I do not love college basketball. If I watch three games in the course of a season, I am above my average. I do, however, love March Madness. I love it because it is madness. It is real and raw. I understand that CBS and the other networks dramatize everything, but they don’t really have to. The drama is there…on the court. Every year, the mighty falls and some upstart discovers the glass slipper fits…until it is shattered, usually in the second round, but sometimes in the third.
Building blocks are cinder
In March 1983, we lived in a cinderblock box roughly the size of my living room and kitchen area today. It had a tiny bedroom, a tinier bath, the tiniest kitchenette, and a living room. It was a first-floor apartment in a three-story complex known as “the married dorms” on the campus of Baptist Bible College, Springfield, Missouri. With a two-year-old and another on the way, things were tight and times were tough.
We arrived in Springfield in September of 1982 in one-half of a yellow Ryder truck. Ryder. Not U-Haul. Ryder was cheaper. Everything we owned in the world was crammed into the front half of the cargo space. Best friends Keith and Debbie Day shoved all they owned into the back half of it. We were off to see what those college professors and visiting preachers could tell us about winning the world for Jesus.
I signed up for 17 college hours that Fall and then 18 in the Spring semester. I landed a job making $3.50 per hour, assembling knife blocks, cutting boards, and cheese-slicers at the Vermillion Walnut Company. A typical school day consisted of classes from 7:30 AM to 12 or 1 PM, a quick lunch in the cinder block palace, an hour or so in the college library, and a second shift, 3:30PM – 12:30 AM, at Vermillion.
I drove a 1969 blue Plymouth Satellite. It had 383 cubic inches of raw power under the hood, but you had to prime the carburetor just right to fire it up. It was a gas-guzzlin’, oil-slingin’, hunk o’ hunk o’ rubber-burnin’ love. That sucker would flat get it but when you got it over 80, it had a shake to it and it walked all over the road like it was inebriated.
I am sure life on the Baptist Bible College campus wasn’t like that for everyone, but it was for us. It was a grind and it was glorious. It was the equivalent of walking uphill both ways to school…in knee-deep snow…with holes in the soles of your shoes…and no coat.
You know, the way our parents did.
Phi Slamma Jamma was my jam
In that cinder block cubicle we called home, sitting on a three-shelf bookcase was the escape I seldom had the time to take. A 27” color TV, too new and too nice for its surroundings, but looking the part with its tin foil-wrapped rabbit ears, beckoned me find a moment here and there to get away to some other realm, where you didn’t work from can-to-can’t and didn’t have to hock your 16-gauge shotgun to buy groceries.
That Spring, there was a new phrase on every American sports lover’s tongue. Despite the fact that cell phones, the Internet, laptops, Social Media, and even cable TV (for most of us) were years – and in some cases – decades away, everyone knew the “fraternity” dubbed Phi Slamma Jamma. Water coolers, breakrooms, and college campuses were all abuzz about the high-flying, Globetrotter-like acrobats comprising the University of Houston men’s basketball team. They had names like “Hakeem the Dream” and “Clyde the Glide.” They soared, they sailed, they scored at will. They were surely destined to be crowned tournament champions and, come Hell or high water, I was going to watch their march through March and see them crowned champions. Knife blocks and midterms be damned.
Houston’s march through the tournament was epic. In the semi-finals, they met the second-most athletic team in that year’s contest, the Louisvile Cardinals. Louisville featured the McCray brothers, Rodney and Scooter, and Billy Thompson. They were greyhounds, built to run. They were eagles, designed to soar, those Cardinals. But, in the end, they were no match for Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Benny Anders. Phi Slamma Jamma.
Heartbreak has its reasons
The biggest hurdle behind them, all Phi Slamma Jamma had to do was dispense with the underdog North Carolina State team in the finals and celebrate their place in history. Of course, history had its own pen and wrote itself differently. In one of the most celebrated last-second winning buckets in the history of the game at any level, Coach Jimmy Valvano’s Wolfpack stole the crown that was meant for the Cougars.
I was distraught. How could that happen?
A decade later, the vibrant Valvano died of cancer and I decided it was a good thing that he managed one of the great upsets in the annals of March Madness. His brilliant life was all the more celebrated because of it. He was mortal but his voice immortal and that night he broke our hearts is a big reason he lives in them today.
I have lived a lot and learned a little, too, in the madness of March through the years. That same Spring, while more fortunate students and gifted athletes, dreamed of glory, while the drama of their pursuits played out before the world, we spent one harrowing night huddled in the basement of the girls’ dorm while a dozen tornadoes touched down in and around Springfield, Missouri.
Life was like that down there in the trenches of seminary, where you juggled a growing family with the attending expenses and worries with school and a job.
Life goes on
I look back on the incredible – and sometimes impossible – odds we faced and can see the struggle for what it was. But when I was in it, it was just life and we were living it for all it was worth. I had my own visions of glory and grandeur and they had nothing to do with tournament brackets.
Fast-forward nine years and a million miles of grueling travel on the hard road of life.
In 1992, Chris Webber, Ray Jackson, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, and Jimmy King were freshmen at the University of Michigan. They were also known by then as The Fab Five. They led Wolverine’s basketball on a march to glory. They were barely-out-of-high school kids playing like grown men and capturing the imagination of the nation. Like Houston nearly a decade before, however, they fell one win short of a championship, losing to a senior-laden Duke team.
They were daring and dashing and bold and talented and fun to watch. They were also another example of how life has its own ideas about things and making sure the “right” team wins isn’t always on its mind.
I was not the fan of the Fab Five that I was of Phi Slamma Jamma, but you can bet I was along for the tumultuous and, ultimately, bitterly disappointing ride. By then, I was months into my second pastorate and a year into dealing with the premature and untimely death of my father.
On March 20, 1991, Dad turned 51. On March 28, 1991, he died of a massive heart attack.
March, like life, has always had its madness. It has delivered the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It has broken hearts and given hope.
Just this past Saturday, my Texas Longhorns, a three seed, played its opening game against fourteen-seed Abilene Christian University, a team that had one previous tournament appearance and no wins. I was looking past that game to UCLA and then maybe two seed Alabama, the team many of my friends cheer. It promised to be a fun time of friendly jabs and trash-talking if each of our teams would do their part to get there.
We forgot to tell those boys from Abilene – where I was born, by the way – the plan. They had their own ideas. Texas lost…to Abilene! Yes, it was just about that epic, too. It was like the rest of the whole damn state losing to a windblown West Texas burg. It was the very definition of “upset.”Once more, March was Madness.
So is life. And it goes on.
Besides almost unfathomable upsets like Abilene Christian pulled off, one of the best things about the NCAA Tourney and March Madness is its penchant for delivering down-to-the-wire nail-biters and fantastic finishes. It is often nerve-wracking. It’s a white-knuckle ride to the other side, where anything can happen and usually does.
So is life. Finish strong!