Providence College

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!

My First Bruce Gig: He Was One Of Us

Springsteen_Alumni_Hall

As published in the Providence Journal, May 17, 2014.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are playing the Mohegan Sun Arena this weekend, and single floor tickets are going for more than $2,000 at StubHub. That made me think of the first time I saw Bruce. As a high school junior in 1977, I scored a second row seat for his Alumni Hall show at Providence College. The ticket cost me $7.50.

I had been listening to Bruce since 1973, after a cousin gave my older brother “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.” I wasn’t crazy about the album at first. But Springsteen’s voice and lines like “the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do” kept me dropping the needle. The more I listened to Innocent, the more I liked it.

And then “Born To Run” thundered onto the music scene. With its anthemic songs and romantic escapism, the album spoke to me like nothing I had heard before. Maybe it was the iconic imagery — screen doors slamming and dresses waving and Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. Maybe it was the common ground I had with Bruce: Roman Catholicism, Italian ancestry, an urban upbringing in the Northeast, the beach (or shore, in his case) right down the road. Or maybe it was only rock ’n’ roll — and I liked it, liked it, yes I did.

Still, everyone told me I had to see Springsteen to get what he was all about. And, as I was about to learn that night at PC, they were right.

You could still light up in Alumni Hall then; the place was thick with cigarette smoke, and other smoke, too. The girl sitting next to me offered a joint, but fearing a scene out of “Reefer Madness,” I declined. As the lights went down, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

The opening song, “Night,” detonated with grinding guitars, pounding drums and a wailing sax. Springsteen’s hand, curled to a chord around the neck of his guitar, was instantly dripping with sweat. I had never seen a group work so hard — and this was just the first song! These weren’t some rock stars down at the Civic Center, aloof and distant from the crowd; heck, by the third song, Springsteen was in the crowd. And then I got it: Bruce was one of us.

As I walked — danced, really — four blocks home down River Avenue after the show, I reclassified every concert I had seen. There was Grand Funk, Three Dog Night, Alice Cooper and Chicago. And then there was Bruce. It wasn’t even close.

In my first year of college, I met a guy who was a big fan of Billy Joel. I told George if he liked the Piano Man, he’d love the Boss — he should give a listen. I’m glad he did.

George would soon be a rising star at WBRU, the student-run radio station at Brown. That’s how he got a backstage pass when Bruce came through Providence on The River tour in 1980. I missed the show — I was away at school in Ireland. Upon meeting Bruce, in an act of supreme generosity, George mentioned that I had turned him on to Springsteen’s music — and that I was out of the country.

A four-by-six-inch index card sits in a safe deposit box in a bank vault in East Greenwich. The scrawl on it reads: “To John, Sorry I missed ya! Thanks for spreadin’ the faith! Bruce Springsteen.”

bruce_autograph

When George gave me the autograph, I was speechless. It had all the intimacy, and the commitment, of the best Springsteen songs.

I won’t be going to see Bruce at Mohegan. My brother-in-law tried to get tickets the minute they went on sale, but the Ticketmaster gods weren’t with us.

The last time I did get to see Bruce was back in March 2003, when he played the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. It was almost 26 years to the day of my first Bruce concert.

Unlike Alumni Hall at PC 2 1/2 decades before, the Dunk was almost smoke-free and lacking in strange smells. That was a good thing: I had brought my two sons, then ages 9 and 11, and aspiring musicians themselves. When the house lights came up during the “Born To Run” encore and Clarence Clemons hit his solo (something we had blasted in the car countless times), my boys were ecstatic — transfixed and transformed.

I had kept the faith and was still spreading it.

 

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