It isn't easyspending the first day of the NCAA tournament in an Irish pub watching 13consecutive hours of basketball, from noon tip-off to 1 a.m. sign-off, jumpball to last call. For starters, you need an artful explanation for yourabsence from the office. I told my bosses I'd be "looking into the NBAdraft," by which I meant my Newcastle Brown Ale, drawn from a tap.
Next, you have tofind a joint in which it's socially acceptable to hold down a bar stool for 13consecutive hours. That bar is Vaughan's Public House, half a block from theHartford Civic Center, home arena of the UConn Huskies, whose fans evidentlyput the AA in NCAA. "They're boozers," says Johnny Vaughan, Dublin-bornproprietor of the pub that bears his name. "Our door swings open at fiveo'clock on game nights and doesn't swing shut again for 15 minutes."
On Thursday, fiveo'clock arrived at noon, as it always does on the first day of the tournament,the best day of the year for a sports fan to play hooky. TGIT.
As Greg Gumbelsettled in at his anchor desk, I settled in at mine, a 25-foot mahogany barimported from Ireland. Three overhead TVs lit the beer taps, which in turn litthe lunch patrons. At the bar, as on the bracket sheet, one round leads toanother.
As the gamesebbed and flowed, office workers alternately crowded and abandoned the bar allday, so that it seemed to swell and contract like the bellows of a bagpipe. TomSteed fled his office at Prudential around 2:30 when he read on the Internetthat Pacific had taken Boston College into overtime. The 42-year-old systemsanalyst ducked into Vaughan's with two coworkers. That's where I found himsystematically analyzing a pint of Harp. "Two years ago," said Steed,"we went to get a quick beer and catch up on the scores. When we walkedout, we ran into our boss on the street. She asked where we'd been, and one ofmy buddies said, 'We just gave blood at the Red Cross.'"
At Vaughan's,businessmen came for lunch and stayed for dinner. "If they're on the fence,we encourage them to stay," Vaughan explained. "If it's cold and rainyoutside, that's a win for us." Thursday was frigid, so when Jody Podujeblew in at two for the second half of the BC game, he was persuaded to stay forMarquette vs. Alabama, Tennessee vs. Winthrop and UCLA vs. Belmont. He finallyabandoned his post just before George Washington vs. UNC-Wilmington went intoOT, ending an impressive lunchtime-to-crunchtime run on the stool next tomine.
A 39-year-oldregional manager for a business-services company, Poduje arrived as a stranger,left as a friend. In parting he said, "This has been one of the mostenjoyable afternoons of my life."
I didn't have theheart to tell him that it was now 9:15 in the "afternoon," but then apub is as timeless as a church, which it resembles, with its stained glass andwooden pews and priestly pints of Guinness ringed by clerical collars offoam.
On the Saturdayof the Big East tournament Vaughan's sold 10 pints of Guinness every minute forsix straight hours even though--or possibly because--UConn had been eliminatedthe day before.
Over my shoulderstood Justin Tripp, a Lego executive who was born in South Africa, raised inEngland and moved to the U.S. 18 months ago. "This is the best day fordrinking and watching sport in America?" he asked. There followed a litanyof rugby anecdotes illustrating a central theme: American sports fans are, onthe whole, a lily-livered lot.
Likewise, theHoops that Vaughan really cares about are his beloved Celtic F.C., referred toas the hoops by Scottish headline writers. Vaughan came to the U.S. 15 yearsago, at age 19, to play soccer at Central Connecticut State. "Recruiterstold me if I came to America, I'd be picked up in a limousine, I'd be on theradio all the time," he said, roaring at his youthful credulity. As hespoke, America's real college glamour event played out overhead.
In the bar is alovely mural painted by the Michelangelo of pub artists, Paul Joyce, whosegreat-grandfather, James Joyce, wrote, "Our national epic has yet to bewritten." Our unwritten national epic is an empty bracket, pregnant withpossibility. Late Thursday night a woman seated at the bar stole a glance atthe TV and said, "I haven't paid attention to this all day. I feel soun-American."
Soon after, I wasclimbing the stairs from the basement gents' room as two men carried a kegdown. One of them looked at me and said, "You're still here?"
"I'm stayingtill the basketball's over," I replied.
The guy squeezedpast me and said, "You mean you're staying till April?"
Now there's anidea.
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