It’s the first week of the NCAA Basketball Championship tournament.
There may be no better time in sports every year than the three-week life of the Big Dance building up to the crowning of the National Champion April 2nd.
So, one week after offering my thoughts on the well-accepted world of college basketball corruption, I am doing what everyone else is doing…turning my head away from the sport’s dark side to the bright sunshine.
Perhaps this is being hypocritical. But in my view, whatever is emphatically wrong about college hoops, or any other sport, for that matter, does not mean the sport is going away.
None of them are.
The state of affairs may be unfortunate and sad, but the sheer joy and entertainment of following the great single-elimination format of the 68-team carousel, is priceless.
It never fails to deliver on its promise.
This year, especially, the chances of a total surprise capturing the brass ring is a real possibility.
I think it’s wide open.
It would surprise no one if the top seeds, Virginia, Villanova, Kansas and Xavier were nowhere near to be found when the Final Four takes place.
On the other hand, despite forecasts of upsets galore, and there are many during the tournament, when we reach the Final Four, there they are, the Number 1, 2 or 3 seeded teams in each region are still standing, so we’ll see.
The NCAA championship connects with people like no other event. When Super Bowl time comes around, America takes sides.
But what makes the tournament so special is the filling out of brackets in workplaces throughout the country.
From secretaries to top executives, everyone interested, in every walk of life, fills in the winners of each game, in hopes of getting most of it right.
The tournament brings out alums who follow their school’s run.
It’s truly a fun time.
I’ve had the privilege of being part of the show in my career, broadcasting decades of the three-week circus.
Twice have I worked the Final Four.
In 1984, when I called the national semi-finals and championship game on CBS Radio, and a year later,
when I served as host for the National Championship on the CBS Television Network.
Georgetown won the title in ’84, beating Houston in the Finals at Seattle.
In 1985, Georgetown, and the sporting public, were stunned by perhaps the greatest upset in the NCAA Finals’ history when Villanova shocked the Hoyas.
More on that experience when we get to the Final Four.
I am delighted that my alma mater, Syracuse University, had their name called.
It was a toss-up to be sure.
But by now, many of you readers know whether the Orange got by Arizona State in one of those four Play-In games.
I have had several games calling my alma mater in the NCAA tournament and have been asked often how I avoid being partial, even going as far as outright rooting for Syracuse to win.
The truth is, when a broadcaster is calling any game in any sport, there is so much concentration involved in getting so many things right, there is no time to sit back, be a fan, and pull for your school.
It’s just the way it is.
Many fans may not understand how it works, but believe me, it’s easy to be objective.
When the game is over, well, that’s another thing!
Back to why the tournament is a real challenge to cover.
When you’re assigned to cover the first two rounds, you arrive at the city or town on Tuesday, if the games are scheduled for Thursday.
The day before the opening round, all eight teams participating conduct one-hour practice sessions beginning at noon and ending at 8pm.
Following a team’s practice, the head coach holds a news conference for about 20 minutes.
Picture then, a broadcaster watching a team’s practice, learning to put numbers with faces, faces with names, trying to make sense of what a particular team is all about.
Then rushing into a room to hear the coach talk about his team, then rushing back out to watch the next school go through it’s paces.
These are teams most of us haven’t seen.
In the first round, there are many obscure schools who have earned a place in the Big Dance by winning it’s conference title.
For example, this week, some TV crew will have to learn about Lipscomb, Georgia State, Stephen F. Austin, LIU-Brooklyn or Radford, UNCG (North Carolina Greensboro), and UMBC ( University of Maryland, Baltimore County).
Some of the schools’ uniforms don’t have the names of the players on the backs of their jerseys, which makes things tougher.
Then, after a full day of prep, learning the eight teams who will play the next day, all that remains is calling four games beginning at noon, finishing up close to midnight.
After the day and night featuring the four games, you go through the same routine, this time with four teams left, although now you’ve watched everyone play.
The second round of two games finishes the first week.
In four days you have broadcast six games, and have witnessed 10 practices and six coaches’ press briefings.
Am I complaining? No way!
Every year, commentators relish their assignment in the NCAA basketball tournament.
It’s as enjoyable as it is grueling. It’s really not work. We are all blessed that we toil in this profession.
When I was the lead broadcaster for the NBA on CBS, my task in the tournament was to work with the top-analyst, Billy Packer.
His regular partner throughout the season was first, Brent Musburger, then Jim Nantz, two of the very best all-time.
Brent, then Jim would be assigned to host the tournament coverage in the studio for the first two rounds.
Packer was a star at Wake Forest, and then helped form one of the finest broadcast teams ever, teaming with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire at NBC before coming over to CBS.
No tournament adventure could surpass 1986.
Packer and I were assigned an opening round game on Thursday night in Ogden, Utah, between mighty North Carolina and Utah.
The next day we flew practically cross-country to Baton Rouge, Louisiana which took most of the day.
We had to prep in a hurry for a Saturday doubleheader. LSU, coached by the irrepressible Dale Brown, was playing on its home court against favored Purdue.
Memphis which was a Number 3 seed in the Southeast region, faced Ball State.
LSU upset Purdue and Memphis won, setting a second-round matchup in which the Tigers were even bigger underdogs, but still playing at home, against Memphis, the other Tigers.
Not only did LSU, an 11th seed beat Memphis, but they advanced to the Regionals where they conquered Georgia Tech and then top-seeded Kentucky, their big rivals in the SEC.
But our job wasn’t done.
Following the two games in Baton Rouge, Billy and I flew to Minneapolis on that Saturday night for another pair of broadcasts on Sunday.
We got ready for those games on the flight to the Twin Cities.
Ironically, one of the four teams was little Arkansas-Little Rock. Neither one of us was remotely familiar with them. We had to get up to speed in a real hurry.
Fortunately, the other three were Notre Dame, Iowa and North Carolina State.
On the way to the airport after the doubleheader, we reviewed the wild weekend.
We called five games in four days in three different cities.
At least we had a couple of days off before heading out again for the Regionals the next week.
So, my memory of this first week of the NCAA basketball tournament, was one of helter skelter travel, quick study and calling many games in a short period of time.
The toughest job in sports broadcasting.
But I wouldn’t have traded it for the world!
One final thought on someone else from another sport…Tiger Woods.
His performance last weekend outside Tampa brought back memories of what it was like when Tiger was in his prime, a magnetic attraction, the singular one-to-watch when he was marching to another victory.
He didn’t win last week, but he had a chance to tie for the lead on the 18th hole in the final round. His 35-foot birdie putt was two feet shy.
That’s how close he came in his finest showing since August 2013.
His long-time friend, Notah Begay, said of Woods, “He’s a completely different person. He’s gone through public humiliation. He’s gone through personal challenges. He’s gone through physical injury. He’s gone through technical problems in all parts of his game. He’s risen above it all.”
It couldn’t be said any better.
You could see it in Tiger Woods’ demeanor. You could see it in the thousands following him.
Not raucous, but respectful. Almost reverential.
He’s made big mistakes.
But he deserves this second chance.
If he can continue upon the trail, avoid the ugly off the course, remain gracious on the course and re-discover his game … however he can at this stage of life … the Tiger Woods story may be a special one, indeed.
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