By Gary Dickman.
I kind of forgot what it felt like to watch a sporting event and to be completely engulfed by the level of play from start to finish. It’s been a really long time since I enjoyed a game like last Saturday, the Final Four game between UCLA and Gonzaga.
The first game of the day was a rout, kind of boring as Baylor easily beat Houston. I was hoping the next game would be close, not just another blowout. I was saying on “The Sports Animals” show on Friday that we haven’t had a buzzer beater to win a game in this tournament, which is unusual and part of what we love about March Madness, those last second shots to win a game that we’ll remember forever. And than Saturday happened. Some buzzer beater games have great finishes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But this UCLA vs Gonzaga game was exciting from the opening tip. That’s why this game will go down as an all-time classic. Not just the finish and miraculous shot by Jalen Suggs, but the excellent play by both teams throughout the game. I was hoping it would go to overtime, then I was hoping it’d go to double overtime. I feel bad for UCLA, as they deserved to win that game.
It made me so thankful that we got the tournament this year, but it wasn’t until last Saturday that I got that feeling again. The feeling where a game will make me forget about what’s going on in the world, and just have such a good feeling for a few hours the way sports will do from time to time. It also reminded me of my own experiences being at Final Fours.
I remember coming up with my own sports bucket list with a friend in the mid-1990s, and my number one wish was to go to a Final Four. I always wondered what’d it be like to be there, and I thought it’d probably never happen. Well, I got to be a host for the Rainbow Classic in 1995. I wanted to host Syracuse, but I ended up with UMass, which ended up being an unbelievable experience. UMass was the number one team in the country. They won the Rainbow Classic and I really hit it off with their head coach, John Calipari. He told me he’d get me a ticket if the Minutemen reached the Final Four, which would be played at the Meadowlands basketball arena in New Jersey. I could stay with my Mom and save money on a hotel. I bought my airline ticket two months in advance, just hoping that UMass would make it. They did.
It was the last Final Four held in a basketball arena. It held around 19,000. I got to know some of that players pretty well, and kept in touch with their two guards, Edger Padilla and Carmelo Travieso – the best backcourt in the country. I went to their hotel the night before the game to spend time with Edgar and Carmelo, and I was basically ordered by an assistant coach to attend their team meeting at 11:00 p.m. in Coach Cal’s room. Cal had every player go over and thank me for traveling from Hawaii to New Jersey just to watch them play. This was like being in a dream for me. I’m getting a free ticket to watch my new favorite team play, and I’m in their team meeting the night before the game.
UMass was playing Kentucky in the second game on Saturday, Syracuse beat Mississippi State in the first game. I found out quickly how crazy Kentucky fans were about their team. They want tickets. I’ve seen Kentucky in four different cities over the years, and their fans are everywhere, and will play anything for a ticket. A lady in the parking lot offered me $3,000 cash, I saw it in her hands. I could never have sold that ticket. And that was a lot of money to turn down. The game and atmosphere lived up to what I imagined it’d be like. The only sad part was that UMass lost to Kentucky, 79-72. I was stunned. It was big time March Sadness. I went back to the team hotel to see the team. I’ll never forget seeing Marcus Camby come off the bus, towel on his head, tears on his face.
I said goodbye to a few of the players in the lobby of the hotel. I thanked one of the assistant coaches, and told him to thank Coach Cal for me. He insisted that I go up to Calipari’s room to say goodbye, that John would want to see me. I felt very out of place as I knocked on his door on the top floor in a suite. There were about seven or eight people there, and it was like being at a funeral. John came out of his bedroom to greet me, asked if I got my ticket okay and thanked me for coming. I thanked him for the ticket and told him I was gonna leave. He wouldn’t let me. There were big platters of deli meats, cheeses and a big tub full of beer. He told me to have a sandwich and a beer.
I told him thanks, but I had a long drive home. He raised his voice and demanded that I eat a sandwich and drink beer. I didn’t want to anger him on the night he just lost in the Final Four so I didn’t tell him that I don’t drink beer. And I drank almost half a bottle, then discreetly poured the rest out because the beer was warm at this point. Then I told John I was leaving. No, I wasn’t. John Calipari again demanded that I have another sandwich and a beer. I was in a tough spot. I knew i couldn’t say no. So I drank another half a bottle of beer, and finally was able to go home. Those were my memories of my first Final Four. I went to two more with Maryland in 2001 and 2002, and when they won it all on April 1, 2002 in Atlanta, it was the best day of my life. By the way, that was the last time I drank that much beer – two half bottles with John Calipari in 1996.
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