Friday March 13th, 2009

Over the course of my 15-year career, I have lived the dream. My dream. I've covered all four major sports; attended multiple World Series and All-Star Games; surfed with Barry Zito, traveled in a pickup truck with Jet and Cord McCord; watched Ken Griffey Jr., Cal Ripken and Frank Thomas take BP; engaged in late-in-their-life interviews with Minnesota Fats and Walter Payton. Should I never leave my home again, I'll do so knowing I've experienced the ultimate pleasures of sportswriting.

And yet, for all the high-profile goodies I've been a part of, the answer to "What's the single highlight of your sports existence?" has never changed. March 20, 1992 Dayton Arena Cincinnati 85, Delaware 47

I know ... I know -- how is this possible? I've rubbed shoulders with Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson; exchanged jabs with Muhammad Ali; been close enough to Don Zimmer's head to feel the magnetic pull. How could a first-round NCAA tournament blowout top my all-time list?

The admittedly cheesy answer: Joy.

Whenever March Madness approaches, I instinctively return to the unadulterated joy I felt (egad) 17 years ago when, as an assistant sports editor at Delaware's student newspaper, The Review, I was able to fly to Ohio to cover what we Blue Hens believed would be the tournament's must-see upset. Sure, Delaware had never before qualified for the dance. And sure, the Hens resided in the unimpressive North Atlantic Conference -- home to Vermont, Northeastern and a little-known Hartford center named Vin Baker. And sure, earlier in the season we'd lost to Bucknell by 18 points and Rutgers by 21.

Yet ... who cared? We were going -- we were actually going. Our freshman point guard, Brian Pearl, would be breaking Nick Van Exel's ankles. Our high-soaring forward, Alex Coles, would reign down dunks on Corey Blount. We had the cagey Mark Murray and the physical Denard Montgomery and the mighty Spencer Dunkley and the quick Kevin Blackhurst and the dead-eye Ricky Deadwyler and the athletic Anthony Wright and, heck, wasn't this the time of year for miracles? For Mouse McFadden and Kit Meuller? The Hens were a 27-3 powerhouse. What was one more victim?

I still recall walking into the enormous arena, a press pass dangling from my neck like a .45 from my hip. Delaware was a big underdog -- but I knew better. During an interview with Wright a few days earlier, the junior forward insisted the Hens were more than mere lion's feed. "Our goal is to win the tournament," he said. "Who says we can't? We're as good as anyone else here? I truly believe that." (I later learned that the endearing Wright, who was known around campus as "Sweet," had wisely picked North Carolina to win it all in his pool).

Being 19 and naïve, I believed it, too. Perhaps that's why, as I sat down at my courtside seat for the tip-off, my knees were shaking and my teeth chattering. "They're gonna do it," I whispered to Dan B. Levine, my Review colleague. "Don't you think so?"

He nodded. "Sure," he said. "But they have to keep it tight early."

The game started.

The game ended.

Delaware didn't keep it tight. The Hens trailed 38-21 at halftime, cut the deficit to 11 with 8:58 left, then scored a single field goal the rest of the way. I've never forgotten looking toward the Hens' bench and seeing Steve Steinwedel, the normally cocksure coach, sitting down, his head buried in his hands. It remains the most painful sight I've ever witnessed in organized athletics; the personification of being overwhelmed.

Yet by then, I had moved on. This was my first trip to an NCAA tournament, and I cherished every moment of it. The colors. The sounds. The smells. The Howard pep band and the Michigan State cheerleaders. Though, from a skill standpoint, Delaware's players had no business being on the same floor as Cincinnati's, they were there nonetheless. They were a part of it all.

And so, for a glorious day, was I.

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