No matter how little time I can devote to sports on TV, I always find time to sneak in a few college basketball games during the NCAA tournament each spring. And I've seen a lot of memorable moments over the years. I remember watching St. Joseph's stun number-one DePaul in 1981. I recall how a determined Princeton team upset defending champion UCLA in 1996. And as a Kansas fan, there is always the 2008 championship win over Memphis, when Mario Chalmers hit an overtime-forcing three-point shot.
Great athletic memories, all. And yet when someone asks me "What is arguably your favorite March Madness memory?", I have to say, "Actually being at the Final Four."
It was during the gut-wrenching 1991 championship game when my Kansas Jayhawks lost to Duke that I caught a commercial about the 1992 Final Four, to be held in Minneapolis. All that needed to be done was write for an application, complete it, and send it back to the NCAA with payment for your seats. The powers-that-be would put all completed applications into a lottery and select winning entrants from the general public.
I turned to my good friend and roommate, Paige Slyman, and we both had that glint in our eyes when we had the same idea. "Let's do it," we both said.
I sent off for the application and we put up the money. Before sending it back to Kansas City, I did a small yet ultimately significant thing. I checked a box on the paper acknowledging that if we didn't get the courtside seats we were applying for at $60 each (which should tell you this was a long time ago), we'd accept other seats further back in the Metrodome.
Months went by. I was home in Baltimore over that summer before our senior year at Covenant College when the mail arrived one day. The sole package addressed to me was a brown envelope with a University of Minnesota return address. I thought, "That's strange. I haven't checked it out for grad school." Being a curious soul, I ripped the envelope open.
Two 1992 Final Four ticket booklets fell onto the kitchen table at 3003 Oakcrest Avenue.
Three microseconds later, I went running around my house screaming like a piglet on amphetamines.
That's the backstory. The beauty of planning the trip was that we had a place to stay with family friends in suburban Minneapolis for that weekend. Nine months later, Paige and I flew up early morning on the day of the semifinals, leaving Chattanooga on that puddlejumper flight that went up, leveled off for two seconds, and then descended into Atlanta. Then it was a three-hour flight to Minneapolis, on a flight that had the temerity to serve breakfast casserole for our in-flight meal.
Of course, we find out that when Alamo says they rent cars to people under 25 years old, the company's memory can be very selective at the desk. That's how, in an utter rush, my friend Doug graciously picked us up and got us to their house, promising that we could use his wife's car to transport ourselves to and from the Metrodome. My memory tells me Gertie (Doug's wife) wasn't overly thrilled but she put on a gracious front.
And of course, the games. What were the odds that, during the Michigan-Cincinnati semifinal, that Nick Van Exel would make a fool out of Jalen Rose, and that James Voskuil (a relative of my history prof, Dr. Voskuil) would save the Wolverines' day? What were the chances we'd be in the same building when Bobby Knight got hit with a technical foul during Duke's win over Indiana in the other semifinal (scratch another item off my bucket list!)? The final, a 71-51 Duke blowout, was somewhat anticlimactic, but it was mitigated by the fact that I was at least there at the Final Four.
Correction: We were there at the Final Four.
In truth, that's what I'll remember most. Not the games, but the fact I was there with a treasured friend. Paige and I instinctively knew this was one last ride before graduation, before going our own vocational ways. Every conversation we had was important. Every laugh we shared rang loudly, especially at midnight after the final game when I filled a half-gallon bowl with what was left of Gertie's amazing Black Forest dessert and chomped it down as Paige cracked up into his own paltry amount as I whispered "This never happened."
Each year the Final Four comes around, the tail end of the comet known as March Madness. And every time it does, I remember one last ride with my good friend Paige Slyman. Memories like those don't come your way every day.
In the end, your life story will be known for many things, including the characters who come along for the ride. And they can often add a lot of color to your storyline. There's a lot we can remember our friends for. Above all else, we should enjoy them always.
Paige, if you're reading this, thanks for that wild ride, which still continues.