October 13, 2005

College Basketball Looms Just Around the Corner

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I feel like Cinderella, and the NCAA is my fairy godmother. Tomorrow night, when the clock strikes 12, Midnight Madness will sweep across the country. The Madness falls somewhere between fall equinox and the winter solstice, and it marks the beginning of the most magical season of all – college basketball.

Picture pacing the Schoellkopf turf with football coach Jim Knowles ’87, or waiting for a line change next to men’s hockey coach Mike Schafer ’86. That’s how close the fans get in a basketball game – you can see the sweat and the struggle, feel the backboard shudder under a dunk, and hear the squeal of skin on hardwood when someone dives for a loose ball. It’s five people moving in concert, the simplest and most exciting game there is. And in college, it’s played for the purest ambition – to be the best, to be the last one standing when the Madness ends with “One Shining Moment” in March.

It all started for me with an annual pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden. We would drive to Albany, take the train to Penn Station, and cross the street into the promised land. On my first visit, the Blue Devils demolished St. John’s, and Shane Battier and Mike Dunleavy waved to me from the team bus. I floated the 280 miles home. The sequel was even better: second-row seats, courtside. For the first time, I realized how tall 6-9 really was. Everything was larger than life – including Marcus Camby’s size 22s, which I got to see up close and personal in a locker room tour after the game. The last trip was a heartbreaker – because Marcus Hatten made two free throws after the clock ran out to beat Duke, and because Coach K and Chris Duhon were too crushed to stop and talk to a fan – me – on the sidewalk outside afterwards.

Before I bled carnelian and white and Cornell was my No. 1 team, I was Orange inside and out. My dad is from Syracuse, my grandfather played lacrosse for the Orangemen, and my sister lived in a dorm next to the Dome for three years. The one year she lived across campus, I would call from in front of the T.V. at home to rave about a play by ‘Melo or a three from McNamara – and she would be in bed with a hangover. But she made it to the Dome to watch the championship game with thousands of other students on a big screen T.V., and was part of the riot on Marshall Street afterwards. I was on the couch at home, dreaming of the day I would get to celebrate with my team after they won it all.

I was still waiting last spring, when my friend from UNC called me to relive his Final Four weekend in St. Louis. Talk about a fairy tale – he scalped his ticket to the semifinal game for $1,250, had a seat 13 rows behind the basket for the championship game, shook hands with Roy Williams and Rashad McCants after the final buzzer, and then drove back to the team hotel, where he and his friends shared a celebratory smoke with Julius Peppers. On the way back to the hotel, one of the guys in the car – the one wearing Michael Jordan’s jersey from the Tar Heel years – looked over to the next car at a stoplight, where the Greatest of All Time himself sat waving back. It reads like the screenplay of my own personal Disney movie.

So here I am at Cornell, a school whose name has only once been one of the 64 selected to grace the bracket, the greatest dance card of all time. We’ve never even been asked to be No. 65 – the sacrificial lamb in a play-in game. But I’ve been a victim of the Madness for too long to give up hope. I felt it when my worlds collided on Dec. 19, 2004, when the Red took on then-No. 8 Syracuse. We trailed by one point at halftime, and put up a school-record and Dome-record 15 three-pointers before falling, 82-69. And even in defeat, there’s the pride that your team stuck with the big dogs, and the awe in seeing people you take classes with compete on a stage that grand. As if that wasn’t enough to make me wish for more, Coach Donahue led the men’s team to a second-place finish last year – the best we’ve done in 17 years – and just one spot on the podium short of a tournament bid. Just a few league games short of being the Ancient Eight’s Cinderella.

Tomorrow night, Midnight Madness will sweep the nation. The Tar Heels will have Late Night with Roy Williams, 23,000 fans will pack Rupp Arena to watch Kentucky’s first official practice of the season, and I will be at Cornell’s version of the Madness: CTP after the bars close. But we will all have the same dream – a chance to follow our team to the Big Dance.

Olivia Dwyer is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Forever Wild will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Olivia Dwyer
Sun Assistant Sports Editor