Monday, March 16, 2009

Several Shining Moments

While watching a recent show that counted down the greatest finishes in NCAA men's basketball tournament history, TigerBlog realized that three of the Top 10 on the list - including No. 1 - and four of the Top 20 were games that TB had covered.

In fact, TigerBlog has been at way more than his fair share of NCAA tournament games, first as a sportswriter and later as a sports information contact.

Going way back to the undergraduate days in West Philadelphia, TB had a work-study job in the basement of the pychology department making copies of reading assignments (and tests) for huge lectures. This was back before copy machines could collate and staple, so TigerBlog had to make piles for each page and then put the next one on top and so on and so on and finally staple the finished product.

Not that TB had to do this alone. For most of the time, Fran McCaffery also was there, working on the same dull tasks while also serving as a volunteer assistant coach for the Penn men's basketball team. McCaffery will now be taking Siena to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year after also taking Lehigh and UNC Greesboro to the tournament as well.

McCaffery often spoke about his experiences as a player in the tournament.

"There's nothing like it," he'd say. "It's something you'll never forget for the rest of your life. No matter what else happens to you, you can always say you played in the NCAA tournament."

Despite more than a decade of being the dominant inside player at noon hoops games at Jadwin, TigerBlog never quite played in the NCAA tournament. Still, what Fran spoke about more than 25 years ago resonated every time TB picked up a credential or walked into the media room or made the way out through the tunnel to the court. He was 100% on about there being nothing like the tournament (even as TV and the media do their best to destroy it through overhype and overexposure).

It all starts with the selection show. TigerBlog, in sportswriter mode, was invited to watch the show with the 1991 team in the room of Kit Mueller, the great Princeton center. The drama that built for the players and the reaction when they saw their draw is something never to be forgotten.

Obviously, the 1996 win over UCLA ranks as the highlight for NCAA tournament experience. In addition to the win, there was also the next day in Indianapolis. TigerBlog needed to update game notes and stats in the pre-laptop days, which required trying to find a place that had a computer that could be borrowed. Each call started out with "hi, I'm from Princeton basketball ..." and then went met with "that was the greatest game." Finally, it was the headquarters of U.S. Swimming that had a Mac with PageMaker (probably version 5.0 at the time; the software has been out-of-date for years now), and upon arriving, TB and TM (Tom McCarthy, then the radio man) were greated like visiting heads of state. The same was true later that night when a Princeton corporte credit card was used to pay for dinner.

The 1998 tournament still stings because of the loss to Michigan State, though the late-hour revelry in the media hospitality room did match up pretty favorably to the one two years earlier.

As for the pre-Princeton days and the NCAA tournament, TB covered the 1990 tournament at th Meadowlands when Tate George of UConn beat Clemson and then watched as Duke returned the favor two days later.

And then there was the night two years after that. Harvey Yavener didn't want to go to the Spectrum, citing instead the "killler wrap" of college events tht needed to be written that night for the Trenton Times. Intead, he sent TigerBlog, who sat directly behind the Kentucky bench during the 104-103 Duke win that is widely regarded as the greatest college basketball game ever played.

Even for someone who isn't exactly a huge Duke fan, it's impossible not to realize how special a game that was and how lucky TB was to have been there to write about it (two stories, 40 total column inches, about 30 minutes).

TB has two great memories from that night. The first was after Kentucky took a one-point lead with less than three seconds to play and timeout was called. From the seat directly behind the Kentucky bench, TigerBlog was about five feet from Rick Pitino, who spent the entire timeout yelling "no fouls, no fouls." Then, after the great pass from Grant Hill (TB voted for Hill for Most Outstanding Player and not Christian Laettner), Pitino turned to his bench and assistants, as if there was one more move he could make, and then reality settled in on him.

The second memory came as TigerBlog was writing his stories on a folding chair in a hallway outside the jammed media room with his long-obsolete radio shack word processor on his knees. Suddenly, from around the corner, a woman came sprinting by and, never seeing TB, fell face first on the floor after tripping over TB and his chair. "Are you all right?" TB asked, and then realized it was Lesley Visser.

Hey, the shining moments come before the games, during the games and after the games when it comes to the NCAA tournament. And you never forget them.

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