The further removed I become from my (extreme) youth, the more memories I seem to discover have been misplaced or stolen. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to me, obviously, but it’s also not an area where one finds comfort in company.
My recollection has long been one of my sharpest assets, but the other day my mother told a story that didn’t register with my brain on any level. It would have been a troubling occurrence (for me) even had the tale been highly obscure, but this was one that I felt like I should have remembered, and probably did remember at a time we’re not that far removed from.
The things that persist during a period of loss are sometimes surprising, but never less than interesting.
It stands to reason that the memories which stick past a certain age are the ones you hold most dear. Having said that, it’s fairly ridiculous how vivid the memories I have of watching first-round NCAA Tournament games as a child still are.
Unless there was something especially significant taking place at school (rare), I was always allowed to skip or take a half day on the first Thursday of the big dance. I still have strong memories of killing time at my dad’s old office inside the Kentucky Home Life Building until it was time to go home and be properly inundated by the madness.
I vividly recall watching Devin Davis and Miami University – the school one of my older brothers was attending at the time – stun Damon Stoudamire and Arizona in the first round. I remember staying up unbelievably late to witness Princeton backdoor defending national champion UCLA in the game’s final seconds. And I remember Mrs. Klausing (a computer teacher more than worthy of this name drop) wheeling out the TV so that we could watch Bryce Drew stun Ole Miss at the buzzer in seventh grade. One of my friends had the Rebels in the Final Four. He came dangerously close to crying.
I can’t remember the name of my partner for the May Pole dance in third grade or what the first cassette tape I bought was, but these memories and dozens more can be shoved to the forefront of my brain without a whole lot of effort.
The thing is, it’s always been like this. I’ve always felt about the first day of the NCAA Tournament the way regular kids felt about their birthdays or the way (some…don’t hurt me…) women feel about weddings. Maybe it’s inherent. Maybe it was the way I was raised. Maybe it has something to do with this city, because I know I’m not the only one around here. My guess it’s a combination of all of these…and probably some other stuff I don’t even understand.
More than anything though, the opening day of the tournament is special (at least in years like this) because there’s still a chance that the Louisville Cardinals could wind up winning the national championship. Even though it happened just 12 months ago, that’s still the dream we all share, right? The hopeful end result of all the time spent watching, screaming, debating and following for the past five months.
Louisville has played and carried itself like a highly-ranked defending national champion all season…because it’s been a highly-ranked defending national champion all season. There’s been a sort of bravado to this team that last year’s group — even though they were one of the favorites to win the national title all season — never had, and that’s understandable.
Rick Pitino’s team has not entered a game as an underdog in 381 days. Louisville has worn special sleeved jerseys from adidas for three straight postseason tournaments, and the world still hasn’t seen the red version of the uniforms because the Cardinals have been the better seed in every game they’ve played.
Now this group has been smacked in the face. I don’t think there’s any other way to put it.
Since the tournament expanded in 1985, exactly two teams have entered the tournament with a top five ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 and a seed worse than three: the 2005 Louisville Cardinals, and this one.
But disrespect is nothing new to the core of this Louisville team, and maybe that’s the most encouraging thing about the events of this past Sunday. The hunted is finally morphing back into the hunter.
Regardless of how it ends, it feel like this is the way it’s supposed to be.
Maybe you’re rooting for a dynasty to know what Cardinal fans in the ’80s felt like, or maybe you’re hoping to feel that way again. Either way, we’re all the same.
I think I speak for all of us when I say that, as much as I love the sport, I’m a Louisville fan first and a college basketball fan second. Sure, I still watch the games after the Cards are knocked out of the tournament, but that magic feeling which is present right now instantly disappears and doesn’t return for another 12 months.
If Louisville defeats Manhattan on Thursday evening, we’re all permitted the right to be completely ridiculous – Tim Henderson played against one of Wichita State’s reserves when he was 11, that could be huge; Kansas losing to Eastern Kentucky would mean we definitely wouldn’t have to face them in the title game – until that incommunicable anxiety returns again on Saturday. It’s crazy, but let’s be real: this is all crazy. We’re all crazy. And I couldn’t love it more.
Very soon, the NCAA Tournament, complete with its endless potential and requisite magic, will take complete hold of all of us.
For now, the dream lives.