When I first started out in the newspaper business, I had lofty goals. But after a few years on the desk, and then a few more years covering courts and fires and murders, I finally decided it was better to stick to fun and games.
My switch to sports was a big deal. So big that the first NCAA tournament I covered was expanded to 64 teams.
It was 1985. I was covering Notre Dame. I was rooting for the Irish to be sent to Salt Lake City, so I could sneak out a day early and catch some ski time at Alta or Snowbird. If not Salt Lake, I would have been fine with Albuquerque, home of the Albuquerque Journal, my first full-time newspaper job. Atlanta, Houston, Tulsa. . . heck, anywhere where there were frequent-flier miles involved and the promise of warmer weather.
Where were the Irish sent?
To. . . Notre Dame.
That’s right. In those quaint days, teams could play on their home court.
Allen Pinkett, the Notre Dame tailback, was a stats runner, bringing us fresh halftime box scores. To his badge, which said, “Runner,’’ legendary sports information director Roger Valdiserri had penned in the word, “Fast.’’
Even with that now-unthinkable home-court advantage, the seventh-seeded Irish lost their second-round matchup with No. 2 North Carolina.
And so, my first NCAA tournament ended with nothing more exotic than one more trip across the Chicago Skyway, which was no match for Little Cottonwood Canyon.
That was the first of 24 NCAA tournaments I have covered. In the beginning, I would root for Digger Phelps’ Irish to be sent to some exotic western destination. That never happened. So I would sigh, and go off to Minneapolis, Charlotte, Chapel Hill, Providence.
I will say this. If you ever have a chance to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Providence, do that.
Later, when I was older and rooting for easy, close-to-home destinations—because, honestly, it was all about the basketball—that’s when Sacramento, and San Diego and San Jose and finally Denver (!) came up.
No complaints. Because the NCAA tournament is a joy to cover.
I was in Providence the night No. 16 Princeton scared the daylights out of No. 1 Georgetown before losing 50-49.
I was in Albany the day Michael Jordan said, “I’m back!’’ I interviewed every kid who wore No. 23—before we realized MJ was going to wear No. 45.
I was in Minneapolis watching Tim Duncan and working the phones in 1996, trying to get a line on Illinois’ next coach when Lou Henson retired. When I got a tip that Lon Kruger would be leaving Florida to come to Illinois, I left a message for Chris Harry, a Gators writer. When he called me back, we realized that we were sitting about 50 feet apart in a cavernous press room.
I was standing in the tunnel at the 2000 Final Four with then-Northwestern coach Kevin O’Neill when Michigan State coach Tom Izzo walked past us at halftime, nursing a 19-17 lead against Wisconsin.
“How do you guys like the Super Bowl?’’ Izzo said, shaking his head.
I was in San Diego when the start of the tournament was delayed by a bomb scare—that turned out to be rancid mustard, which was picked up by an alert bomb-sniffing dog. Just to be safe, some people put ketchup on their hot dogs that weekend.
While we’re waiting to find out which teams got screwed by the committee, let me share some more of my favorite tales from the often-bumpy Road to the Final Four.
In 1986, Notre Dame had been solid enough to earn a No. 3 seed. And vulnerable enough to lose to No. 14 Arkansas-Little Rock, which was led by future Chicago Bull Pete Myers.
It was the late game on Friday night. Which meant that the Sun-Times not only wanted the shocking game story for the Saturday paper. It also wanted the season wrap-up for the early Sunday edition, which went to press about 10 minutes after the Saturday paper.
So I’m sitting courtside in the Minneapolis Metrodome typing my little fingers off. And our friends from South Bend television are doing their standups on the court, with their klieg lights shining right in our eyes.
Bob “Lefty’’ Logan, my Chicago Tribune friend, was chewing nails. Finally, the TV lights went off. But then, some Metrodome workers decided to play two-on-two. At 1 a.m.
Lefty and I were grousing through our stories. Finally, Lefty could take no more of the bouncing ball. He reamed out the workers: “Could you give the #$%!& working stiffs a break and go play *&%^$# Horse somewhere else?’’
They left all right. And turned out all the lights, leaving us to grope our way back to the world of electricity.
But the tournament is a joy—and never mind the bumps in the road.
The very next day, I started to ask Jim Valvano about facing nothing-to-lose Arkansas-Little Rock instead of storied Notre Dame.
I got as far as “Would you rather. . .’’ before Jimmy V, anticipating the inevitable query about having to play a hyphenated Cinderella, launched into the answer: “Absolutely, you’d rather play the bigger school. 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 baloney. The N.C. State cruised 80-66 the next day. But it was great baloney.
Every year, when I write my check to the Jimmy V Foundation—I am a prostate cancer survivor—I am reminded of how glib and fun Valvano was that day.
That was, and occasionally still is, one of the many great things about the NCAA. Great quotes.
At the 1988 West Regional in Seattle, writers were working a pre-game angle on Michigan coach Bill Frieder, a basketball junkie who ate and slept basketball. So of course, they asked his opponent, Dean Smith, about that.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to eat a basketball,’’ the North Carolina legend said when asked about that approach, before his Tar Heels beat Michigan.
Carolina lost to Arizona (featuring a young Steve Kerr!) in the Elite Eight. But Smith was not at a loss for words after coming up short in the final Elite Eight game, saying, “I’m glad we at least made it to the Final Five.’’
Sadly, the Final Four has become increasingly print-media unfriendly. We don’t really expect people to care. But we think it’s ironic and ungrateful that, thanks to all of our great coverage over the years, sporting events have become so big and money-driven that courtside seating for writers is an endangered species.
We used to be the eyes and ears of millions of readers. Now we’re more like. . . pests.
The last time I went to the Final Four, in Atlanta four years ago, my New York Daily News friends, Dick Weiss and Mike Lupica, were given only one courtside seat. Their other seat was in the football press box, which was somewhere north of Valdosta and south of Augusta.
The monologue Lupica did on that revolting development was so good, I wish I’d taped it. He also used his iPhone GPS to calculate the distance from our seats to the press room, which was literally in a building adjacent to the Georgia Dome.
“It’s 0.97 miles!’’ he announced.
The final insult came during the pre-game warmups, when a CBS cameraman took his seat next to me. When he turned one way, all I could see was the back of a camera. When he turned the other way, I had to put my head on Lupica’s shoulder to avoid receiving a broken nose.
I am forever grateful to Mike for fighting the good fight, and shaming the NCAA powers that be into moving that cameraman off of press row.
But that, I expect, will be my final Final Four. If they want to bring it to South Bend, though, I will reconsider.