In honor of my hometown hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tournament last week for the sixth time in the last 18 years, today’s blog entry is dedicated to my recollection of attending the 2004 tournament at then-HSBC Arena.
As I stated in my previous posting, I have been an avid fan of the NCAA Tournament since 1982. What makes it so enticing is that there is nothing quite like it in all of sports: 68 teams, 67 games, including 16 games in rapid fashion on each of the first two days, in a single elimination tournament that lends itself to stunning season-ending upsets, culminating in the Final Four and the crowning of a national champion. Even the World Cup and Olympic tournaments lack the spectacle of so many teams and the one-loss-and-you’re-out reality of the NCAAs. It’s the sheer possibility of some Cinderella team that hardly anyone has heard about knocking off a top team and champion contender from a power conference that creates a level of excitement and athletic “madness” unique to the sports calendar.
After watching the NCAAs for 22 years exclusively on television, my father surprised me by purchasing two tickets to the 1st round of the 2004 tournament, the 2nd to be held in Buffalo. Since my father was still working at that time, I rode the subway downtown to the arena by myself to watch the first game of the day- UNC-Charlotte vs. Texas Tech. As I walked into the arena, I found myself giddy as a 12-year-old attending his first professional sporting event just because I had enjoyed the tournament immensely from afar for so many years, but now I got to actually experience it in person. That first game was notable, not because Texas Tech won, but because the school was coached by the legendary Bobby Knight, who had won three national championships at Indiana University, but four years prior had been fired after coaching his last game in Buffalo when Indiana was upset in the 1st round by Pepperdine. It was quite a thrill to see the legend stalk the sidelines, though it was somewhat jarring observing him wearing the black and red colors of Texas Tech rather than the red and white of Indiana.
My father got out of work a couple hours early and joined me for the 2nd game of the day- a matchup of top seeded St. Joseph’s University of Philadelphia and tiny 16th seed Liberty. St. Joe’s, led by All-American guard Jameer Nelson, had gone undefeated during a spectacular regular season and came into the tournament 27-1, their only loss an upset to Xavier in the Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament. St. Joe’s was thus a leading contender to advance to the Final Four and perhaps win it all (alas, they eventually lost to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight falling one win short of the Final Four). Besides watching the extraordinary talent of Nelson and fellow high-scoring guard Delonte West, the most memorable and enjoyable aspect of the game was observing the antics of the St. Joe’s Hawk, the school mascot well-known for flapping its wings constantly throughout the entire game. My father and I got a kick out of that and we were incredulous at the dedication and stamina required of the student who donned the costume. Adding to the unique atmosphere of the event (besides the fact the NCAA bans beer sales- a startling contrast to all the pro games and rock concerts I had attended at the arena before and since) was the enthusiastic performance of each school’s pep band and cheerleaders during timeouts, commercial breaks and halftime. Frankly, I was loving every minute of it and did not miss the usual beer-buzz associated with experiencing major sporting events and concerts in the flesh.
After St. Joe’s completed a rather easy victory over Liberty, the first session was complete and the entire arena had to be emptied to prepare for the evening session. All the fans were left on their own to find a place to eat prior to the start of the day’s third game. Unlike the present, whereupon NCAA Tournament attendees in Buffalo had an abundance of bars and restaurants to choose from due to a veritable explosion of dining establishments in a resurgent downtown over the past decade, back then the selections were paltry. We really wanted to try a relatively new Cajun-style eatery located about a mile north of the arena in the Theater District, but by the time we rode the subway uptown and arrived at the restaurant, we discovered there was a 45-minute wait for a table. That simply would not do because we would miss a significant portion of the third game, so we reluctantly left the Cajun restaurant and walked to the nearest place we could find- a deli selling cold sandwiches and potato chips. It was a big disappointment from a culinary standpoint, but we valued timeliness over tastiness at that point.
We returned to the arena in time to watch Vermont and the University of Connecticut players shoot around in warm-ups. The 15th seeded UV stuck with 2nd seeded UConn for much of the first half, but the Huskies, led by a pair of All-Americans, guard Ben Gordon and center Emeka Okafor, were just too much too handle, and eventually pulled away for an easy victory. Little did we know at the time that my father and I actually got to see the eventual national champions play in person as two weeks later UConn beat Georgia Tech for the title. Ironically, lightning struck twice as exactly ten years later, UConn again used Buffalo as a 1st and 2nd round springboard to another national championship.
The last game of the day was between DePaul and Dayton. To me it was the least interesting match-up of the quadruple-header, and I had grown weary after all the excitement of the previous nine hours. I was also a full-time graduate student at the time, in my 2nd semester of the Master’s of Public Health program at the University at Buffalo and may have had a class or two to attend the following morning, so soon after the DePaul-Dayton game tipped off, I decided to leave, wholly satisfied by my NCAA Tournament experience. I left my father, who chose to stay for the duration, at the arena and took the subway back home. Upon my return, I watched the end of that evening’s games on TV and went to bed, tired from a full day’s entertainment, but obviously not as exhausted as the student who served his college with great pride as the St. Joe’s Hawk.