You don’t have to be a basketball fan to appreciate – at least a little – the frenzy around March Madness, when 68 men’s college basketball teams and 64 women’s teams line up in a three-week frenzy to chase a national championship.
I was a piddling part of the madness 20 years ago when my son Nathan’s team, the UNC Greensboro Spartans, won the Southern Conference championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Our reward was a trip to San Diego to take on Stanford, the No. 1 team in the country.
The story would be incomplete without recalling the dramatic way we won the Southern Conference championship. We led Chattanooga the whole game, until they scored a couple baskets at the end, including a length of court layup to take their first lead, with about two seconds left.
The roar of Chattanooga fans’ delirious exuberance thundered through the gym like an Amtrac Express. They were sure they had just snatched a victory, the championship, and an NCAA bid. But, a 79-foot pass to our junior center David Shuck, who dribbled once and laid it in at the buzzer, snatched it right back and UNCG fans raised our own roar that would have collapsed the walls of Jericho.
We won. We were champs. We were in. Shuck’s two-second trip down the lane validated all the turmoil, trauma, tumult and thrills of Nathan’s basketball career. It rewarded his work and sacrifice of 16 years, including midnight shooting practice in the cold rain after a bad game.
Bounce, bounce, bang, rattle, swish. We woke to the sound of Nathan shooting on the garage rim after a rare junior high loss. “Tell him to come in out of the rain,” Sue Ellen said to me. I considered it a moment, then said, “Nope.” He was working toward March, eight years hence.
When he was being recruited, one of his considerations was to choose a school and team that he thought could make it to the NCAA. A couple schools he turned down made it there first, but as a four-year starter, he was instrumental in getting the Spartans their shot.
Winning any championship is a rare moment and I was incapable of fully absorbing its majesty, through the chaotic elation spilling through the shouts, laughter, hugs and screams of our fans. After a few moments immersed among them, I walked quietly to the other side of the floor, to observe it, to open the aperture of my senses wider, to get a wide-angle view of it all and etch it like a chisel into the marble of my memory.
As I turned back toward the action, Nathan was suddenly there. He had followed me, pulling away from his teammates, fans and well-wishers to wrap his arms around me in a long, sweaty, exuberant embrace that was 16 years in the making. He’d been playing basketball in a uniform since he was six years old.
It was our best hug ever, until 18 years later when – at a men’s retreat he facilitated – I discovered in myself and confessed to him what drove me through life to keep from being caught from behind.
In fourth grade, in a new state, we walked into a gym full of strangers for the local county league “draft.” The coach who picked him said later that he’d seen Nathan walk into the gym and he “walked like an athlete.” By sixth grade Nathan was player of the year in the conference. By senior year of high school he was North Carolina private school player of the year and by senior year of college he was first team Academic All-American.
One day I asked Sue Ellen to name her top three basketball memories of Nathan’s career. I knew what mine were. She named hers. We matched.
First, the high school game in which, with his future college coach watching, he scored 27 as Wesleyan Academy beat rival Greensboro Day for the first time.
Second, on a cold night with ice pelting the roadways, UNCG was scheduled to play at Davidson, a school that had recruited him early, then backed off because he was “too slow to play at this level.” Nathan’s wife, Robyn, had driven to our house so we could drive to the game together. Caution urged me to stay home, until I noticed Robyn’s Jeep in the driveway. Hmmm…Jeep. Four-wheel drive. Off we went.
We trailed by 15 in the first half as the falling snow seemed to freeze our shooters’ blood. As far as I could tell, in a packed Davidson on-campus arena, there were no more than six UNCG fans, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the stands. In the end zone, a round, fuzzy haired, flush-faced Davidson fan kept pointing at us and laughing as we fell further and further behind.
After halftime, we kept edging inexorably back within range and with the clock racing all too quickly toward zero, “too slow” Nathan earned a defensive stop on their guard, so we got the ball back, and Nathan promptly hit a three.
Under 10 seconds, trailing by one, we had to foul their senior captain in an attempt to get the ball again. Incredibly, he missed both free throws. We rebounded the second and our guard Courtney Eldredge took the ball down the court full speed and hit a three at the buzzer to win it.
The gym crashed totally silent except for six UNCG fans screaming like maniacs. I hugged the woman next to me, whoever she was. Then I hugged Sue Ellen, looking over her shoulder for the flush-faced Davidson fan in the end zone. I laughed and pointed at him and he was so mad I thought his head was going to come unscrewed and zip through the gym like a balloon suddenly untied.
The third best memory, of course, was the championship game. As Nathan recalled in a retrospective published by UNCG this month, it can’t possibly be 20 years since that incredible game, that amazing experience. But it has been and to all those kids who are playing this month for their “one shining moment,” God bless them all.
I know what it took to get there, and it’s an experience they’ll always remember.