Friday, March 23, 2007

March Miracle

In 1987, I left home for Butler University in Indianapolis for my freshman year of college. They had an excellent broadcasting program (which was my interest), and a beautiful, semi-urban campus. It was not, however, a pleasant year. I was homesick and lonely, and wound up transferring as a sophomore to the University of Missouri-Columbia where I already had lots of old friends from high school (thus beginning my attendance at what became a truly breathtaking succession of colleges and universities).

During that difficult 87-88 school year, one of my lifelines was Butler Bulldog basketball. My roommate and I, and the two guys across the hall [I wish I'd kept up with all of them; they were good guys, and impossible to find now. My roommate's name was Pete Smith. That should narrow it down to a few million...] had season tickets and went to every game, where we were part of an average crowd of about 500. It was so sparse at the games that we broadcasting majors could just stroll in and plop down courtside and "broadcast" the games into a tape recorder for practice if we wanted--no press pass or clearance necessary.

The Bulldogs played (and still play) in this incredible old-time field house where the championship scene of the movie "Hoosiers" was shot the year before I got there. To this day, it's the greatest place I've ever watched a basketball game. When the team wasn't using it for a game or practice, we'd sometimes play late-afternoon pickup games right on that court; it was open to everybody.

The season I was there, I think Butler finished something like 14-14 playing teams like Wabash, Valparaiso, and Indiana State. I remember one night watching ESPN with my friends (our dorm had just been wired for cable) and getting really excited that they actually mentioned the score for the game we'd just attended. It kind of felt like it might feel if you played ping pong in your basement one evening and later saw Dan Patrick give the score on the air.

That's why it's particularly thrilling for me to see the Butler Bulldogs in the NCAA Sweet 16 this year. It's nearly incomprehensible that the team I was once excited to merely see play against Xavier ("Wow, we're playing Xavier!"--who pasted us, incidentally) has been consistently ranked in the top 20 this season and is now among the top 1/4 of teams in college basketball's Big Dance. They play the defending champion Florida Gators tonight, and it would take a minor miracle for them to advance any further. But the major miracle has already occurred--the Butler University Bulldogs are a college basketball power. A minor miracle shouldn't be anything next to that.

Incidentally, during the year I was at Butler, one of the basketball players sat in front of me in music appreciation class. Butler was a school of maybe 3000-4000 people, so many of the classes were pretty small--25 to 30 people at the most. You got acquainted with the people in your classes. He was probably only the third or fourth best player on a mediocre basketball team, but I always remembered him because he was a nice guy and his name sounded odd to me. That player also happens to be participating in the NCAA tournament this year. As it turns out, his playing career was merely a stepping stone into the coaching ranks. Thad Matta is now the head coach of the first-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes, which just advanced to the Elite Eight last night.

I visited Indianapolis last year on a business trip. I dropped by the Butler campus for the first time in more than 15 years and wandered around. It had changed some, but not much. I trekked around in my old dorm (where everybody looked about the same as I remembered except for one graying old guy--namely, me) and revisited campus haunts. The pain of that freshman year has now largely been replaced by affection and nostalgia. I have two teams to root hard for among the 12 remaining. And if either one of them gets to the Final Four, I have an old Butler sweatshirt in the closet waiting to be put on.

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