But there was no time to pass — or think, for that matter.

His shot from the top of the key was all reaction and — as the scoreboard horn blared and red lights flashed — all net. The Hendricken fans exploded. What a buzzer beater!

If only I had hit my second free throw — we would have played another overtime, at least.

I can hear the 94Fifty Smart Basketball correcting my form on the missed foul shot: “Increase the arc.”

Old School 94Fifty would have been less clinical, more empathetic: “Tough time to throw up a brick, kid.”


Playing Football When You Can’t Find Grass

City Games, Part 1

On Sunday afternoons during football season, I’d go to my best friend Chris Riccio’s house to watch the Giants game on TV, though we rarely made it past the first quarter. Sure, the Giants lost more than they won in the early ’70s, but that’s not what drove us from the television. Watching football made us want to play football. Question was, where?

We lived in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where the typical house sits on a small lot – not much room for running to daylight. There was an empty lot at the corner of Rankin and Moorland, but when we tried to play there, the owners shooed us away faster than you can say “Pete Rozelle.” Sometimes we’d head up to La Salle, but the Brothers usually sent us packing, too. Forgive us our trespasses? Forget it.

So we always ended up back on Rankin Avenue for touch football in the street, telephone pole to telephone pole, Billy and George against Chris and me. Rankin was perfect for street football – no tree obstructions, only the occasional car, and streetlights that let us play through dusk. The macadam roadbed tore up your hands and knees when you fell, but we didn’t care. Just rub the loose gravel out and get back to the two-man huddle… Chris is Fran Tarkenton and I’m Ron Johnson. “Go out to the manhole cover and turn,” Tark tells me. “I’ll pump fake, and then you go long for the bomb.”

Basketball is known as “The City Game” and rightfully so: it’s more suited to the urban hardscape than football or baseball. As I grew older, basketball would indeed consume most of my athletic energies. But back in the fall of 1970, as I sped past the telephone pole and looked back for Chris’s pass, playing touch football on Rankin Avenue was the best game in town.

The Madness That March Brings

Technically, it’s the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship. But we all know it as March Madness, which kicks off in full force on Thursday afternoon. And that sound you hear – click, click, click – is the American workforce tracking the games on computers nationwide. According to one study, March Madness will be responsible for $192 million in lost productivity this year. Just imagine the emails: “Sorry, Kevin, but I have to move our Friday afternoon meeting to next week. Something came up.” Something like #8 Memphis versus #9 St. Louis.

When did March Madness enter the American sports lexicon? The term surfaced in 1939, the year the NCAA tourney debuted. But it didn’t refer to the college tournament. Coined by H.V. Porter, an official with the Illinois High School Association, March Madness described that state’s high school basketball tournament. The phrase didn’t become associated at the collegiate level until the 1980s, popularized by CBS sportscaster Brent Musburger. Not surprisingly, Musburger had worked in Chicago before joining the national network.

The tournament has given us other memorable terms, such as the Final Four and Bracketology, which refers to the science of predicting the field for the tournament. After the first tip-off, though, theater trumps science. Top seeds fall, Cinderellas dance, and the game-by-game drama is exquisite.

Major league baseball has given us 36 Game 7s in World Series history. March Madness offers the drama of 67 Games 7s – do or die – in three weeks.

In the midst of the madness, at some local sports bar in these parts, a basketball junkie will see ghosts and murmur that Providence College should have gone to the national championship game in 1973 to face Wooden and Walton and UCLA. If only Marvin hadn’t gone down with that leg injury in the semi-finals against Memphis State…

Madness, indeed. Enjoy.

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