Thursday, March 16, 2017

Gift horses, mouths and the NCAA Tournament

Today is a day many said would never happen. It is a day science said couldn't be done. But, despite all this, today is a day that is happening.

On March 16, 2017, Northwestern University, stewards of a basketball tradition that includes hosting the first ever national title game and then promptly knocking the building down, will play in the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament for the very first time. I have already covered what brought us here, and in the interim the Wildcats flirted with something truly special, dominating Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament with a 31-0 run and upsetting the favored Maryland Terrepins before bowing out ....not so gracefully to Wisconsin in the semifinals, all but assuring NU's first ever berth in the Big Dance.

And then it happened.

Now, surely you saw the title of this post and thought, "Dave, you've waited your entire post-high school life waiting to see Northwestern finally reach the NCAA Tournament. You made a point to instagram the moment and spent most of the past three days watching various reaction videos of Welsh-Ryan Arena during the exact moment this was announced. You've watched coverage ad nauseum. Why would you somehow be unsatisfied?"

Well, here's where it gets complicated and, admittedly, selfish. This is a moment. A real moment. For much of us in the Northwestern alumni community, this was an event tantalizing close and yet never realistic achievable. To watch our yearning for a berth from the outside was, for many, to experience the purest form of schadenfreude. So much about this season was different. The vague confidence and the realization midway through the season that a berth was likely were unusual feelings. Even throughout Sunday's selection show, as the bracket was being released team by team, I sat on my couch texting with friends about a feeling we had never experienced before during the broadcast.


I perched on the edge of the cushion with nibbling my fingernails as if it was a Mets playoff game, constantly rambling about what seeding and potential lineup was likely. This was all new. And for something so new and momentous, I, and many of my fellow alumni, planned to make the trip wherever we could to witness the moment. I had coordinated with more than a dozen friends regarding potential itineraries and travel plans. Buffalo? A quick plane flight away. Greenville, SC? There are surprisingly cheap flights from Newark to nearby Ashville. Milwaukee? Indianapolis? Orlando? All doable.

In fact, there were very few options that seemed completely and entirely difficult or expensive for me to reach to witness this game. And so it was that after the initial announcement, with all of us texting and photographing our television, that within minutes the euphoria slipped to irritation. It was over that brief stretch of time that the dust settled and we reckoned with the location the team had been sent to.

Salt Lake City? Shit.

There is, of course, northing wrong with Salt Lake City. It's a fine place if you don't account for the impotent beer and that one time I was there while a creepy shaggy-haired Seattle grunge castoff tried to convince me to go "deeper into the city" with him to "check out some real cool places." Here's the thing, though. It's far. It doesn't have many direct flights from New York. Long distances and multiple connections don't mix when you only have about eight hours to get to a basketball game. And did I mention that it's spring break and  ski season?

Add it all up and you've got very few avenues by which to reach the game and flights that, at their cheapest, were roughly $550 and at their most expensive, were $1,200. Direct flights were scarcely under four digits. Ultimately, for most of us, it was difficult to justify the cost for a 24-hour swing to see a basketball game.

This is where the gift-horse-mouth-looking comes into play. Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament. Finally. I should have no more to say on the subject and no complaints. .....but.... Did it really have to be in Salt Lake City? Did it really have to be in the worst possible location for transit if you're on the east coast?

I acknowledge that, in the grand scheme, these are minor quibbles. I should get over it. After all, at 4:30 pm I will be at the NU alumni bar on the Upper West Side. In the end it's hard to ask for more. For the first time in my life today, I picked Northwestern University to advance in an NCAA bracket. In fact, I picked the Wildcats to advance through all of it. That's right. In one of my pools, I picked Northwestern to win the national championship. In fact, we all did.

Why? Because, for once, we fucking can.

It seems a little ridiculous, but if we all do it, there is no strategic advantage lost and we get to feel excited about what might come next. It only took 78 to reach the Tournament. Surely it can't be much longer to win it all. Maybe some day that won't be a dream.

After all, one of those already came true.

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