Ever since I witnessed Duke’s Christian Laettner drain a last second shot in overtime to beat Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA East Regional Finals, I’ve been hooked on March Madness.
Eighteen years ago, three friends and I innocuously walked into the Philadelphia Spectrum on March 26 and joined 18,000 others for three games over two nights. We paid a total of sixty bucks for tickets that seated us in a cramped upper deck, nestled in a rowdy Seton Hall section, with a view from the behind the baseline. With an encompassing look down on the court, the stadium, and the spectacle, we knew going into the first game that we would most likely be treated to some excellent sports entertainment.
At tournament time, you expect some great college basketball. You expect the boisterous and battling college bands. You even expect some close finishes.
What you don’t expect is to be a witness to The Game Of The Century. When the buzzer went off two nights later, after we watched Grant Hill hurl that perfect football pass to Laettner at the other end of the court, we all walked away shocked devotees to this annual insanity.
And we had the ticket stubs to prove it.
Being in attendance for The Game of The 20th Century produced some serious side effects however. In addition to making me one college-basketball-addled individual each March, I have a reoccurring obligation to interject in any conversation about basketball of which I am a part: “I was there when Laettner hit the shot.”
As a testament to that game’s greatness back in 1992, without fail my anecdotal aside garners incredulous denials from fellow fans. It then engenders a flurry of “where were you when” rejoinders, followed by a nostalgic recount of the events that March. As Duke coach Mike Kryzewski explained after the game, "People who saw it knew it was a great game. They didn't need any announcer or sports writer to tell them it was.”
Kryzewski concluded that in addition to those with allegiances to the teams on the court, “Any basketball fan who saw it felt disbelief that any of it could happen."
One look at the face of Duke guard Thomas Hill after the shot went in illustrates just that disbelief.
So just as my attendance in the Philadelphia Spectrum that night prompted me to indelibly set aside these days in March on my calendar for nothing but basketball, Houstonians will likewise have the opportunity to witness in person the NCAA tournament next weekend.
Our city is again hosting the South Regional after successfully accommodating thousands at Reliant Stadium last year. Games will start March 26 and continue on March 28, the same two dates that I was in the Spectrum 18 years ago. Regardless of whether you watch the games on TV or make it to the show at Reliant, you just can’t help but catch a little case of March Madness.
You might also just leave in disbelief.
A Bit of Basketball Heritage
The games that will be played across the country this week evolved from an ancient game called “duck-on-a-rock.” “Duck-on-a-rock” consisted of throwing rocks, or “ducks,” at a larger stone to see if it could be toppled. Dr. James Naismith, who used to play “duck-on-a-rock” as a child, modeled basketball in the 1890s after this rudimentary, rock-strewn game.
According to basketball lore, Naismith ditched the rocks and brought a soccer ball into play. Then, he utilized two peach baskets as the goals.
Naismith’s new game could be played indoors, during the inclement winter season, and did not require a great space. When Naismith took his game to Kansas University in 1898, he not only helped inaugurate a new sport as athletic director, he set the foundation for a storied college basketball program. If the Houston Cougars make it to the Sweet 16, they will most likely have to get past the Big 12 champion and No. 1-ranked juggernaut Kansas Jayhawks.
Some NCAA Tournament Trivia
• 1939 was the first NCAA tournament. The Ohio State Buckeyes, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional this year, lost to the Oregon Ducks 46-33. The 1939 tournament, however, wasn’t much of an extravaganza. Only eight teams played in the tournament. Today, there are 65 teams that play, including the “play-in” game. There's also renewed chatter about expanding the field to 96 teams soon.
• UCLA holds the record for most NCAA tournament championships at 11. Legendary Bruins coach John Wooden is responsible for 10 of those championships.
• The first women’s tournament took place in 1982. The University of Connecticut, the dominant force in women’s college basketball today, clinched their 16th Big East title recently, and is heading into this year’s tournament on a 72-game winning streak.
This year, the University of Houston will have the opportunity to be a spoiler in the first two rounds, starting with tomorrow night's game against No. 4 seed Maryland. After a long absence from the tournament, however, winning a few games might go a long way to put the UH program back on the map.
A win might also soothe some of the still painful wounds inflicted by the North Carolina State Wolfpack back in 1983. That year, North Carolina State derailed Houston’s championship bid and toppled the famous Phi Slama Jama team in the championship game with one the most unbelievable endings in college basketball history. The Cougar fans I know still are not over the loss, and they probably don't want to see that clip of the late JImmy Valvano running around looking for somebody to hug ever again
Next to the Villanova's win over Georgetown in 1985, the UH loss was one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
That 1983 loss, though, is ancient history. Those memories certainly won’t dampen the excitement on the University of Houston’s campus this weekend.
Whether the Coogs go to the Sweet Sixteen or bow out the first round, head coach Tom Penders made history of his own right after guiding the team to the NCAA tournament. Penders is now one of only nine coaches to lead four teams to the NCAA tournament. Before this success at Houston, Penders brought Rhode Island, Texas, and George Washington to the Big Dance.
The 64-year-old coach, whose job was in jeopardy after a lackluster regular season and five prior years of no NCAA bids, described the win to get in the tourney as "the most gratifying because, you know, in many ways when I came to Houston it was almost considered Mission Impossible.”
Houston guard Aubrey Coleman — the nation's leading scorer — concurred, and then called out all the doubters.
"The whole year, it was he said, she said about coach Penders being fired," reminded Coleman. "What are they going to say now?"