Sorry I’m Late, What Did I Miss?

Between Thursday and Sunday I woke up at 5 a.m. everyday, went to work for six hours twice, watched roughly 45 hours of basketball, skipped the gym four times, ate fast-food (even though I had sworn it off) four times, felt guilty about it so I ran a couple miles, rewatched The Big Short with my mom, wrote this 5,585 word column and somehow made it out alive

Remember back in college, we all took that one class that made no sense. For me, it was almost Drawing 101, freshman year. I signed up because I was required to get a certain amount of Art credits, and the idea of drawing seemed, cool. But I quickly learned, drawing is boring as shit. So I withdrew and joined a stained glass making class. If it weren’t for two of my good friends, Michael and Matt being there, it would have been boring as shit too. But we made it fun.

A couple years later, I was a senior, going through the motions until graduation. I was a business major, with no intention of working in business. Michael had transferred after our freshman year, a devastating loss, and Matt was sort of in the same boat as I was, a business major with a keen interest in just about everything except business. We set up meetings with our academic advisors just to ensure that we were both in line to graduate. It was there I learned some discouraging news; that I would have to return for another semester, partly because I had switched majors as a freshman — from English to Business — and partly because I just didn’t coordinate my classes right (sorry Mom). The advisor told Matt he needed an additional Science elective to graduate, and presented him with two options: Chemistry/Biology (these count as one because they’re equally obnoxious) and Astronomy. Naturally, Mr. Intersteller, the ginormous NASA fan he is, took Astronomy.

Fast forward a few weeks into the Spring semester of his senior year and my second to last semester, I remember asking him about this Astronomy class. “It was boring,” he’d frequently say. A tough way to spend an evening, I figured. Because if taking Astronomy as an elective wasn’t bad enough, it also happened to be a three hour night class. And not one of those night classes where the teacher gives you a ten-minute break an hour in and sends you home 45 minutes early. One of those night classes where the teacher uses every second of the three hours to shred any ounce of hope you have in making it to Happy Hour at Buffalo Wild Wings with the rest of the guys (Full disclose: we never did this, I just want you to be able to relate). Now Matt wasn’t the kind of guy to skip a class. Where as I missed maybe 20–25 classes total each semester, Matt went to nearly every one. He was frequently late, NEVER said anything in class, and always got away with it, but that’s a story for another day.

One night after Matt finished class he hurried over to my off campus house to tell me the funniest thing that happened (translation: he came over to watch the tail end of an NBA game and told me this story when we were going to get Taco Bell or something). About an hour into the class, Matt took a break from staring at his computer screen to start surveying the room. He noticed this guy — let’s call him Phil — wasn’t perched in his usual front row seat. Normally, college seniors couldn’t care less which of their peers are in attendance for night class, but Phil had something about him which Matt couldn’t help but notice. See, Phil was the kind of guy who really made an entrance. A classic, “well-actually” guy, Phil had somewhat of a reputation as someone who wouldn’t hesitate to talk back to a professor. You know the kid in high school who asks the math teacher to go over the problem after the bell rings forcing everyone to stay another five minutes, yeah, that was Phil. I’ve had classes with him too, so I can verify this. Matt wondered why the professors’ lecture had been going so smoothly that night, and now he knew.

A few minutes later, Matt had returned to the contents of his gargantuan computer that he lugged around tirelessly, when he and the rest of the class heard a noise. It was the sound the back room door slowly opening. Nineteen people and a professor turned their heads, here comes Phil, lurching his way into the class. Like The Authority, running in on WWE’s hottest babyface, Phil was here. Generally, there’s two ways to enter a class late: 1) you walk in, quick as possible, and confidently sit down patting yourself on the chest indicating, “my bad,” so the teach still knows you boys. Or, 2) you peer in the window and when the teacher turns around you tip-toe your way in, sit in the far back corner as self-punishment, immediately start taking notes — even if you’re watching a movie — and talk to no one. That night Phil chose none of the above.

As the elder professor stopped speaking on cosmic rays and celestial objects, Phil slowly meandered to his seat. Everyone stared like the citizens of Kings Landing during Cersei’s ‘Shame walk’ last season in Game of Thrones. Phil felt the animosity from the rest of classmates, “Why are you here?” “You’re already so late, why did you even come,” they likely thought to themselves. But like the character he is, Phil Gronk spiked his backpack down on his usual front row table, obnoxiously dragged his chair across the ground, locked eyes with the professor, offered no apology for the interruption, and abruptly blurted out

“Sorry I’m late, what did I miss?”

When Matt told me this I momentarily paused. Surely, he did not mean, literally tell him what he missed from the entire first hour, right?

Wrong.

That’s exactly what he meant. Phil and the professor locked eyes, staring deep into each other’s gaze waiting for the other to break. When I tell you next, that the professor succumbed to Phil’s demand and recapped nearly the entire hour, you know I couldn’t possibly make something like that up right? Matt’s jaw hit the keyboard. How could someone barge in an hour late and essentially say, start over? This was unprecedented.

Somewhere out there in America there’s a Phil who missed this amazing weekend of basketball excellence. Maybe he was white river rafting in Ecuador or rock climbing in Acadia National Park? Maybe, he works nights and slept during the days. Either way, someone out there missed a lot of the amazing things that happened on the hardwood, and for them, we’re starting over in the only fitting way possible, by ranking the best 16 basketball moments of the weekend in bracket format.

Giddy Potts of Middle Tennessee State celebrates after defeating No. 2 seed Michigan State (Getty Images)
I call it the official “Best Moments of the First Weekend of March Madness” bracket
Bracket criteria: I broke it down into four sections — Thursday (top left), Friday (bottom left), Saturday (top right) and Sunday (bottom right) — because each day was special in it’s own way, and frankly because I wrote this on Sunday and needed to get some done while the last games were on. In any case, the ‘one shining moment’ of the weekend would have been good enough to beat anything, so the seeds really don’t matter. Seeds will advance or perish by how “cool” they were, judged only by me.

Universitas Yalenis vs. Wichita Reminds Us

Before I tell you how Yale’s 79–75 win over Baylor not only put them in the second round of the NCAA Tournament but also advances them here, we need to pay our respects to Wichita State. The Shockers came into 2015–16 with high expectations. Coach Gregg Marshall had assembled a mid-major juggernaut, led by his senior backcourt Fred VanFleet and Ron Baker, a duo who reached the Final Four as freshman, were 35–1 as sophomores and beat Kansas to advance to the Sweet 16 last March. Over the past four seasons, Wichita State was 121–19. They prided themselves on a ferocious defense (top-rated in the nation in points allowed), experience and a brilliant backcourt. After a 20 point win against Vanderbilt in Dayton during the First Four, we should have known Arizona was in trouble right? The Shockers held the No. 6 seed Wildcats, a team that averages 81 points a game, to 19 first-half points before ultimately winning 65–55, ending Gabe York’s 12 year college career and forcing Sean Miller to finally change shirts. Even though they were an 11-seed, Wichita State reminded us how good they’ve been over the last few seasons, and that’s pretty cool.

But it’s no match for Yale, who comes into this tournament as the prohibitive favorite. You’ll find out why as this goes along.

Little Rock Comeback vs. Providence Inbound

Things I knew about Little Rock before the tournament: The campus is in Arkansas, they had a 29–4 regular season record, Little Rock is the state capitol

Things I know about Little Rock after the tournament: Josh Hagins has a dirty step-back jumper and scored 31 points, they can come back from a 65–52 deficit with only 3:33 to go, they’re good at double overtime games, they’re good enough to beat Purdue (who has multiple NBA caliber players, I think)

As for Providence, at first glance they’re your typical Big East school in a typical 8 vs. 9 matchup against USC. That is, until you realize that they have two of the coolest players in the tournament, Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn. Bentil, a sophomore forward who greatly exceeded expectations, ended up leading the team in scoring even alongside the two-time Big East Player of the Year, Dunn. Their win against USC Thursday night was the Fryars first since God Shammgod led them to the Elite Eight in 1997.

True story: At work we filled out brackets. My boss and I exchanged some dialogue about our picks. He told me his 12-year-old son picked Little Rock to win the title. I paused. Little Rock? That’s wild. So of course for no apparent reason, I deferred to a 12-year-old I had never met and picked them against Purdue, which makes me look smart and cool. But not as cool as Ed Cooley’s Fryars, who overcame a seven point second-half deficit of their own to win on a last second inbound pass from the baseline that resulted in a near uncontested layup. Upsets in the NCAA Tournament are great, and Little Rock deserves some love. But Purdue was maybe the fifth best team in the Big-10 and they played with about as much intensity as old folks on a Miami retirement home shuffle board court. I’ll always chose good basketball when those are the stakes. If that’s not enough for you, consider Cooley’s postgame quote to ESPN.com regarding the game-winning inbound play — “We call that play ‘Carolina.’ Nah, I’m only joking.” Dope play calls and taking a pseudo shot at Carolina moments after a win, that’s very cool.

Buzzer Beaters vs. Thomas Walkup

The very concept of a buzzer beater is so cool that, in theory and in practice, it’s unbeatable. During the first round of the tournament there were three buzzer beaters. The first came Friday afternoon when Iowa’s Adam Woodbury tipped in a Mike Gesell miss with two hands. The win for the Hawkeyes earned them a date with No. 2 seed Villanova and spoiled a wish for fans who wanted to seen an all Philadelphia matchup against Temple. The second came later that night when Northern Iowa upset Texas 75–72 on a Paul Jerperson heave from half-court moments after the Longhorns tied the game on a three of their own with only 2.7 seconds remaining. The third was sort of the antithesis of a buzzer beater, because in this case, the buzzer sounded before Cincinnati’s Octavius Ellis was able to slam home the game tying dunk. After St. Josephs took a 78–76 lead on an Isaiah Miles 3 with just seconds remaining, the Bearcats traveled the length of the floor before finding Ellis under the basket. As he rose for the slam, the clock expired and both teams watched on as the refs were forced to rule the basket no good.

Thomas Walkup didn’t hit a buzzer beater on Friday, but he probably would have, had it been necessary. Truth be told, Walkup’s No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin played so well against No. 3 West Virginia that the game wasn’t nearly cool enough for his 33 point performance to advance past Buzzer Beaters, even if it did come on only 15 shot attempts and a 19-of-20 stretch at the free throw line.

Hawaii Beats Cal vs. MTSU Breaks Brackets

Hawaii had a really good start to the weekend. The Rainbow Warriors were able make the most out of their near 5,000 mile trip to Spokane, WA by defeating No. 4 seed Cal 77–66. The game was Hawaii’s first tournament appearance since 2002 and the first win in program history. For a team that has had three different coaches in as many years, that’s pretty cool.

But it doesn’t compare to Middle Tennessee State, who will move on after breaking the heart of millions (including my own) and helping remind us that once the calendar hits March, no team is ever truly safe. The Blue Raiders shocked the world Friday beating Michigan State 90–81, becoming just the eighth No. 15 seed in tournament history to knock of a No. 2. Coming into the game, there were many who believed the Spartans were robbed of a top seed. And on paper, it makes sense. They have one of the best players in college basketball, Denzel Valentine, arguably the game’s top coach, Tom Izzo, and a program resume that includes nine Final Four appearances (seven under Izzo) and a National Championship (2000).

While no No. 16 seed has ever beat a No. 1, this win could have easily fallen into that category of improbability. Michigan State was favored like a No. 1 by 16.5 points, the most of any No. 2, and Middle Tennessee State, who lost conference games to Western Kentucky (18–16) and Marshall (17–16) probably wouldn’t have turned heads as a No. 16 seed. But alas, March Madness, am I right?

Spurs Stay Golden vs. Zag Flex

Somewhere in the midst of their planning, the NBA decided to give a big F-U to their amateur farm system by scheduling a highly anticipated rematch between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors right in the middle of three NCAA Tournament second round games. But what many thought would be a nice break from the rugged commercial happy college game turned into a slugfest of its own, much like the tournament.

The Warriors used their free flowing offense as if it were some unsolvable riddle during a 30-point victory against the Spurs way back on Jan. 25 in Oakland. The Spurs, who have long been considered the only true threat to Golden State, needed this win to inspire confidence in fans, but more importantly, to maintain a belief within themselves that we shouldn’t just hand over the title to the Warriors.

Danny Green and Tony Parker get game balls for their defensive performance on Curry. The Spurs backcourt — with the occasional help of Kawhi Leonard — was able to hold the reigning MVP to 14 points on a 4–18 (1–12 from 3) shooting performance. LaMarcus Aldridge and Leonard combined for 44 points and 27 rebounds to hold down the offensive end. The Spurs also won their 44th straight home game, dating back to last season, and maintained striking distance for the West’s top seed with two games against the defending champs remaining.

One of the games I missed during GSW/SA was No. 11 seed Gonzaga’s dismantling of No. 3 Utah. Billed as a battle of the big guys, between the 6-foot-11 Domantas Sabonis of Gonzaga and Utah’s 7-foot Jakob Poeltl, this was suppose to be a close matchup. But in the end, it wasn’t. The Bulldogs went wire to wire winning 82–59, on what seemed even more impressive than their 16-point first-round win against Seton Hall.

Gonzaga really flew under the radar this year, and that’s when they seem to be most dangerous. They’ve proven year after year that they are the mid-major Hercules, reaching the NCAA Tournament every year since 1999. Last season, they made it to the Elite Eight. With games coming up against No. 10 Syracuse and maybe the winner of Iowa State and Virginia, sky’s the limit for the Bulldogs. But for right now, the NBA is king, and the Spurs and Warriors are duking it out for the crown.

Indiana vs. Kentucky vs. Miami’s Subtle Vengeance

Full disclosure: I don’t have a problem with John Calipari’s one-and-done NBA factory at Kentucky. I think that the NCAA profits in ridiculous amounts off talented amateur athletes, and the rules in place that limit their opportunities financially are atrocious. If a player wants to go to Kentucky and use the program as a stepping stone to the NBA, that is their right. So spare me your thoughts on John Wall, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns leaving after one season. Throw in guys like Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, and Brandon Knight, the one-and-dones from UK never seem to stop. So sue me, if I was excited to see future one-and-dones Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray, and sophomore Tyler Ulis in action. Ulis in particular is probably my favorite player in college basketball.

The 5' 9" underdog from Chicago patterns his game off another Chi-Town legend, Isiah Thomas. In 2014–15 Ulis was a contributor on a team that fell two wins short of going 40–0. While he had moments, the undersized point guard often found himself right next to Calipari in the game’s waning moments. “Stay ready,” Calipari would tell him. And so he did.

In 2015–16 Ulis led Kentucky to an SEC Conference Tournament championship. He also become the smallest man to be named SEC Player of the Year ever. But it’s his presence at both ends, that makes Ulis special. On offense he bumped his scoring average from 5.6 to 17.3 points a game while maintaining his conference-leading 7.2 assists. On defense, Calipari credits “sheer competitiveness” as the reason he takes so much pride on the end of the court that so many seem to ignore. Ulis averaged 1.4 steals per game on his way to being named SEC Defensive Player of the Year as well.

When the brackets were revealed Calipari drew criticism for his bashing of the tournament committee, complaining about the Wildcats No. 4 seed. It seemed fair. Kentucky had reached two consecutive Final Fours and just beat No. 3 seed Texas A&M for the conference crown a day earlier. No one would have considered it an crime to drop the Aggies to the four line and bump Kentucky. But what Kentucky as a No. 4 seed did was set the stage for a second round matchup with Indiana, one of the few schools who can match their prestige historically. For Ulis, it was an opportunity to showcase his game against Yogi Ferrell, a player similar in size, 6' 0", but different in nature, a four-year senior and one of Indiana’s all-time leaders in games played. The Hoosiers won Saturday’s battle of the two historic programs. But it did something more than that for me. It reminded me how much I really love good college basketball.

And for that it advances past Miami’s subtle 21 point win over LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. The coolest part of the night was Dwayne Wade reaching 20,000 career points, something only 40 other players have been able to accomplish. But I will say this, Miami vs. Cleveland in the playoffs, would be dope, and the Heat officially have my attention.

Buddy Meets Havoc vs. Wrong About Nova

You guys, I was finally wrong about Villanova. For as long as I’ve believed Jay Wright cares more about looking like George Clooney than he does about preparing his heavily favored Wildcats for second round games, he finally proved me wrong. Not that he owes me anything, he owes it to the fans. My fondness for Villanova dates back to ‘05–06 when Wright looked like an innovator, starting Kyle Lowry, Allan Ray, Randy Foye, and Mike Nardi, all guards under 6’ 4". Their fast-paced unselfish play captivated me, and the rest of the country. But somewhere along the line, Villanova always lost. In 2006 it was to Florida in the Elite Eight. In 2009 they made it to the Final Four, but lost to North Carolina. In 2010 it took an overtime to beat No. 15 seed Robert Morris before ultimately falling to No. 10 St. Mary’s.

Over the past three seasons, Villanova has gone 91–13, captured three consecutive regular season Big East titles, earned No. 2 seeds twice and a No. 1 seed once. By conventional standards, this would be very good. But as the tournament approached I couldn’t help but remember, 2014 when they lost in the second round to No. 7 Connecticut or last year when it was No. 8 North Carolina State. I picked against Villanova both of those years, two of my more impressive predictions. So this year I picked Temple to knock off the Wildcats. Except the Owls lost to Iowa and then Villanova put a hurt on the Hawkeyes. Whoops, not this time. Shout out to you Ryan Arcidiacono.

Authors note: Since I’m bitter about being wrong the Wildcats can’t advance here. But if you need more Villanova in your life, here’s a free game idea: Go on Google and type in “Ryan”, click enter, then click images, then count how long it takes for you to find a picture of Ryan Arcidiacono somewhere between all the images of Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds, and Paul Ryan, bless his little heart.

We’ll talk about Buddy in the next round.

Abrams’ NYT Push vs. Notre Dame Tip In

Notre Dame beat Thomas Walkup and Stephen F. Austin on a last second tip in by Rex Pflueger. The freshman guard had eight offensive rebounds on the season entering Sunday, but his ninth kept the Fighting Irish’s title hopes alive. The win came after Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson held Walkup — 21 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists — and the rest of their No. 14 seed Lumberjack opponents to two points in the final 3:35. But heavy favorites narrowly beating up on the tournament’s Cinderella? Eh. So congrats Notre Dame, and now we digress.

I spent most of this game on Twitter following New York Times Best Selling Author and former Grantlander Shea Serrano on Twitter try tirelessly to get his peer, Jonathan Abrams on to the NYT best sellers list by replying to everyone who would tweet him — or Abrams for that matter — a screenshot of them purchasing Abrams’ new basketball book, Boys Among Men: How The Prep-To-Pro Generation Redefined The NBA And Sparked A Basketball Revolution. Serrano is a riot and Abrams is a basketball wordsmith. He’s like Nas at rap writing about basketball. I bought the book Wednesday, so it might not be fair to advance Abrams in this matter. But to be honest, it isn’t fair we don’t get to watch Thomas Walkup play basketball anymore either, so Abrams and Serrano FTW.

Sorry Rex Pflueger

Universitas Yalensis vs. Providence Inbound

Yale didn’t just shock the world, they continued a trend while breaking one of their own. Yale’s last NCAA tournament appearance came 54 years ago, a loss to longtime CBS analyst Billy Packer’s Wake Forest team. Thursday, they picked up their first tournament win in program history and became the sixth Ivy League team in the last seven tournaments to harass a stronger opponent. In 2010, Cornell shocked the world by reaching the Sweet 16 after upsetting Temple and Wisconsin. In 2011, Princeton lost to Kentucky by 2. In 2013, Harvard beat New Mexico, 2014, Cincinnati. and in 2015, the they lost to North Carolina by 2. This wasn’t an accident folks.

In a weird way, Yale is going to advance here because them beating Baylor and taking Duke to the wire is just so much cooler than any one play. The irony of course, is that for a brief moment in time we can look back at guys like Nick Victor, Makai Mason, Brandon Sherrod and Justin Sears as “cool” even though they totally might be the most nerdy boat shoe wearing non-Duke douches in the tournament. They might not be too, but we’ll never know.

Buzzer Beaters vs. Bracket Busters

Michigan State losing ravaged my bracket. I had the Spartans winning the title for the third time in four years. According to Yahoo! Sports, I wasn’t the only one. 99.1 percent of people picked Sparty in their first round matchup and “many thousand” (second most behind Kansas apparently) picked them to win the championship. According to ESPN, the loss eliminated 8.1 million Final Four picks, a staggering amount considering fellow first round upset victims No. 3 West Virginia (1.4 m), No. 5 Purdue (382 k), Baylor (373 k — including my dumb ass friend Chase who had them winning it all), and No. 4 Cal (296 k) only combined to bust 2.5 million. According to CBS Sports, 64.6% of their brackets had MSU going to the Final Four, 42% had them in the championship and 23.5% had them cutting down the nets. In what has become an annual Twitter tradition for major bracket distributing mediums, CBS Sports was the first to officially say they had 0 perfect brackets remaining when Sparty went down.

The loss didn’t fare well on people betting in Vegas either. According to multiple sportsbooks and ABC.com, more money was placed on Michigan State to win the tournament than any other team. Cesars sportsbook reported 513 bets on the Spartans vs. only four on Middle Tennessee. Eighteen percent of all the money bet on William Hill’s odds to win the NCAA tournament were placed on the Spartans. That included a $50,000 futures bet that would have paid $325,000. For the rest of Vegas, Middle Tennessee’s upset provided the biggest winnings of any day this year, besides the Super Bowl. So the rich get richer and I lose all hope for my bracket? Not cool. But you know what is?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8q6X-N4sJ1o

The buzzer beaters, that last forever, despite the incredibly grainy video.

Spurs Stay Golden vs. Indiana vs. Kentucky

Indiana vs. Kentucky reminded me why I do love college basketball. That is a fact. There was a time when I actually preferred college to the pro game. In recent years, that hasn’t been the case. Perhaps it’s the very notion of my previous statement: i.e. “No problem with Calipari’s pro farm at Kentucky” that’s the problem. Maybe it’s just an all around lack of talent across the board. Maybe it’s that the NBA has gotten better as the game has shifted from an iso heavy product to one that emphasizes ball movement and team play. But that’s only if you want to win, I guess. Whatever the case, I had a blast watching these two teams. Matt texted me before the game: “Either Kentucky loses or they’re going to the Final Four.” I didn’t disagree with that. They looked like a team that needed one more win to really hit their stride. In the end Indiana was deeper and made their free throws, something teams that want to win in the NCAA Tournament can’t afford not to do.

But the Spurs are going to move on here, because at the end of the day, I’m an NBA guy. The Spurs needed this win more than ever and even though the Warriors can sort of call ‘bs’ on the fact that they barely lost with Curry and Thompson having miserable nights and both Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut sitting out, it still happened. Tying the series now is cooler because if Golden State had won last night I’m not sure they would have lost again. And while we can appreciate the excellence of an all-time great as much as we want, nothing seems cooler than the idea of a Golden State vs. San Antonio Western Conference Finals. The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is the game’s highlight, and to be honest, I fear that even despite these early round upsets we’re heading for a rather mundane Kansas, Virginia, and North Carolina Final Four. The only hope…

Buddy vs. Havoc vs. Abrams’ NYT Push

Is BUDDDDDDYYYY! He’s about to become America’s sweetheart. The smooth shooting guard from Oklahoma scores all the points. In Sunday’s second round matchup with VCU, Buddy scored 21 of the team’s final 26. He had 29 in the second half and finished with 36 overall. With Denzel Valentine and Tyler Ulis making early exits and Ben Simmons being deemed ineligible, it was possibly his strongest case for the Wooden Award yet. Best of all, most of Buddy Hield’s points came as VCU was mounting a furious comeback. After six straight tournament appearances, you knew the Rams wouldn’t yield to Buddy or anyone even down 13 at halftime.

On Sunday, at 5:14 p.m. Pacific Time, I reached a breaking point. It was time to wrap this up. I say this because I need you to understand I didn’t want to leave out whatever ended up happening in the Hawaii/Maryland, Xavier/Wisconsin, Oregon/St. Josephs, or Texas A&M/Northern Iowa games. I was just burnt out. So if something wicked awesome happens, I apologize. And right on cue, at 7:24 p.m. Pacific Time, moments before I post this, Texas A&M just went on a 14–2 run in the final 31 seconds to tie their second round game sending it to overtime. 7:36 p.m. Pacific time, I meant double overtime. 7:38 p.m., and naturally, Wisconsin and Xavier just ended at the buzzer too

Universitas Yalensis vs. Buzzer Beaters vs. Spurs vs. Buddy Meets Havoc

It’s been a hellacious weekend and one heck of a journey. If you’re still here, please bare with me for one more story. Truth is, no matter what happened this weekend nothing was beating Yale, not even Duke. I’ll tell you why.

Two weeks ago, my grandfather had an accident while driving with my grandmother, my cousin and her husband. The initial belief was that he had a stroke and wouldn’t make it through the night. At least that’s the call I got from my dad, hours before I had to wake up for work. Luckily, the stroke turned out to be a terrible seizure, and he lived. It’s been some time now, I’ve processed the information. I know my grandpa is a proud man who wouldn’t want me to be upset, so I haven’t made much of the matter.

Like any family there’s been differences here and there. But through everything, he always looked out for me. If I needed money in a pinch, he’d help out. When I needed a car, he put up for my Toyota. When my parents separated as a kid, he’d fly my sister and I to California so that we could have a quality relationship with our dad.

My grandfather isn’t the biggest sports fan. He fakes caring even when he does watch too. My dad, grandma, and I are the biggest Stanford football fans ever. They also root for the Raiders and 49ers but allowed me to adopt the Seahawks when I moved to Seattle in 5th grade. No such case for the Mariners though, it’s “Go Giants Go” for me. Generally speaking, most of my visits in California consisted of watching football in grandpa’s office. It wasn’t big. He had a desk with an orange iMac computer. Above it, were framed degrees from UCLA, Virginia Tech, and Yale. The one from Yale was in Latin. It read, Universitas Yalesis at the top. I must have read that degree 80,000 times in my life without knowing how to say it phonetically. There was another desk too, where grandma had her stationary. And then there was this military soft couch that was pretty much like sitting on a fold out chair. Dad and I often got to pick the games, Stanford being the main event. But whenever UCLA and Virginia Tech were on, we watched no matter the options, because even though he didn’t care, grandpa always got the final say. He’s extremely proud of those degrees. Even in an era where college is becoming less important and more flawed, those matter to him.

As a kid I dreamed about playing Major League baseball or being the quarterback for my high school and dating a cheerleader. I wasn’t sure about college football because I thought that might cut into my MLB career. I guess I didn’t know back then it’s kind of the only two sports where you can do both. My little league career started out in 2nd grade. At first I was strictly a right fielder even though I couldn’t catch the ball to save my life. Get a hit? Yeah right. But each year, I kept signing up, and each year I got better. By the time I reached middle school I would say I was one of the better players on the team. I loved it, baseball was my everything.

But then in 6th grade something happened. Somehow, lost in the shuffle of being a single parent raising two kids, my mom accidentally forgot to sign me up for baseball. I was disappointed because I wouldn’t be able to move up to the next age group with my friends or the teammates that I had played with for three straight seasons. This coincided with a trip to California where I expressed these feelings to my grandfather.

That day he sat me down and turned on the news. He didn’t say anything except, “watch.” Up to this point, I was forced to leave the office when my grandparents watched the news because they considered it too heavy for my young mind. My sister and I would go watch Hey Arnold or something in the den. But I watched. I remember seeing things about Al-Qadea and the struggles in the middle east. I remember hearing about all the lost jobs under the Bush administration. Then he flipped it to the local news, where I heard about a stabbing eight blocks from their house. The guy was in critical condition. I hope he survived. They also talked about an armed robbery where someone stepped in and saved a hostage. Then my grandpa turned off the t.v., looked me in the eye and sternly said, “there’s so many worse things happening to people than you not playing baseball.” I nodded my head, got up, and walked away before he surprised me.

As my grandfather struggles I can’t help but think, this is the first NCAA tournament he’ll miss. And when Yale made it for the first time in 54 years I immediately pushed them through to the second round. I’m pretty sure grandpa didn’t watch the game and being the realist he is, there’s no way he would have picked them against Duke. But since he can’t be proud of them in this moment, I’ll have to do it for him. That’s why Yale beating Baylor and taking Duke to the wire is easily the coolest thing that happened for me this weekend. We’re optimistic that he will recover to the point where he may be able to talk on the phone soon. At which point, I expect him to ask, “Thomas, what did I miss?” I’d probably laugh if he said that, because I’d be thinking about Phil.

As I was leaving his office, he threw out something I’d never considered, “why don’t we sign you up for basketball?” And so it, all of this, began.

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