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Embracing March Madness: The Only Constant is the Drama

Pittsburgh is blessed this week to host Duke and Mike Krzyzewski, Villanova and Jay Wright, and Oklahoma and freshman sensation Trae Young, among others, at PPG Paints Arena.

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Dick Vitale said it a long time ago and I’m never gonna top it: “Awesome, baby.”

He was talking about college basketball.

Aren’t we all in March?

The Madness is at hand, the best days of the sporting year every year.

I’ll take college hoops in this setting over anything, at least until they figure out a way to make the Super Bowl a three-week event.

Until then, cue the pep band and fire up the Fight Song.

And prepare to put your life on hold.

I’ve never been a college basketball beat writer or broadcaster but I’ve been fortunate enough professionally and personally to have experienced the NCAA Tournament and all its glory in a myriad of ways, all of them fascinating.

I’ve been to the top of the mountain with my alma mater, sitting in the stands in Indianapolis in 2000 –– standing, actually –– as Tom Izzo and Michigan State cut down the nets.

That’s an elation you can’t fake.

The year before I had been almost catatonic in Tampa, sitting in the upper reaches of Tropicana Field as Duke was putting the finishing touches on a beating of Michigan State in the national semifinals and the scalpers were making their way through the devastated sections of Spartans fans before the body was even cold.

“Who’s selling Monday night?”

And then depression set in …

I’ve driven from Kansas City to Tulsa (in 1985), just to see Pitt lose to Louisiana Tech (Karl Malone had nine points and 10 rebounds).

And I’ve followed West Virginia from Cleveland (where the No. 7-seed Mountaineers beat No. 2-seed Wake Forest, 111-105, in double-overtime) to Albuquerque (John Beilein and WVU led by 20 in the first half and by 13 at halftime but eventually fell to Rick Pitino and Louisville, 93-85, in OT).

That was in 2005 at “The Pit” in Albuquerque (the arena made famous by Jim Valvano and Cinderella N.C. State in 1983).

That trip included striking up a temporary friendship with a Louisville fan while watching other teams on other courts on a TV in a hotel bar in prior to that legendary Regional Final. I had offered up a disparaging opinion of Pitino out loud and the Louisville fan had disagreed. But we were able to work past our initial differences and in the end celebrate our shared love of basketball.

March basketball, in particular.

The only constant is the drama.

Even an ongoing FBI investigation isn’t enough to make that go away.

There was almost too much of the former to handle at another one of college basketball’s cathedrals, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, in 2002. That was where Pitt lost a 78-73 heartbreaker in overtime to Kent State and Antonio Gates (who had 22 points and eight rebounds on his way to eventually becoming an NFL tight end worthy of Hall-of-Fame consideration).

The precursor to that battle had been Duke-Indiana (74-73, Hoosiers).

I was supposed to cover Robert Morris-Kansas in 1990, but my flight got diverted due to storms and I didn’t make it to Atlanta in time for the game.

Nobody ever said the Road to the Final Four is easy to navigate.

Pittsburgh is blessed this week to host Duke and Mike Krzyzewski, Villanova and Jay Wright, and Oklahoma and freshman sensation Trae Young, among others, at PPG Paints Arena.

But you need not be there to appreciate it.

The NCAA Tournament is just as compelling on television.

Why else do people strain their necks to get a peek at a TV in an overflowing airport bar, just to see who’s playing while they’re changing planes?

It’s even captivating on the radio, especially if you happen to be pulling out of Boston or Milwaukee on the way back home after watching Pitt-Indiana (2003) or Pitt-Wisconsin (2004) and you have a lot of miles to cover.

Or, if you’re driving home after co-hosting a radio show, as I was on Tuesday night, during the second half of Radford-LIU Brooklyn.

“That was beautiful basketball,” one of the announcers opined in one instance.

The squeaking sneakers sounded just as sweet.

You don’t have to be a hard-core fan to succumb to the tournament’s intoxicating nature.

All you need is a bracket.

And maybe an old sweatshirt that doesn’t quite fit as well as it did back in the day but still gets the job done when you’re surrounded by a bunch of strangers who happen to be your new best friends because they’re wearing the same color.

In March, everybody’s a fan for one reason or another.

Even if the attachment is temporary, it’s often unforgettable.

One-shining-moment type of experiences usually are.

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