Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pittsburgh post

Don't know why Olson chanted "Pittsburgh post! Pittsburgh post!" in a comment on the blog last night. Maybe it was because Coppin State was competing in the play-in game. Maybe he took a charge from Sam Okey in a rec league game.

Maybe it's because the game in Pittsburgh is the only time I've seen the Badgers play in the NCAA Tournament, which starts tomorrow, but this is as good a time as any to mark the 11th anniversary of this memorable experience.

The whole thing started on the last Saturday of the regular season (think it was the last year before the Big Ten Tournament), when Wisconsin upset #2 Minnesota to basically clinch a spot in the tournament. That game ended with me hugging Milinovich; the day ended with me hugging an Ole English 40. The next morning, I was in the Cardinal office working on our mammoth Big Dance preview section (16 whole pages!), when Millie walked in and said "They shot Biggie." With East Coast-West Coast tensions in the rap community simmering, this was inevitable, but no less sad.

Throughout the course of the day several of us made plans to road trip it wherever the Badgers went, which ended up being Pittsburgh. It was me, Olson, Milinovich, and Millie's friend Garza, who worked with him at the Nitty Gritty. Garza and I didn't have credit cards, which meant we couldn't drive the rental car, which worked out well for us.

We left late Thursday afternoon headed for the Steel City, and Erik and Mike drove through the night in less-than-ideal conditions. I remember the precipitation teetering between rain and freezing rain, and made light of the fact that the thermometer was toggling between 32 and 33 degrees - "Ice! Rain! Ice! Rain?" To which Erik barked "Shut the f$&* up! It's not funny!" Erik eventually forgave my distractions and introduced me to pre-"Closing Time" Semisonic.

We pulled into Pittsburgh at the crack of dawn and ate breakfast at a restaurant that seemed shady, and headed to the arena. The place, where the Penguins were still playing at the time, had to be one of the more decrepit facilities the Big Dance was held in at the time, a real dump. Erik and I went to the press room, I opened up an orange juice and a notebook to prepare pregame notes, and promptly fell asleep, waking up 45 minutes later with spiral notebook grooves indented in my face, and my notebook covered with drool. Very professional.

Went to press row courtside about an hour before the noon tipoff, and went to work on a foreign journalism paper I was writing about Benazhir Bhutto. Got a lot done there. Our game against Texas went about as expected. We were a 7 seed and they were a 10 seed, although consensus was those should have been switched. Dick Bennett was mad at Ty Calderwood for not eating his vegetables at the team meal or something like that, and benched him to start the game. Two minutes or so later, with the Badgers down about 25-0, Ty came in. Reggie Freeman and Kris Clack were just too much that day, and the Badgers' feel-good season was over.

But not our fun in Pittsburgh. Next we saw Coppin State beat South Carolina in what I believe was the second #15-#2 upset in tournament history, a really exciting, feel-good story. Every time I hear the name Fang Mitchell, as I did when CSU made it back to the tournament this year, I think of that day. Texas beat Coppin by one in the second round.

The night session was also good, with New Mexico, Millie's second-favorite team for I forget what reason, beat Old Dominion, which featured fans with funny Southern accents ("He woked!" = "He walked!").

The capper was Louisville beating UMass, which was one year removed from the Marcus Camby-led run to the finals. The highlight of that game, arguably of the entire trip, was the Louisville dance team, which was legen ... dary (more legendary than this picture I found). Let's put it this way: not one guy in attendance left to relieve himself at halftime. Millie made one of the more poignant comments I've heard, one I'd repeat if I wasn't relatively sure my mom would be reading this post. I wrote about the Cardinals dance team in the Cardinal the next week, and a few weeks later, getting carded buying beer somewhere in Madison, the guy noticed my name and said "I've seen the Louisville dance team before ... oh my god are they hot!" (Note: Louisville won its sixth national dance title in 2007.)

That night we went out for an evening of Iron City Light and Garza trying to pick fights with Pitt undergrads. After I had gotten done getting fresh with a cannon (details still fuzzy), we made our way back to the hotel, where Erik snuggled with a doll bearing the likeness of his girlfriend and future wife, Molly. Weird.

On the drive home we stopped off in South Bend to pay homage to Rudy Ruettinger and took photos of Touchdown Jesus. It should be noted that Olson, in his first attempt at sports photography, came back with some terrific shots, including an Okey dunk.

Why bring all this up now in such detail? It's a reminder that not so long ago, a trip to the tournament made an entire season worthwhile. Once in the postseason, we didn't do much winning of note - it was the extracurriculars that made it fun as much as anything. A return trip the next season was not something you took for granted. The 1998 team lost Calderwood early and Okey halfway through and finished with a losing record. Figures, my senior year.

Of course, the 1999 team overachieved and righted the ship, and we're now sporting a 10-year tournament streak, one of the longest in the nation. In a decade's time we've gone from "just happy to be here" to being disappointed by anything less than a Sweet 16 appearance. That's OK, raising the bar is how you achieve more in life. But don't get spoiled, and don't forget to try an Iron City Light along the way.


Will said...

Good post Tappa. I can't believe it's been 11 years since that trip. It's a little jarring to see that on my computer screen. Wish I would have made the trip, but probably at the time I was worried about a Physics for Poets quiz or something real important like that.

I've been lucky (well, perhaps lucky isn't the word) to see the Badgers twice at the NCAA tournament. The first time they put 32 points on the board against Steve Alford's Southwest Missouri State squad. In 2006, I got to see them play Arizona in Philly. As you guys know, the game was pretty much over within the first five minutes.

But at least this year I will be able to see the Louisville dance team live.

Justin said...

Very excellent post. I'm glad that no one had cell phones in those days, since I can only imagine the calls I would have gotten from Olson at 3 in the morning.

And the doll...oh my, the doll. It haunts me still.

olson said...

Great post, Taps. Thanks for taking my call on this one.

Maybe it was seeing Fang and CSU in the play-in game that got me going about that trip. Though, to be honest, the first weekend of the tourney will always remind me of heading to Pittsburgh.

It was one of those purely college things where someone throws it out there and the answer is: "What the heck, let's do it." And now, at a time when I need six weeks notice to go to a movie, it's fun to think about those days again.

A few points of clarification: The freezing rain, which fell from essentially Chicago to the Ohio/PA border was NOT funny. Though I'd forgotten about the outburst (selective memory?), so thanks for the reminder. Good thing our LHS was too boat-like to be taken into the ditch.

The Wisc game itself is just a blur for me, save for two things: Dave Burkemper (starting for Ty?) scoring Bucky's first points (Which I think made it 25-2.). And Brandy Perriman stepping on my hand going for a loose ball when they were up about 25. Man, I hate guys who hustle.

Watching a game from the photographers row on the baseline was very weird. Everything seemed so flat and it made the game hard to follow. But being there when Coppin topped S. Car. was very, very cool.

Thanks again for the post, and go Bucky.

Millie said...

Now that I have two daughters, I'm fairly sure that even I am trying to block out whatever inappropriate comment I made about the Louisville dance team, but I do remember them fondly.

As EO said, it was a purely 21-ish sentiment to throw the idea out there and have it come together. The fact that we roped in Garza with about 2 hours notice was perhaps the best part. He was the perfect guy to add to that trip. He didn't know you guys from Adam (and vice versa), but his versatility makes him an asset in any group setting.

Thanks for the memories.

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