I remember the place goin’ absolutely nuts. I’d been covering sports for a few years by then, and had not experienced anything like it up to that point. Probably wasn’t going to last, but the 17,000 strong in the Civic Arena on March 14, 1997, especially the two newlyweds sitting back left of the visitor’s basket, halfway up the bowl, were going to ride it for as long as they possibly could.
A #15 seed who had never won an NCAA tournament game, was going absolutely toe-to-toe with the #2, among the favorites that year to win the whole thing.
The emotional experience of it is remarkable, when you think about it. The only strong feeling I could claim when we took our seats for tipoff was for my nachos, and the small mountain of jalapenos I had gratuitously spooned between the two sidecars of melted cheese.
Allegiance, emotion, that must be earned. Like steaming hot nacho cheese, it is not to be squandered.
The process is both a methodical and fragile one.
You go from mere detached observing, not really caring, to an objective acknowledging — “… ooh, nice pass …,” “… good D.”
Stack enough of those together “… ooh, he’s feelin’ it ….” … then the pilot light kicks on.
You start to lean in.
“All right, let’s go ….”
It is at this point you formally place your wager … in the form of your heart.
It’s not that you necessarily believe … yet. That’s not the point. You know going in that the odds are not in your favor.
But now you got somethin’ to root for.
And isn’t that really what you show up for in the first place?
Karry and I were absolutely caught up in it. Sitting in seats I’d won — for a term paper I’d written for my Sports Marketing class at Duquesne University, which just happened to be hosting the opening rounds of March Madness, a first for the city in 1997.
For us it was a rare outing. About six months removed from our I-Dos, she was working full-time while I was taking a full load of graduate classes on top of research assistantship while also working part-time evenings at the newspaper in Washington. We’d sandwiched our attendance into an afternoon before my Friday evening shift at the paper. I remember feeling like a big shot using my Duquesne parking pass at the school’s garage to avoid the insane prices around the arena, yielding me a little extra nacho money in the process.
I don’t remember much about the early games themselves, which (refreshing my memory with a quick Googling) largely went according to script. Sixth-seeded Louisville held serve over #11 UMass, #3 New Mexico eeked out a win over #14 Old Dominion, while #10 Texas scored a modest upset over #7 Wisconsin.
What I do remember is delighting in how much Karry was into it. She wasn’t much of a basketball fan before we met, but had started to pick up some of the game’s nuances through osmosis. I remember we had barely settled into our seats for the first game when she commented, “That’s one of those rolling pick … things.”
I remember hi-fiving my co-pilot.
We calculated we could stay until about midway through the first half of the night cap, which would give me enough time to drop her off at our tiny apartment before heading in to work. Remember thinking we may not even want to stay that long.
Coppin State, a 15-seed, took the court as a 30-point underdog to #2-seeded South Carolina, which would’ve been a #1 seed had it not lost in the SEC Championship game that year. Not only had the Eagles never won an NCAA tournament game, their conference – the MEAC – had never won a game in the history of the tournament.
We knew nothing about Coppin State.
First thing that caught our attention, during the team introductions, was that their coach was named “Fang.”
And in the first couple minutes, that they came to play some defense.
And, while their offense was cool early, their guard Danny Singletary was stacking enough shots to keep ‘em close. You could tell he was feelin’ it.
Midway through the first half, at the point where we should’ve been getting up to leave, the pilot light kicked on.
We started to lean in.
“Stay ’til halftime?”
While the Eagles continued to ignore the spread, Coach Fang grew more impossible to ignore on the sidelines, his animated antics casting spells over his team, and, slowly, over the portion of the 17,000 of us not from South Carolina.
It’s a singular experience to be amongst thousands of strangers without a rooting interest as they find common ground behind an underdog, and slowly swell into a unified crescendo.
To go from not caring to caring deeply.
We placed our wager.
At the half, the score was knotted at 34.
“All right, let’s go ….”
Getting up from our seats I remember telling Karry that a #15 never beats a #2, that we’d already seen the best part. South Carolina was too good to get beat by an unknown.
Whistling in the graveyard I was.
She gave me a wary look. She did not want to leave. In retrospect, she probably would’ve called my ass an Uber if such had been around at the time.
We were running late by this point, so I remember she just dropped me off at work.
The rest is history.
Coppin State became only the third #15 to upset a #2 in the tournament’s history, and the first to win by double-digits (78-65). I just read that they just released a new documentary on that game this week, such has their legend remained.
And we missed it.
Karry was pissed.
I remember I did get a decent column out of it … likening my pride in growing Karry into a genuine basketball fanatic to that of Dr. Frankenstein creating life itself. Still remember my closing line, “Although I bet Dr. Frankenstein didn’t have to sleep on the couch.”
Shoulda called in sick.
Last Monday my son texts me, “Opening Round in Columbus Friday?”
Me: This has bad decision written all over it. You should totally look into it.
I sanity check with Karry. She gives us the green light.
I search Air BnB for Friday night in Columbus. Find a spot a few miles from the arena. In the meantime, he scores us tickets for both Friday sessions.
Monday night I come home from work and report a tickle in my throat.
“Heck, I’ll go if Dad can’t make it,” Karry chimes in without anyone having to ask.
By Wednesday my head is pouring from both my eyes and my nose. Wednesday night I spend in chills under multiple blankets. Thursday morning I can’t get out of bed. Manage a shower at noon, and lug myself to Med Express, where they confirm me positive for flu.
This time I had no choice but to call in sick. I was too ill to even complete my brackets.
I break the news to my son, ask him to confirm if Karry is still up for being his wing man.
I inform our Air BnB host of the substitution to our starting lineup.
They leave for Columbus Friday morning, while I am still flat on my back.
Games started at 12:15.
I sent a couple of texts around noon.
Things were not going well.
After a 10-minute walk in the rain from the parking lot to the entrance, Karry was forced back to the car by security, who wouldn’t let her carry her purse-backpack into the arena. After getting soaked trudging back and forth, she had to make the near vertical climb to the top bowl at Nationwide Arena, where she pledged to remain firmly bolted through the entire first session, such is her fear of heights.
The early games played out mostly as expected, #7 Michigan State holding serve over #10 USC, #2 Marquette dispatching #15 Vermont.
I traded texts with Karry as they settled into their seats for the second session.
She: This is a lot for me, in case you did not know that.
Me: Yes, I knew it would be.
She: Mentally and physically exhausting.
Me: And you will never forget it.
From my bed I found the live stream of the game. It had the makings of a blowout. #1 seed Purdue was favored by 23.5 points.
I knew nothing about Farleigh Dickinson. During the intros the announcers mentioned that they were the smallest men’s team in the entire tournament. I concluded that the Knights, and therefore my co-pilot and wing man, were in for a long night.
FDU knocked down a couple shots early on.
And watching their swarming defense, it was obvious they had a definite game plan, such as it was, for Purdue and their 7-4 center Zach Edey.
Every time Purdue sank a basket, the pesky Knights seemed to have an answer. They kept things close through most of the first half. I refrained from texting my wife and son. Didn’t want to jinx things.
Pilot light kicked on, though.
During halftime I switched channels to watch Kentucky play, and kept an eye along the top of the screen while the scores of all the other games updated. Saw that Purdue quickly pulled ahead by five at the start of the second half. This is where the #1 team reminds the #16 team who’s #1, I figured.
Couple minutes later FDU had tied it up, though. They weren’t going away. You allow an underdog to hang around long enough and they start to believe.
I switched back to watch. Made my wager.
I had somethin’ to root for … specifically, my co-pilot and my wing man.
Kept waiting for Purdue to remember who they were, but the Knights didn’t give ‘em the chance. They were too busy reminding themselves who they were. With under a minute and a half left, Sean Moore, playing the game of his life in his hometown, hit a dagger three-pointer from the top of the key to put FDU up five and I finally text my co-pilot.
Me: How we doin’ …?
The rest is history.
This time, I didn’t miss it.
Best of all, Karry was there to see it live.
I celebrated with a shot of Nyquill, and wished my home team a goodnight.
Karry and Peter still had one more game to go, the nightcap between Memphis and Florida Atlantic.
In the morning I asked Karry if they stayed until the end.
“You think your son would leave early?”
I always think about Coppin State this time of year. Coach Mitchell stalking the sidelines, casting spells.
Think about earning tickets for us to the Big Dance, tickets we couldn’t otherwise afford.
Think about the whirlwind of getting married … going back to school … carving out a life from our tiny apartment.
Formally placing our wager, I guess you could say.
It wasn’t that we necessarily believed … yet. We knew going in that the odds were not in our favor. But we were going to ride it for as long as we possibly could.
When you’re underdogs, you don’t take things for granted.
I think about how good those nachos tasted.
Think about having to leave when it was just getting good … because there was work to be done.
Was thinking about all that Friday night … lying in bed and feeling like crap, my co-pilot sitting next to our oldest high above it all.
Twenty-six years later and counting, and still an unapologetic sucker for a good Cinderella ending.
There is a lot to be said for having somethin’ to root for.