The Lost Weekend

The front page monster graphic jinx strikes again. Brutal.

It's only now, after a few days of silence, that I've overcome my depression and felt strong enough to sit back down at the keyboard. What analogy can best express the pain of having your team get bounced out of the NCAA Tournament? Since we're dealing with heartbreak, I think that women are the most appropriate metaphorical building block.
You've met a gorgeous woman, gone on a few dates, find out she's actual funny and smart and shares some of your interests, and thing seem to be going well. This was Stanford men's hoops during the regular season. At the start of the year, no one knew what to expect, but certainly they seemed to have potential at first glance. If things came together, they could surprise a lot of people. Stanford would need health across the board, especially of perenially injured point guard Chris Hernandez and power forward Justin Davis. Josh Childress could be the difference-maker, the one star player capable of being an All-American and carrying the team at times. Matt Lottich was back to hit the clutch three pointers, and Rob Little and Matt Haryasz joined Davis and Childress to form a big front line. And, as usual, a Mike Montgomery team would play tough defense and force teams to shoot lights out to beat them.
They started strong, and early wins against Kansas, Gonzaga, and Arizona raised everyone's expectations. This was like taking a woman on a date to a basketball game and having her suddenly point out that the coach should switch to a box and one defense to clamp down on the opposing team's center. Shocking and wonderful. Enough to cause a guy to well up. This was without Josh Childress, out for the first third of the season. His return was like going to her place to pick her up, and while you're waiting for her to change, you scan her CD collection and discover half the CDs are ones you own.
The Pac-10 wasn't deep this year, but Stanford's consistent dominance through the heart of the Pac-10 schedule was still impressive. This was the honeymoon period. No fights, just good times. In the movies, these are the musical montages with the candlelight dinners, figure skating in Rockefeller Center (Oops! The girl falls to the ice. Helping her up, you fall to the ice on top of her. Laughter all around!), two straws inserted in the same ice cream sundae, cuddling by a campfire under the stars, all that.
And then, near the end of the season, signs of trouble. Davis tore his MCL and was knocked out for the remainder of the regular season. The weakness of the Pac-10 meant that Stanford overcame his loss to continue to win, but they weren't being tested in the way they needed to be. It showed in their play, which became increasingly sloppy near the end of the year. They lost their killer instinct. Like a relationship that hasn't been tested. You know at some point she'll find your porn collection, or she'll toss her pink something-or-other in with your whites and turn all your undershirts pink. The first stumble. The Cardinal should have lost a few games at the end of the year, but some miraculous comebacks (Oregon) and last-minute shots (Arizona, Washington State) bailed them out.
The UTSA game in the first round was a blowout, but UTSA actually cut the Stanford lead to 6 at some point in the second half. That should never have happened. Offensively, Stanford was not playing clean. Turnovers, poor shooting, and silly fouls were killing Stanford. The NCAA Tournament may be the most exciting event in sports, but it's not always because of great basketball. You realize watching the supposed best of the best just how thin these college teams are, and how many lousy players and how much sub-par coaching pervades college hoops.
The Alabama game demonstrated the danger of such sloppy play for Stanford. Despite playing terribly, Stanford used its tight defense to shut down Alabama the first 12 minutes of the second half. With 8 minutes and change left on the clock, the Cardinal had a 13 point lead. I thought it was in the bag.
And then they went cold. And Alabama hit a couple huge 3-pointers, and suddenly the crowd was going nuts. Neutral crowds love the underdog in the first few rounds of the NCAA's, and if you let one stick around, the crowd will start to swell behind them, and they'll gain the confidence and swagger to stand up to you, and then you tighten up and that's when it all falls apart.
Alabama built up to a seven, eight point lead, and as the clock ticked down and Stanford missed shot after shot, I felt that sickening feeling in my stomach, the air of doom as you sense it slipping away. It's like bringing her to a club and then seeing her trade flirtatious smiles with some chump across the room. Disbelief, denial, and then panic as you realize you're losing her, or maybe you already lost her but just didn't realize it. Childress, the only scorer on Stanford able to create his own shot, picked up his fourth foul and then for some reason drew a stupid blocking foul right on the next possession to foul out with over three minutes left.
Still, despite all that, somehow Stanford ended up getting one last 3-pointer at the buzzer for the tie. Unfortunately, it was taken by Dan Grunfeld, son of Ernie Grunfeld, and not someone you want to see taking the last shot if you're a Cardinal fan, especially this day. He fumbled his way through the game, committing fouls, turning the ball over, missing open jump shots. His last shot was no different. It clanked off the rim, and everyone around me rejoiced as I covered my eyes in disgust. Yes, that's her leaving the club with that other guy (Alabama), both of them tipsy and giddy with love, you left to conjure sickening images of the kinky hijinks to ensue between them that evening.
Despite all that, it was a lot of fun up until the 'Bama game. As a season ticket holder, Sang was given first dibs on some tickets to the NCAA's West (Phoenix) Region 1st and 2nd round games at Key Arena. He snagged me the tickets early last year, seemingly before the college hoops season had even started. That Stanford ended up the #1 seed in the West was a bonus, but the liquor in the mixed drink was the fact that last Thursday and Saturday we found ourselves sitting in the fifth row, and only the row just ahead of us was occupied.

The view from our cushy fifth-row seats

Very early on I realized that everyone around me was rooting against Stanford. At first it annoyed me--where's the UW Pac-10 loyalty? Then I realized with some pleasure that finally, Stanford was strong enough in men's hoops that everyone was dying to see them upset. So that's how it feels to be a Yankees fan. To be a fan of a winning team. Feels (well, at least at that point) pretty good.
We were close enough that I have to concur, as much as it hurt me to do so, that the Stanford mascot, the Tree...

...looks like a cheap homemade Halloween costume compared to such mascot icons as the Michigan State Spartan dude. Check him out. That is one solid, top quality mascot uniform.

I shudder to think how much his costume costs, given that an unsightly, generic Rebel General Mascot costume runs $750.
From our seats we could also spot a Southern Illinois assistant coach that looked to be the Shooter of his team (those who don't understand the Shooter reference, please see Hoosiers or at least read Sports Guy's Cliffs Notes). Every team has one (The tie that doesn't reach the belt is not an attractive look, especially on a more portly physique).

The first round is exhausting, four games divided among two sessions. Each of the Thursday sessions' two games were separated by a half hour, and each game had twenty-minute halftime intermissions. The two sessions themselves were also separated by about two hours. The sum of all this is that we were sitting on our butts for about the same amount of time as a flight to Tibet. We spent enough time in that section over Thursday and Saturday that some of the people who were sitting near us may end up receiving invitatios to my wedding. Everyone except that guy in the middle of our aisle who forced up to get up to let him out every five minutes so he could go get some other piece of junk food to eat. As I recall, the last time we had to get up to let him out, some ambulance workers were carrying him off in a stretcher.
That's also a lot of time to kill with the same set of jokes. How many times do you think #5 on Nevada has heard wisecracks about being Shawn Kemp's first illegimate child? At least ten as that's how many times we told that joke to ourselves during Thursday's second session (it was fresh in my mind because we had just run itno Shawn Kemp out in Belltown the previous Saturday while we were out sending Dan off in style. Kemp was at a nondescript bar hitting on some not-so-attractive women. Really, the sad thing about sports stars making so much money is not the sheer amount of the money but the casual nature in which they throw it all away.)

Speaking of Nevada, they provided the most thrilling pair of games I saw in person. First, they made a huge comeback against Michigan State to pull out the first game, despite staying with a completely ineffective and loose 2-3 zone in the first half that exemplifies the inconsistent play and coaching I mentioned earlier.
Then, on Saturday, they jumped on Gonzaga from the opening tip, stunning the masses of Zag faithful who had commuted five hours from Spokane to support their team. Nevada Wolf Pack point guard Todd Okeson was unconscious, taking over from the opening tip. Okeson controlled the game, hitting jumper after jumper. He was feeling it, and the entire crowd was feeling him feel it, and it was electric. He ran circles around the acclaimed point guard of Gonzaga, Blake Stepp, a great player in his own right who picked the worst time to have horrible shooting nights in back to back games. The road back to Spokane was paved with Stepp's bricks.
Add in a day at Andy's house on Friday to watch that day's games in his basement entertainment room, the Helmet Head, replete with five television screens, and it becomes apparent why Andy dubs it the Lost Weekend. The quality of discourse on Friday was no better than that at the stadium on Thursday or Saturday. Our major disagreement came over the Microsoft Great Moments commercials. A lot of the guys there found them hilarious. I think they're terrible.
By Sunday, the orgy of basketball had left me spent. My team is out, and I no longer care who wins or loses it all. It's doubly true because I made the cardinal (pun intended) mistake of choosing my brackets with my heart and putting Stanford down to go all the way. I'm putting college hoops behind me until the fall, when I'll fall in love all over again.

Even the Valpo mascot was exhausted by weekend's end