March is a month-long holiday in our family. It can’t be helped. We grew up with basketball. Maybe I mentioned this before, but my parents took a train to Kansas City to attend a basketball tournament on their honeymoon, so it comes as no surprise their children can feel the pounding of that ball on the court in their veins.
This explains my absence from writing. Who can write when there is so much basketball to be watched, brackets to be followed (and burned or ripped to pieces), and memories to be made. When this time of year approaches, I can’t help but remember the many trips we made to various midwest cities to watch these games up close and personal. Every year we would select a site, I would quickly send in the application, wait for notification of tickets, make hotel arrangements just in case, and book flights as soon as the postcard arrived announcing we were one of the lucky ones.
We started small, just my parents and my brother making the first trip to Denver for the midwest regionals. Our seats were up in the rafters, our hotel was in a gang-ridden neighborhood, KU was beaten by Syracuse, and a blizzard came through on our final night leaving us stranded an extra day. But it was so worth it, plus we were hooked.
Our group grew as we added cousins and close friends and we traveled to Chicago, St. Louis, and San Antonio. San Antonio became a favorite destination, so we made the trip three times. Each year was eventful, as in Chicago where we attended the opening rounds for the first time not knowing we would have to leave the United Center for two hours in between sessions. We spent two hours in our car, eating candy bars and whatever snacks we brought with us, listening to the other games playing out in cities across the nation on the radio, and being very aware we were not in the best of neighborhoods. This was also the session we were introduced to the Stanford Cardinal mascot, the dancing tree.
There was St. Louis and the TransWorld Dome where our seats were in the third tier and we thought we might have to stop for oxygen on our way up. A few of us got vertigo while standing for the National Anthem. Michigan State played Oklahoma and in the first half Mateen Cleaves and Eduardo Najera collided, sending both to the floor unconscious. Vicki threw her back out doing the Kentucky Wildcats cheer and all nine of us crammed into one hotel room to cheer on SIU of the MVC to the Sweet Sixteen. Oh, and we visited the Motherland, Anheuser Busch.
The San Antonio trips are the most memorable. We found a favorite spot, Dirty Nelly’s, where the bartender remembered us year after year. It was a great place for fish and chips and Guinness since the tournament begins near St. Patrick’s Day and continues during Lent. I was dragged to my first KU pep rally and then threatened to be locked in my hotel room if I dared cheer for my Illini over KU. I gave in to peer pressure, wore a KU t-shirt then silently cheered as the Illini walked all over the ‘Hawks. I was never asked to cheer for KU again. Oh, and the coach for the Illini that year? Bill Self.
San Antonio brings memories of two chartered airplanes by wild Minnesota fans who filled the riverwalk with their Minnesota Dribble Bibs; the Arizona Wildcat fans trying to teach us their “W” hand sign while sipping beers after the games( I stil can’t do it!); two double-overtime games that saw us walking back to our hotel room after midnight; being jeered by the Longhorns fans when they discovered we were from Kansas; and sitting for eight hours in Champs Sports Bar on the Riverwalk to watch the games on our “off day.”
And there was Washington, D.C., and my Shox in the Sweet Sixteen. There were only four of us daring enough to travel. The Shox lost to George Mason who went on to the final four, but it was awesome to see the huge contingent of Shocker fans. And I met Antoine Carr.
And the teams: Syracuse, KU, Texas, Arizona, Minnesota, UCLA, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Miami-Ohio, St. John’s, Stanford, UConn., Clemson, Illinois, Washington, George Mason, WSU,…I know there are more, I just can’t remember them all. I’m sure my dad and brother do.
It was five years ago we stopped making the trips due to finances, time, logistics. So we began a new tradition, still including basketball, brackets, some travel, and family, but minus the lottery for tournament tickets. But that’s part II.
I miss traveling to those cities and arenas, seeing the different teams, meeting other fans, learning other fight songs and cheers. I miss looking down the row at my family wearing their brand new NCAA tourney t-shirts, those big smiles on their faces.
Come March and tourney time, who needs Disneyland.