What finally did it to me—what finally forced me off the couch and on the road for those first few days,, when the NCAA tournament is at its most beguiling—was ESPN's Championship Week. Or rather, ESPN's Energizer Battery Championship Week. That's when Dick Vitale and the Energizer Rabbit, indubitably the two most overexposed creatures on television, appeared on my screen. At the same time.
March Madness supplies insanity enough. Why compound one's dementia? The NCAAs deserve to be seen unaltered, through no medium. Let others be led around by some drone in a CBS control room; I would grab my draw sheet and my flight guide and five changes of underwear and pray that a winter storm getting position in the Northeast wouldn't powder me with a backscreen during my journey. I would keep going and going and going....
Wednesday, March 18, Washington, D.C., 7:30 p.m.
The men's tournament doesn't start until tomorrow, but I can't wait. So I hop a flight from my home near Boston for this intriguing first-round NCAA women's game between George Washington and unbeaten Vermont. The Colonial Women feature 6'4" center Mary K. Nordling, just your average English-biology double-major who had enough credits to graduate in December. (Women's hoops is rife with such well-rounded monsters.)
Nordling has pluck. The team motto—"Refuse to lose"—is especially applicable to her. Ten times during the second half she wheels into the lane and drops her lefthanded half hook over Vermont's 5'11" Sharon Bay, propelling the Colonial Women to a 70-69 triumph.
Thursday, March 19, Milwaukee, 10 a.m.
I left D.C. this morning after an anxious glance at the USA Today weather map. Blue means trouble, and the color is safely confined to the North. So here I am at the Bradley Center, which shares a downtown block with the Ambrosia Chocolate Company. The factory's odoriferous emanations must have certainly reached the nostrils of 6'9", 290-pound Oliver Miller and 6'8", 265-pound Popeye Jones, the pivotmen for Arkansas and Murray State, respectively, who'll hook up in the opening round of the Midwest Regional this morning. I catch up with our photographer at courtside and make sure he has his wide-angle lens.
A number of subplots have brought me here: Murray State's rookie coach, Scott Edgar, had been an assistant to Arkansas's Nolan Richardson. (They'll both get teary after Arkansas's 80-69 win.) And two Racer players and three Razorbacks, all Memphis products, know one another from that city's summertime hoops showcase, the Bluff City Classic. ("This game'll be just like the Bluff City," says Murray State guard Maurice Cannon, "except we'll have to play some defense.")
I sit next to an NBA player personnel director for the second half, as Popeye (17 points, 15 rebounds, three assists for the game) and Oliver (21 points, six rebounds, three assists, three blocks) finish up their day's work. "I wouldn't feel good about drafting either one in the first round," the NBA guy says. "They're pretty light on their feet—if that's possible. But each is about 30 pounds too heavy."
It's 3:15 p.m. I'm on Interstate 94 South. During my 90-mile drive to O'Hare, WSCR in Chicago reports that the East Regional game between Missouri and West Virginia in Greensboro, N.C.—my next destination—has been halted because of a power failure caused by thunderstorms. I'm chagrined to find Judge Wapner on the tube at the bar near my departure gate, but I learn from the barkeep that the Tigers won 89-78—in three hours and 10 minutes.
Greensboro, 8:15 p.m.
I'd fly 590 Mileage Plus miles for a Camel. When I arrive late at the Greensboro Coliseum—can't blame the storms; they're gone—it's half-time, and Campbell's Fighting Camels, the pride of the no-stoplight hamlet of Buies Creek, N.C, trail No. 1 Duke 36-16. Over the next 20 minutes, however, they play the Blue Devils to within six points of a draw before losing 82-56. "Maybe they'll add a stoplight now," says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
But that's not why I'm here. I'm here for the Official Toms Are Wild, Who'll Be Next at UNLV Coach-off. Yes! Watch as Texas's Tom Penders and Iowa's Tom Davis, two guys who never met a job interview they wouldn't slap a tie on for, battle to see who'll succeed Jerry Tarkanian! Davis has a Ph.D. (point, Davis). Only it's in sports history (point, Penders). Davis has the charisma of a claims adjuster (point, Penders). But his son's name is Keno (point, Davis). Penders may not want to leave Austin, where barely a year ago he built a house near a golf course (point, Davis). But Davis may not want to leave Iowa City, where he has a lap pool built into his home (point, Penders).
In a 98-92 game that should have reassured Tark that cither Tom could safeguard his Runnin', if not exactly his Rebel, legacy, Iowa sends Texas packing. That settles it. The next coach at UNLV will be...Utah's Rick Majerus or Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, maybe.
Friday, March 20, Greensboro, 12:30 a.m.
I stumble into my hotel room, tripping over a copy of USA Today. A quick check yields good news: No blue weather ahead.
Dayton, 2:15 p.m.
You can always count on Southwest Missouri State to surrender points grudgingly (it wound up third in the nation in scoring defense), make its free throws (the team shot 75% from the line this season), feature some undersized guard with an oversized heart and scare some higher-seeded team senseless. Last year the Bears' floor leader was a 5'5" Bronxite named Arnold (A-Train) Bernard. When Bernard first beheld the Lake of the Ozarks near the school's Spring-field campus, he turned to coach Charlie Spoonhour and said, "Coach, I've never seen so much water without a tire in it." This season's model, Jackie Crawford, is a Brobdingnagian 5'7", and his 16 points and seven assists are a big reason that Southwest Missouri, seeded 12th in the Midwest, is within two points of fifth-seeded Michigan State when I reach the Dayton Arena with a couple of minutes to play. Alas, as the Blue Hens of Delaware—the No. 13 seeds, not a singing group—perform hip-hop songs in the tunnel, waiting to go on, the Spartans put a fork in Spoon's Bears and win 61-54.
Delaware is the first team from its state ever to make the tournament and the last of the 50 states to send a representative to an NCAA basketball tournament at any level. The team flogs its distinction with the motto, "First to ratify, last to qualify." But fourth-seeded Cincinnati will make the Hens look most foul, forcing 33 turnovers in an 85-47 rout. Even 6'11" Spencer Dunkley, the splendidly athletic Brit I had come to see, was outclassed by the deep and rangy Bearcats.
I light out at halftime, headed for Worcester, Mass., where the most popular pick to pull off an upset, Princeton, awaits. At a bar in the Dayton airport, I learn that the first surprise of the tournament has come out West. Twelfth-seeded New Mexico State, with a Crawford (Sam) only slightly taller (5'8") than Jackie, has thumped fifth-seeded DePaul 81-73 (see box, below). Seems that this Crawford, a passing fool, had once wanted to play for the Blue Demons. Seems that the Blue Demons, though, declined to offer him a scholarship. Too small, they said. Grave mistake.
New York City, 7:15 p.m.
During a layover at LaGuardia Airport, I dial one of those Teamline 800 numbers and listen to play-by-play of Southwestern Louisiana, the 13th seed in the West, sending that Etonian sportsman Billy Tubbs and his fourth-seeded Oklahoma team packing Sooner than the seeding committee would have it. Look who's left from the Bayou State: Southwestern Louisiana, the school that once committed 53 NCAA violations; Tulane, the school that brought you a point-shaving scandal; and LSU, home of Dale Brown.
Worcester, 9:40 p.m.
Syracuse had no excuse for losing to Richmond last year in the first round, and the NCAA has done the Orangemen no favors by matching them against Ivy poison this year. Yet tonight the Orange play smarter than Princeton and win 51-43. No Syracuse player is more judicious in using his skills than freshman forward Lawrence Moten, who recognized early on the potential perils of playing Princeton. "When I heard we would be playing Princeton," said Moten, "I turned to [teammate] Mike Edwards and said, 'Oh, man.' "
At 11:50 p.m., I meet up with my pal Worcester Charlie, a genuine hoopaphile, and on TV we catch the final minutes of the best upset yet, 14th-seeded East Tennessee State using a hailstorm of three-pointers to put away No. 3 Arizona 87-80 in the Southeast. "Arizona's biggest problem is that the Iditarod ended two weeks ago," says Charlie. "Susan Butcher's the only person who could have whipped them to the Final Four."
Saturday, March 21, Boston, 8:20 a.m.
I'm on a plane to Boise, Idaho, the City of Trees. When I walk into an aircraft cabin now, I'm beginning to see two sections: coach and assistant coach.
Much would have been revealed in a matchup between Shaquille O'Neal of LSU and Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning in the West Regional semifinals in Albuquerque next week. Instead, as Florida State races past the Hoyas in the second half, it's revealed just how remarkable a season Georgetown had by even flirting with the Big East regular-season and tournament titles. Take away Mourning, and coach John Thompson presides over an exalted pickup team. The Seminoles hold the court 78-68; who's got nexts will be settled shortly.
At 7 p.m., I'm race-walking to my seat at the press table, a full-to-the-brim cup of soda in hand, when I'm stiff-armed by a CBS rent-a-cop who takes his assignment—to keep all nonblazered peons from Sean McDonough's and Bill Walton's pregame spiel—very seriously indeed. Unfortunately I'm already down to my last pair of pants. But nothing can soil LSU versus Indiana and the renewal of hostilities between Brown and Hoosier coach Bobby Knight. In 1987, after bouncing the Tigers from the regional semis, Knight had said, "I was worried about losing until I looked down the floor and saw Dale Brown. Then I knew we had a chance." For his part, Brown has called Knight a bully, and several years ago he showed an unflattering videotape of Knight to anyone who was interested. Yet this year the two men spent the run-up to their second-round meeting scoffing at talk of a feud.
As with most things with Brown, a story goes with this turn of events. Seems that in Baton Rouge not long ago someone threw a brick through a car window, killing a woman inside. Yet the woman's father said that he bore no grudge against the assailants. Inspired by this act of forgiveness, Brown picked up the phone, called Knight, and the two made nice. Why, Brown is so gracious that he attributes Indiana's 89-79 victory to adjustments made by "Coach" and predicts his new best buddy will win it all.
For all the attention the two coaches received, Indiana advanced on something that defies a clipboard—the teardrop-sweet trajectory of Calbert Cheancy's jump shot, self-taught over many hours in the parks of Evansville, Ind. Again and again, in what may have been the Shaq's collegiate valedictory, the shot traced a path over O'Neal's outstretched fingers.
Of course, Knight thinks there was even more to it than that. "Yeah, we made them sleep outside in the parking lot," he says of his team. "On the half hour a fire truck came by and woke 'em up. On the hour it came by and sprayed 'em. Our whole operation is nothing short of a monstrous Parris Island. But I don't want to tell you people everything we do. You people would be horrified."
Back at the hotel at 9:30 p.m., the highlights on ESPN's SportsCenter suggest that more than chocolate fumes were in the Milwaukee air today. In another game worthy of Bluff City, Memphis State beat Arkansas when Miller neglected to box out his man in the final seconds. Then there was freshman James Forrest of seventh-seeded Georgia Tech throwing in the first three-pointer of his college career, beating the final buzzer and Southern Cal, the No. 2 seed. I suppose I should have been in Milwaukee, but I couldn't see the Forrest for the City of Trees.
Sunday, March 22, Boise, 5:50 a.m.
A sea of blue weather laid siege to Chicago last night, so the aircraft that's supposed to take me to O'Hare—and then on through to Atlanta for East Tennessee State-Michigan in the Southeast Regional—isn't here. Like those Olympic figure skaters, though, I mustn't wallow in a glitch but carry on with no "break in the program." If I scramble, I can still reach Tempe, Ariz., in time for UCLA-Louisville in the West. I clear standby for the same flight to Denver that LSU is taking on its way back to Baton Rouge and then watch Daddy Dale, the man who barely a week ago was trying to rumble with Tennessee forward Carlus Groves, spend an hour bouncing his infant grandson on his knee. I wonder if the flight attendants will hand out certificates to each lucky passenger, reading: I WAS ON THE VERY LAST COACH-CLASS FLIGHT OF SHAQUILLE O'NEAL'S LIFE.
Somewhere over the Rockies, I dial Teamline from an Airfone at my Plane-seat and listen to Kentucky take an eight-point halftime lead over Iowa State. You haven't lived, friends, until you've heard the heavenly voice of Wildcat radio announcer Cawood Ledford at 39,000 feet.
Tempe, 2:45 p.m.
Who's that man on TV with his eyes closed and his head in his hands? Sixteen seconds are left in the Kansas-UTEP game in the Midwest when I reach the press room at the University Activity Center, and since that isn't Jay-hawk coach Roy Williams on the screen, I conclude that the ninth-seeded Miners are about to go down to the No. 1 seeds. I soon discover otherwise. Later I'll learn that only yesterday did UTEP coach Don (the Bear) Haskins install the delay offense that won the game. But right now I wonder if I saw more of the Miners' 66-60 victory than their coach did.
Back near courtside a fan holds up a sign that reads UCLA: UNBEATABLE CHAMPS LUNCHTIME AMBITIOUS. Perhaps "lunchtime ambitious" is Left Coast lingo I'm not up on. Or maybe it's an allusion to the preseason Chinese meal at which the Bruins, as prodigious in ego as they are in talent, resolved to play as one. This isn't to say that they're now all content. Senior point guard Darrick Martin has lost his starting job to freshman Tyus Edney, and it says something that Martin's parents boycotted Senior Day at Pauley Pavilion last week. But Martin's play off the bench prodded his sluggish mates past 16th-seeded Robert Morris in the first round, and today UCLA, the region's No. 1 seed, will brown-bag eighth-seeded Louisville—ambitiously—85-69.
It's 10:30 p.m. It would be a cop-out if someone who saw all or part of nine games in person and who followed other scores through TV, radio and sundry other technogadgetry while en route, failed to provide a Final Four prediction. So let's see how Cincinnati, Seton Hall, UCLA and Oklahoma Slate will fly—even if I, thank you very much, won't again for a while.
But please don't hold me to those picks. After covering more than 14,000 miles across three time zones and catching 14 planes and one stubborn head cold, I'm certain about only one thing. The rule book is right. Traveling is a violation.