The NCAA Tournament did not start this week meaning all our “Garden Parties” have been canceled, well, at least gatherings of 10 or more.
Rick Nelson once crooned “if memories are all I sang I’d rather drive a truck.
Today, due to a global crisis we’ll look back on like a Ray Bradbury novel, we’re all at the wheel of a runaway 18-wheeler.
Memories are all we have.
Some of us have been lucky enough to sit court-side for multiple NCAA Tournaments.
My Final Four attendance count currently stands at blackjack, 21, which seems like a lot until you consider my friend Dick “Hoops” Weiss is closing in on fifty.
I don’t think I took any of my experiences for granted.
Before each NCAA title-game tip-off, working from my front-row seat for the L.A. Times, I always took a moment to let the shining moments soak in. After the singing of national anthem, one year it was the Temptations, I would do a customary 360-degree look around to pay homage to the spectacle at hand.
“There’s Denny Crum, a few rows up from Lute Olson, a few rows over from Bill Russell.”
The Final Four is the “Academy Awards” of college basketball and it never, ever, got old to be there, as fresh as bread out of the oven.
I’ll never forget Final Four Atlanta, 2013, the year controversial coach Jerry Tarkanian was long-overdue elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Tark was fragile by this time but, dammit, he finally beat the NCAA and the system that kept him out so long.
Black-balled? You bet he was. The funny thing was 2013 was also the year Rick Pitino got his hall of fame pass. Yep, the very year his Louisville team won the national title only to have to vacate it years later for multiple NCAA violations.
The irony was rich. The NCAA spent years chasing (and missing) Tarkanian and ended up LOSING in a conclusive U.S. Supreme Court judgement.
Tark cheated, oh yeah he did, but his underlying point was that he wasn’t the only one and that the two-faced NCAA cherry-picked on the lower-level programs at the expense of blue-blood money makers.
Tark often changed the team names to set up the joke he told for years, but it basically went like this: “The NCAA is so angry at UCLA they’re going to put Cal State Northridge on probation.”
I remember being happy that Tark, age 82, got elected before he died. Jerry needed a cane and help to reach center court for his Final Four moment of glory, but he beat the clock. He died in 2015.
Tarkanian did not live to see the NCAA officially vacate Louisville’s 2013 championship, led by Pitino, but you know somewhere he was laughing his you-know-what off.
Pitino was Exhibit One for Tark’s decades-long, hang dog, sunken-eyes plea fostering the notion that the NCAA took care of pretty-boy coaches from big-time programs it was looking to protect.
Pitino’s public shaming of late completely supported my long-held belief that active coaches should not be eligible for HOF induction because, you know, what if they coached the ONLY team in NCAA history that has had to take down a title banner?
All that said the NCAA Tournament stands (stood?) as the greatest sporting event in American sports.
It was the place where all the sins of college basketball, of which there are (were?) plenty, could be put on hold or completely absolved.
I have seen the toughest investigative reporters in the world from November to February turn, in March, to mush over Sister Jean.
The blatant hypocrisy of excitement-induced basketball leveraged and televised by billionaires, on the backs of amateurs, could be set aside for genuinely-authentic and unscripted drama.
The Thursday and Friday of the first week were my two favorite sporting days of the year.
Covering four games in one day, from a sub-regional in Spokane, was like Christmas.
It wasn’t always easy. When people tell me how much they’d love to have my job I tell them about the first day of the 2014 tournament.
San Diego State, playing the last of my four games in Spokane, held a huge late lead against New Mexico State.
With a 10:40 p.m. first deadline approaching, I started prepping an “Aztecs win” story to send simultaneously concurrent to NM State cutting into that insurmountable lead.
But then came Uh-oh. San Diego State had possession and a three-point lead with 10 seconds left, no problem, until the Aztecs turned the inbound pass over under their own basket.
My watch read about 10:25 when a New Mexico kid I've since expunged from my memory tied the game on a last-second three-point shot.
Fifteen minutes to deadline headed to OT.
I called the office and said “what now?”
They said they would hold the presses but my story absolutely needed to be filed the second the game ended.
That, folks, is why I got paid the “big” money.
I won’t miss panic-sweat nights like those in the NCAA Tournament, but put me down for missing everything else.
Over the next three weeks I’m going to offer my top live-coverage moments of covering the tournament.
Because memories are all I have—and I can’t drive a truck.
And, too bad Tark didn't live long enough to see Rick Pitino coaching at Iona.