When Games Resume, Will You Feel Safe to Sit in a Crowd? And Some Best NCAA Memories.

Herb Gould

Among the things I am keeping a safe distance from these days is overexposure to COVID-19 news.

Important developments? Yes. When it might end? Yes. Explanations of how vaccine is developed and why it will take so long? Yes. (60 Minutes did a fascinating piece on that on Sunday.)

But then I move on. They say that staying calm and positive is good for immunity. I would add that it’s good for your sanity.

One question that I find fascinating: Even when baseball and football feel safe to resume play games, when will people feel safe to gather in crowds of 20,000 to 60,000 (or more) to watch?

At this point, the question is hypothetical, rather than worrisome. We don’t really know what people will do when there’s a game tomorrow. I hope that they will go bravely, that this will all be behind us sooner than later. And I tell myself that even if people need a vaccine that is 12 to 18 months away to feel safe, that day will come.

The other thing is, all those decades of going to sporting events as a sportswriter has greatly diminished the appeal of going to sporting events as a civilian. So I don’t have a good handle on that.

I would very much like to hear how people who like to go to games feel about that. Will you go back right away?

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Like you, I am missing the NCAA tournament, my favorite team-sport event. (For individual competition, give me the Masters and the British Open.)

And like you, I am filling the void by watching and reading about past drama.

I also am remembering favorite and unforgettable moments. Some are great sporting achievements. Some are merely indelible personal memories.

DAVID AND GOLIATH: The greatest near-miss I have covered? I was in Providence(!) in 1989 when No. 16 Princeton nearly upset No. 1 Georgetown, falling 50-49 on a controversial no-call when Alonzo Mourning blocked Princeton’s final shot.

I was there to cover the 8-9 game, Notre Dame vs. Vanderbilt. But I convinced the guys back at the paper that they ought to give me decent space to write Princeton-Georgetown.

A close runnerup that weekend? Replaying the moment on a serious St. Patty’s pub crawl the next day with my ChiTrib pal Skip Myslenski. I am long retired from pub crawls. But if that’s your thing, I’m guessing that Providence on St. Patrick’s weekend is still a winner.

Another thing. Final Fours are cool. But many of my favorite memores are of the first two weekends. Once a team reaches the Final Four, it has put a pretty serious notch in its belt.

Getting there is often where the fun is.

THE PROMISED LAND: The greatest NCAA tournament game I have covered? That would be Illinois’ 90-89 overtime win vs. Arizona to earn a berth in the 2005 Final Four. Down 77-63 with 3½ minutes to go, the Illini, led by Dee Brown and Deron Williams, put together a miracle comeback.

Without that win, Illinois, which went unbeaten until its final regular-season game at Ohio State, would have spoiled a season for the ages. Never mind that the Illini lost to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game. That Illinois team remains an all-time favorite, right up there with the 1985 Super Bowl Shuffle Bears.

The Arizona win wasn’t merely great stuff, though. It was essential to the legacy of that team. A 35-2 record with no Final Four would have paled in comparison with their 37-2 finish.

LIGHTS OUT: For sheer storylines and memories, the 1986 first weekend in Minneapolis might top my list. No. 3 Notre Dame was shocked by No. 14 Arkansas-Little Rock in the late game on Friday.

Which meant that we not only had to write our game stories for the Saturday paper. We also had to do our season wrapups for the Sunday bulldog edition, which came out about 10 minutes after the Saturday paper.

To make matters worse, while we were writing at courtside after the game, our South Bend TV friends were doing their standups on the court, shining their klieg lights in our eyes. This left my grizzled ChiTrib friend, Bob ``Lefty’’ Logan, muttering and grinding his teeth.

When the TV crews left, some members of the Metrodome maintenance staff, killing time waiting for us, decided to play two-on-two. The bouncing ball was more than Lefty could take. He shouted out a salty request that they take their game elsewhere and ``give the workings stiffs a break.’’

They left. And then they turned out the lights, forcing us to stumble out of a pitch-dark dome.

I also will never forget how pale Digger Phelps looked, kneeling on the sideline in the second half of Notre Dame’s upset loss.

At the off-day press conference the next day, I was dazzled by Jim Valvano, whose N.C. State team would be playing Arkansas-Little Rock instead of Notre Dame.

``Would you rather . . . ?‘’ was about as far as I got before Valvano launched into the answer, anticipating the inevitable query about having to play a hyphenated upstart that was playing well and feeling no pressure.

``Absolutely, you’d rather play the bigger school,’’ he said. ``You don’t want to play those little guys that have everything to gain, and nothing to lose. They’re on a crusade. . . ’’

It was all the right stuff. And it was baloney. The Wolfpack cruised past UALR 80-66. But it was great baloney. Valvano was a lot of fun to be around. It’s still wrenching to think that he was taken by cancer so young.

Also entertaining that off-day was Iowa State coach Johnny Orr, who told a marvelous story about how he left Michigan and took the Cyclones job. When Iowa State called to ask permission to talk to his assistant, Bill Frieder, Orr asked how much it paid. And took it himself.

And yes, Orr’s No. 7 Cyclones beat Frieder’s No. 2 Wolverines 72-69 the next day in Minneapolis.

TIME FOR A CHANGE: Everybody, I’m guessing, remembers where they were on March 28, 1992, when Duke beat Kentucky 104-103 in overtime in Philadelphia on that miracle shot by Christian Laettner.

I was in Hartford, Conn., watching on a press box TV. Down below us, the Blackhawks were harpooning the Whalers 3-1.

It was around then that I started thinking it might be time to segue back to college sports when I had an opportunity to muster out of the NHL.

The Blue Devils would go on to win the national championship on April 6, 1992.

The Blackhawks would go on to lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals, which ended on June 1, 1992.

That was when I felt an even greater urge to drop (out of) the pucks. I like hockey. But in May and June? Not so much.

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Herb Gould

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