I was racking my brain what to write about for my Friday blog. Football is over, baseball is about a month away, and we’re still 6 weeks away from the NBA playoffs. But then I got excited thinking about my upcoming trip to Las Vegas for March Madness. A trip I’ll be taking with none other than Matty Goldberg aka GOATBERG. Then it suddenly hit me: I should write about my first March Madness memories.
I still remember it like it was yesterday. The year was 1990 and I was a second grader at Guardian Angels elementary school, located in the mean suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. It was also a magical year for the Xavier University men’s basketball team. They had compiled a then school record setting 26-4 mark entering the NCAA Tournament. They were a deep squad led by future NBA players Tyrone Hill and Derek Strong known as the “Twin Towers.” But they also had talent and depth at every position. This was also the year I became a die-hard Xavier fan. My dad (Walt) took me to my first XU game against Detroit Mercy (now just Detroit) at the old Cincinnati Gardens.
The Cincinnati Gardens was a complete dump, but I loved it. The dimly lit arena reeked of piss, stale beer, and cigarette smoke…but that’s what made it so special. So after my first game I was hooked. I instantly put a Xavier poster in my bedroom and was ready to be a “ride or die” Musketeers fan for life. But I was still only 8 years old, so I had still never experienced the highs and lows of March Madness. But that quickly changed in March of 1990.
Xavier was awarded a 6 seed and a first round matchup against the 11 seeded Kansas State Wildcats. I remember it was a day game and I hurried off the school bus and ran inside to catch the action. But to my dismay my older brother chose to watch cartoons over the game. So my mom let me watch the game from the smaller TV in their bedroom. I remember Xavier being in control, but I was still a nervous wreck. Luckily the Muskies eked out a win. But their next task was against the almighty Georgetown Hoyas.
My dad warned me that Xavier didn’t have a chance. Xavier was good, but Georgetown a perennial power. They were a Big East powerhouse led by Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. Surely Xavier’s “Twin Towers” of Tyrone Hill and Derek Strong didn’t stand a chance against the two future NBA Hall of Famers. Luckily my dad and everyone else was completely wrong.
The game was on a Saturday afternoon and I joined my dad in the TV room to watch our beloved Musketeers take on Georgetown. Xavier jumped out to an early lead and didn’t look back. In fact they built an 18 point first half lead against the heavily favored Hoyas. 27 years later I remember it like it was yesterday. I was giddy with excitement as everything was clicking for Xavier. They were hitting all their shots and shutting down future lottery pick Dikembe Mutombo. Meanwhile my dad was in shock. Walt just couldn’t believe his alma mater was destroying John Thompson’s Hoyas. My 3 older brothers were also in shock. Their main goal was to troll me the entire first half, but they didn’t have much to say after XU led by 16 points at halftime. But as usual they kept on trying and my dad did what he always did when they heckled me – he kicked them down to the basement to watch the game.
As expected Georgetown mounted a furious second half comeback and eventually tied the game. I could hear my brothers talking shit from the basement. I was nervous, scared, and ready to have my first sports breakdown at age 8. But luckily Xavier held on, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history. I was so happy, tasting my first real success as a sports fan. And my dad was so happy for me. He could see the shining smile that illuminated my face and how proud I felt to be a fan. Walt even taped the game, so I bet it’s lying around somewhere in my parents house. I’d love to go back and watch it, to re-live the joy of an 8 year old boy feeling the wide range of emotions of March Madness for the first time.
Sadly Xavier lost their next game to Texas. They blew a 12 point lead to the Longhorns in front of a total home crowd in Dallas. It was after that game when I cried for the first time because my team lost. I remember burying my face into the sofa cushions while tears gushed from my eyes. I’ll never forget my dad saying “It’s just a game Andy” while he tried to comfort me. But it wasn’t just a game to me. I was heartbroken. My team had lost and I felt empty inside. I couldn’t believe Xavier’s dream season was actually over.
But my dad was right, it was “just a game” and life went on. The next morning I got up and went off to second grade. Sure it was tough to balance the loss of my team and trying to learn basic math at school, but life goes on. It also prepared me for a life of heart-breaking March Madness defeats. Luckily this year I get to watch Xavier lose in Sin City, so who’s ready for the Madness?