Get ready for the ride

Quick note for Friday, March 9: I spent the morning (and part of last night) writing a blog posting for today, but the piece turned out to be more complicated than I thought, so we decided to hold it until next week. You'll understand why when you read it.

Sadly, I have nothing new for you to read until Monday's mammoth recap from the weekend. (If you missed any of the previous Basketball Blog entries, click on the links from March and February on the calendar that's sitting on the top right of this page.) And since we didn't want to leave today's space empty, we're re-running a March Madness column from March 2002 that will (hopefully) get you in the mood for the next three weeks.

During the first few minutes, you're hoping they stay close. It's like watching an overmatched buddy trying to work the best-looking girl in a bar ... you're only hoping they make it out alive. Painful as hell. Almost excruciating.

But then they survive that first wave.

Hmmmm ...

You start searching for signs. The other guys seem a little flat. Good sign. We seem to be working harder on the boards. Good sign. Too many turnovers for us. Bad sign. They're missing their shots. Good sign. Everything's black and white. Us/them. Good/bad. Happy/scared. You're afraid to put any more thought into it than that.

You check the clock. Ten minutes gone and we're still tied. One-fourth of the game. Not bad. You don't want to believe, not yet ... but you're intrigued. You fight off the urge to call one of your friends. Can't jinx it. Not yet.

You notice the television cameras keep showing the raucous rooting section for your school, those same familiar colors that you wore once upon a time. Your school. Makes you jealous. You wish you were there. You should have gone. You feel left out. But maybe if you had ventured to the game, they wouldn't be playing this well. You start thinking about weird stuff like that.

Now you're glancing at the clock incessantly. As long as the score remains close, you want that clock moving at warp speed. Faster. Faster.

Your team hits a few more shots. Hanging in. The crowd starts to get behind them; you hear that special buzz starting to build in the stands, that "Something's Happening Here" buzz that makes sports so great. The 3s are falling. Good sign. You need the 3s. Can't pull off an NCAA upset without 3s.

You're not getting any ideas though. Not yet. Every few minutes, something happens that makes you remember the glaring difference in raw athletic ability between both teams -- two guys chasing down a loose ball, somebody gliding through the lane like a knife through butter, an awkward turnover, a rim-shattering dunk -- just so you don't get too excited. It's like a phylum thing. They're in a different athletic phylum than your guys. So be it.

Now the phone starts ringing, the first wave of "Hey, we're hangin' in there!" phone calls. You make the requisite "Hoosiers" jokes -- And then David took the stone out of his bag, and aimed it at the Philistine and I wanna win for Coach, he's the one who got us here -- and they never really get old. And you're laughing and having fun, but you never take your eyes off the TV screen. Not once.

The Bad Guys finally make their predictable run near the end of the half; you suddenly find yourself trailing by nine at the break. Still in striking distance. Now the phone calls start pouring in. Yeah, we looked good. Yeah, we're hanging in there. Yeah, we're not out of it. Can you imagine if ...? You have the same conversation six times in 20 minutes, and it doesn't faze you one bit.

The second half starts. You know 90 percent of these games are decided in the first five minutes of the second half, when the High Seed says, "OK, we're done messing around" and proceeds to blow the Low Seed out of the building. It's coming. You know it. It's definitely coming. You've seen it too many times.

(Waiting ...)

(Your guys are still making 3s ...)

(Waiting ...)

(The bad guys aren't making a run ...)


That dreaded five-minute mark passes. Still hanging around. Three-point game. Moves up to five, to seven, down to four, up to six, down to three ... always seems to settle at three. Your team can't get over that three-point hump; the bad guys can't put them away. The play-by-play guy uses the phrase "hanging around," and for the first time, his voice rises a notch. The crowd greets every one of your team's baskets with a growing roar.

You keep glancing at the clock. Ten minutes to play and we're still in this! Your team seems to play better if you're sitting back with your feet on the coffee table, so you remain in that position indefinitely, even though your right big toe feels like it might curl into a ball. Ten minutes. Still there. If you can stay close for a few more minutes, anything can happen. Anything. Anything. Anything ...

Suddenly the bad guys rip off a quick run -- 7-0 -- and the lead bulges to 10. One of your friends gives you the "It's over" phone call and you hate them for it. You decide not to answer the phone anymore. It's slipping away.

Or is it? There's a 3. There's another 3.

(Holy %$%#!)

Turnover by the bad guys. Your guys bring the ball down ...

Another basket! Two point-game!

Now CBS is showing the "Guys jumping up and down and going bonkers on the bench" shot -- maybe the best camera angle in sports other than the "Guys jumping out of the dugout to see if the homer went over the fence" shot -- and it's your bench! Your guys make another defensive stop, eventually getting fouled and going to the line ... swish and swish.

Tie game!!!

The play-by-play announcer's voice cracks as they head to commercial. You feel like hugging him. Your guys dance over to their bench, their teammates skipping over and practically tackling them. The phone starts ringing again. You're too excited to talk to anybody. You can't speak. Your heart feels like it might pound out of your chest. You keep pumping your fist, even though nobody else is in the room. You're a mess. This can't be happening.

1. Six minutes left.
2. Tie game.
3. Anything can happen.
4. You believe.

And that's March Madness for you.

Now ...

Most people aren't fortunate enough to attend colleges with strong basketball programs; even if your school features a decent hoops team, your entire post-graduation life might pass without your school reaching that hallowed "Hoosiers" point.

Me? I was buried in No Man's Land. I graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in '92. We haven't fielded a team that seriously threatened someone in an NCAA Tournament game since the Reagan presidency was kicking off. After awhile, you learn to live with it. It's like dealing with asthma or rooting for the Red Sox. You learn to live with it.

Last March, everything changed. My school made it to the "Guys jumping up and down and going bonkers on the bench late in the second half" point. We fought the good fight. We pulled a Maximus and won the crowd. We had announcers screaming. We had random bandwagon fans high-fiving in bars all over the country. We played well enough that Kentucky -- 20-point favorites, the No. 2 seed in the East, the recent two-time champion, a veritable basketball institution, for God's sake, Kentucky -- was forced to execute three high-caliber plays down the stretch just to maintain their lead. As amazing as this sounds, if Holy Cross had gotten one or two breaks, they could have advanced to Round Two.

Yup, as far as moral victories in sports are concerned, "Kentucky 72, Holy Cross 68" ranked right up there. But that's not even the point. I finally experienced the special side of March Madness, the sacred side, the only side. Six minutes left. Tie game. Anything could happen. And I believed. For a die-hard sports fan, it's the most addictive roller-coaster ride you can imagine.

And here's the best thing: I just bought another ticket. Thursday night, Round One, Midwest Regional, St. Louis, No. 16 Holy Cross vs. No. 1 Kansas. Time to climb back on, strap myself in and get ready for another ride.

And then David took the stone out of his bag, and aimed it at the Philistine ...