Carrier Dome

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!

From McCoy Stadium to the Carrier Dome: A Father-Daughter Journey

 

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As published in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com, March 31, 2014.

We’re at McCoy Stadium, in 1999, with the Pawtucket Red Sox playing the Toledo Mud Hens. It’s the first time my daughter, Juliana, and I are at a game together. We’re celebrating her fourth birthday.

Julie eats popcorn and ice cream. She has her picture taken with Paws, the mascot for the minor-league Red Sox team. When the crowd starts doing the wave, she laughs and throws her hands in the air. By the sixth inning, she is yawning. And before we make it out of the parking lot, she’s fast asleep.

What was born in Julie that day, and reaffirmed in me, was a love of games. Every August, for fourteen years now, we have returned to McCoy Stadium to celebrate her birthday. We have gone to many other athletic contests, as well – from CYO basketball and high school football to college hoops and Major League Baseball.

At first, I took Julie to games because that’s what my father did with me. Eventually, I did it because being with Julie in the stands brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and money and house projects and everything else on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

When Julie was looking at colleges, good teams and great school spirit were among her must-haves. I was thrilled when she was accepted at Syracuse University. Yes, it was exciting that she got into the Newhouse School of Public Communications. But my mind went right to the Carrier Dome – now we could go see Syracuse basketball!

I bought two tickets to the North Carolina State game, slated for February 15th. As I drove up the Massachusetts Turnpike on the morning of the game, Julie called to let me know that the start time had been moved from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – North Carolina State had travel issues because of a snowstorm.

At the Syracuse Sheraton check-in counter, I mentioned the game time change to the receptionist and she pounced. “I hope it messes those kids up,” she said, referring to members of the North Carolina State team. “They didn’t get here until a few minutes ago. I’ll take any advantage we can get.” Her face softened as she handed me my room key: “Enjoy your stay!”

The receptionist’s gamesmanship didn’t surprise me. This was Syracuse, after all. While Julie and I were having lunch, I saw a guy in a shirt that read REAL MEN WEAR ORANGE. It could have also included REAL WOMEN, REAL BOYS, REAL GIRLS, and REAL PETS, for that matter. EVERYONE was rocking Syracuse orange that day, of course – everyone except me. I was wearing a Berklee College of Music pullover. Technical foul.

I mentioned my faux pas to Julie and we concluded that it was a minor transgression. Berklee was not threatening to crack the AP Top 25 Poll anytime soon.

At 6:15, Julie and I made our way to the Carrier Dome. The seats I had bought weren’t great. As we climbed up and up and up to Section 318, Row V, Seats 3 and 4, I thought of Felix Baumgartner’s dive from space. Once seated, we were looking down on what would qualify as nosebleed seats in a smaller venue. And as I watched others make the ascent, some stopping to catch their breath, I wondered if there was a Crouse Hospital medical station nearby.

But when the game began, I was struck by how intimate the Dome felt. Perhaps that’s what happens when 35,000+ disciples react as one – to bad calls (against the Orange), to good calls (for the Orange), to the guy who sank a shot from a recliner during a TV time-out.

It was an ugly game – and close from start to finish. As the clock wound down in the second half, it looked like Syracuse might, after 24 straight wins, lose its first game all season. That cursed Berklee sweatshirt – I was the jinx!

The basketball gods – and two key turnovers by North Carolina State – saved me from such ignominy. Syracuse won 56-55 on a C.J. Fair layup with six seconds left. (Alas, the streak would end four days later with a loss to Boston College.)

After the game, over dinner, Julie told me how much she loved Syracuse – the new friends she had made, the courses she was taking, the sorority she hoped to get into. “I feel like I’m becoming the person I want to be,” she said. That was clear to me – and I marveled at her nascent transformation.

Our first PawSox game seemed far away.

As we left the restaurant, I told Julie I’d walk her back to her dorm. “You don’t have to,” she said, but I insisted – always the dad.

The air was dry and cold outside. My ears stung – I had left my hat in the hotel room. When we reached the corner below the majestic Crouse College building, Julie said she could go the rest of the way on her own. We hugged and I watched, motionless, as she walked into the cold night. When she looked back and saw me standing there, she called out, “Dad, do you know where you are?”

“All set!” I yelled back, lost in thought.

The street signs said I was at the corner of University Place and South Crouse Avenue. But I knew better.

On that night, in that moment, I knew I was somewhere between Holding On and Letting Go.

Photo by Rob Walsh • http://www.robwalshphotoshop.com

As appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com on March 31, 2014.

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