As I sit on the couch and bite into one frozen Thin Mint after another and watch replay after replay of all the conference tournament action, I'm reminded of how exciting this time of year has always been. Spring is forcing its way onstage, often pushing winter off, and daffodils and Bradford pears are the visual elements that change is taking place. Baseball season, gloriously, tunes up backstage as the main act in March — college basketball — rides to its thrilling denouement.
I remember standing in the kitchen of my parents' house when I was about 14, biting into a Thin Mint while the NCAA tournament was on television after I had come back from an impromptu batting practice with some future Coon Middle School baseball teammates and thinking: “Man, this is my favorite time of year.”
There's something special about college basketball in March that just isn't found in any other sport. Maybe it's the short-lived nature of the careers that creates the emotional tie. Four years, at most, and then it's done. I used to get sad watching seniors from teams I didn't really care about like Clemson or Maryland walk off the court when their team had lost in the ACC tournament because I knew that was likely the last time I'd see them. It was much worse when the seniors on my team finished their careers. I began life as an N.C. State fan because the Wolfpack's 1974 NCAA championship is my first real sports memory. I was 8 and didn't care much about sports. Didn't play them for a recreation team (because then you had to be in third grade and I was in second grade) or really in the yard. Especially didn't like watching them on TV, although more often than not on a Saturday afternoon, ACC basketball was the only option my dad allowed on the tube.
Despite my reluctance as a sports fan, I was caught up in the 1974 Wolfpack and their great star, David Thompson. My father loved State and so did I and I especially loved DT, who seemed so shy and unassuming but was Superman, Michael Jackson and The Beatles, all rolled into one skinny, 6-foot-4 kid in low-top sneakers.
I don't remember actually watching any games, even though I know I did, but I do recall the apprehension that pulsed through the state when Thompson crashed to the floor of Reynolds Coliseum during the first round of the NCAA tournament (which is amazing enough that State played at home in the NCAA tournament) and landed on his head. He ended up being taken to the hospital and then returning, to deafening cheers, to watch the rest of the Wolfpack's win over Providence.
I don't think I watched State's epic dethroning of UCLA and Bill Walton, but I did read The News and Observer's coverage on it over and over. I was confused that State still had to play one more game to win the championship and didn't see a second of that game, since my bedtime was at 8 p.m., an hour before tipoff.
I became a more involved fan the next season as I hoped Thompson, Monte Towe and the 'Pack would win it all again — this time with me watching. But it was not to be as the Wolfpack was stopped in the ACC tournament championship game by upstart North Carolina and its fabulous freshman point guard Phil Ford.
And that was the end of State's season and Thompson's career as the Wolfpack turned down a bid to the NIT. I still remember watching The Norm Sloan Show and crying as they ran a video montage in tribute to the seniors to the song, “He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother.”
Although I hated Phil Ford that night, I had no problem rooting for the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament, where they lost to Syracuse in the second round. That's just the way it was then, at least for me.
From the time I first got a taste of March madness 39 years ago, it's still my favorite time of the year.
Do you have a memory of when March madness began for you? I'd love to hear it.
Now where are those Thin Mints?