My colleague and fellow Northwestern alum Jeff Eisenband texted me shortly after our alma mater's heart-stopping, nerve-shredding, gut-gurgling win against Vanderbilt: "At least you weren't crying like Doug Collins." But the truth is that I came close. Really close. As the Wildcats surged to a 15-point second-half lead in their historic NCAA tournament debut, I jumped out of my seat in the arena, pumped a fist and felt myself getting emotional. It felt like the most natural reaction to a surreal experience.
Whenever Northwestern basketball fans used to talk about the program's futility, it became like that scene in Jaws when Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw compare scars from their harrowing encounters at sea.
NU fan 1: " ... so it doesn't get worse than that."
NU fan 2: "Oh yeah? Well, what about that time ... "
The point is we were all scarred, and the agony of defeat was all the more intense as we trudged out of Welsh-Ryan Arena into the biting bleakness of Evanston winter nights. (Now I'm no scientist, but trust me when I say it's an absolute fact that it always feels at least 19 degrees colder when you're already disappointed or depressed, and those are two words Northwestern fans have uttered countless times for decades. Call it the Mood Chill Factor.)
With all that pent-up frustration of having our school be the answer/punchline to an embarrassing trivia question along with whatever particular indignities the program happened to suffer while you were on campus -- an entire sophomore class transferring and an 0-18 Big Ten season jockey for position at the top (bottom?) of my list -- I couldn't have been the only one getting a little misty.
As I did, in the spirit of March Madness, I thought of Jim Valvano's inspirational speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards. That's when Jimmy V, dying of bone cancer, told us about the three things we should do every day. "If you laugh, you think and you cry, that's a full day," he said. "That's a heck of a day."
Yes, it was.
There was laughter, like the kind of you'd hear from kids racing each other to the ice cream truck, as old friends reconnected and marveled that we had all somehow made it to Salt Lake City to witness history.
There was crying as the final buzzer sounded with the scoreboard reading Northwestern 68, Vanderbilt 66, with emotions erupting like Mount Vesuvius. We ran into an NU fan outside the arena shortly afterward, and among all the sporting events that he has attended, he ranked this above Kirk Gibson's home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. And this guy said he's a Dodgers fan. Well, to steal Vin Scully's call from that night, "the impossible has happened."
And momentous occasions do lend themselves to some thinking. For me, it goes back to Doug Collins trying to hold it together watching his son, Chris, turn dream into reality as Northwestern's coach. I wondered: What might happen in my life where I would be so overcome with pride and happiness for my son? What will be his dream? And will I be able to share the moment with him the way Doug Collins just did with Chris?
On the flip side, like every other Northwestern fan, seeing the team reach the NCAA tournament was my dream, and I got to share that moment with my son, which made it all the more meaningful to me. He missed two days of class. But we were doing what nobody had ever done by attending Northwestern's first NCAA tournament game, and as Mark Twain is widely credited with saying, don't let school interfere with your education. (As long as I'm on a roll quoting people, let me also paraphrase Jim Nantz and call this "a field trip unlike any other.")
The kid had a blast. He snagged pom-poms, a banner and a foam Wildcats paw at the pregame rally. He even got a "tattoo" with the big purple N logo on his cheek. This is one face painter that Julia Louis-Dreyfus would've found acceptable.
I looked at him several times during the game and wondered what all this meant to him. As you might suspect from a 7-year-old, his concerns are more of the short-term variety. Hey, where's the popcorn? And before heading to the Salt Lake City airport Friday morning for our return flight, he asked, "Do I have school today?"
No, it will be too late by the time we get home.
As much as he piggybacks on my rooting interests, sports can finish behind Ninjago, Star Wars, Pokemon and The Cat In The Hat in his personal rankings, depending on the day. Northwestern basketball, as I know it anyway, could never mean the same to him as it does for me -- heck, it played a role in romancing my wife.
But maybe years from now, we will both look back at this trip, and the memory will make us feel something raw and powerful, similar to what Doug Collins felt Thursday afternoon, and it will move us the way Jim Valvano recommended.
(As a side note related to Valvano, it fascinated me how Northwestern was associated with some greats of the game, like him, who made their names in the NCAA tournament but somehow the magic never rubbed off ... until now. Valvano's college coach at Rutgers was Bill Foster, who went on to take Duke to the 1978 NCAA championship game but ended up leaving a few years later. Mike Krzyzewski replaced Foster and became best friends with Valvano, his rival at N.C. State, the school that former McDonald's All-American Game MVP Walker Lambiotte left to transfer to Northwestern -- where he was coached by Foster. Finally we got the breakthrough with Chris Collins, who played for Coach K and served as his assistant, creating his own March magic.)
I know when my kid hits his teens (possibly sooner given his current pace), there will be inevitable disagreements about school, cars, girls, money or whatever. And I know Northwestern basketball, even fortified now with momentum and accomplishment like it never had, could encounter a hiccup or some growing pains as it builds on this success. Then in each case, I can borrow a sentiment from Rick Blaine, owner of Cafe Americain: "We'll always have Salt Lake."