March Madness

A few weeks ago I came home to find my husband working intensely on the computer. I knew he was behind on a few projects that he was having trouble focusing on, so I was glad to see him so locked in.

“Hi! Are you working on the Treasurer’s Report? Or maps for our trip?”

“Nope,” he mumbled, barely looking up, “my bracket.”

Oh, geez, I thought. It’s here again – the NCAA tournament, arguably my husband’s happiest time of year. My usual mild annoyance with the upcoming prospect of 3 straight weeks of nonstop basketball turned to abject terror as I realized I would no longer have the job or the office as my quiet space. With the lucky exception of a silent retreat weekend I booked for myself and a mens retreat he booked for himself, this year I would be living full-time in the thick of March Madness. And what I subsequently witnessed really was a curious form of madness.

My husband's 2014 NCAA bracket

My husband’s 2014 NCAA bracket

Over the next few days my husband consulted websites and churned out spreadsheets and schedules and brackets, placing his annual wager with his brother, with the intensity ratcheted higher by the addition of the Warren Buffet $1 Billion Bracket Challenge.

And then the tournament began. There are something like 46 games played the first few days. I am pretty sure my husband watched most of them. Sometimes he watched one on the TV, another on the computer, another on his iPad. When I walked by the bathroom, I heard a game on an iPhone through the door.

The farther his favorite team (UCLA) advanced in the tournament, the more emotional he became.  After UCLA won their first game against Tulsa, my husband immediately began talking about the Bruins winning the national title, which usually made him misty-eyed just thinking about it. It seemed that several teams from the Pac-12 (his favorite conference) went farther than expected. It was shaping up to be a magnificent tournament!

In order to pace myself, I usually don’t pay much attention until the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight rounds. I enjoy watching a game or two at a time, but not 34. So, when I was home, I spent most of the first week quarantined in the den with plenty of reading material while my husband sat transfixed by the TV. From the other room, I would hear yelling (presumably at the refs or players) or hooting and hollering (probably at a great shot or block or play). It actually made me smile to be witness to this odd form of insane joy. It was rather touching to see my husband so enthralled – like my son used to be with Pokemon or Power Rangers.

I have seen statistics, which in the past I assumed were overblown, demonstrating a downturn in workplace productivity during March Madness. I never paid them much attention since I was apparently part of the minority actually working non-distractedly during the tournament. After personally living the full March Madness effect, however, I can now totally agree that it impairs concentration on non-basketball activities.

For 3 weeks, during meals, car rides, walks, most of our conversation revolved around the tournament. My husband would randomly blurt out his latest thoughts on UCLA, scouting reports on players and match-ups with other teams, bad calls by the refs, etc.   He was obsessed.

UCLA won their first two rounds and the team was then set to play the overall #1 seed, Florida, in the Sweet Sixteen round. My husband was certain UCLA would win and approached the game like a four-year-old heading to Disneyland, barely able to contain himself. San Diego State (my home-town team) also made the Sweet Sixteen, playing Arizona, so I decided to really start watching and rooting in earnest for these two teams (although my husband informed me the SDSU Aztecs were dead to him since they were playing Arizona from the Pac-12).

And then the madness ended as quickly and abruptly as it began. At the end of the night, my poor husband sat dejected and heartbroken after Florida beat UCLA. And following the next round, there were no more Pac-12 teams left. At the conclusion of the UCLA game, he solemnly declared that his heart was no longer in the tournament, and there was no further reason for him to watch.

We did, of course, watch the rest of the tournament, somewhat somberly (still grieving for UCLA) but with reverence for the survivors. I now feel that I have been properly inculcated into the full March Madness experience. I marvel at the level of fan intensity and have a heightened respect for the emotions provoked by this tournament. The “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” is a gross understatement. But you know what? There’s something oddly appealing about this madness. Maybe next year, I’ll fill out a bracket.

The Basketball Tripleheader: My Life as a Groupie

I think I’m becoming a Navy sports groupie.  Perhaps I need to “get a life.”  But in the meantime, a highlight of my last trip to Annapolis was a full-day Navy basketball triple header.   We started the day at 9:00 AM, watching the Navy JV basketball team (of which our son is a member) play the NAPS (Naval Academy Preparatory School) team.  Then the Army-Navy basketball doubleheader kicked off in Alumni Hall with the varsity women’s game at 1:30 PM and the varsity men’s at 4:00 PM.

Our son’s game was in the old Halsey Field House gym where my husband used to play when he was a midshipmen. It was a rather unremarkable game, other than the fact that my son got a Charlie horse on each leg and hurt his foot when someone stepped on it. But just being back in a gym watching my son play basketball was pure gold.

After lunch we moved over to glittering Alumni Hall for the Army-Navy games.  For the uninitiated, it must be understood that a primary goal of the U.S. Naval Academy (“Navy”) is to beat the U.S. Military Academy (“Army”) at everything and anything they can.  Likewise, a primary goal of Army is to beat Navy at everything and anything they can.  At times that seems a larger mutual objective than preparing for any foreign enemy. When Navy plays Army in any sport, emotions run at a fever pitch, and a carnival atmosphere results.  It is impossible not to be swept up in the spirit of the Army cadets and Navy midshipmen.

There were so many enjoyable things about the day.  First, I love watching the level to which women’s sports have risen. Having parented only boys, I’ve watched only men’s games for years. Title IX has certainly changed the complexion of the sporting world.  At my high school, the big sports for girls were swimming and softball and I don’t recall the teams given much priority.   Although I’m sure it happened, I don’t remember girls winning athletic college scholarships. It was not particularly cool to be a female “jock” in high school.  I felt my heart swell with pride watching the Navy women play basketball. They are strong and skilled yet still feminine.  Off the court, they are studying science and engineering at one of the most rigorous technical universities in the country. They give me hope!

CDR Becky Calder after her jersey was retired at USNA (photo US Naval Academy)

CDR Becky Calder after her jersey was retired at USNA (photo US Naval Academy)

The halftime entertainment was a group of precision jump-roping elementary and middle school girls called the “Firecrackers.”  They were unbelievably proficient in their tumbling and rope-skipping routines, bringing the midshipmen to their feet with applause. Also at halftime, the Naval Academy Athletic Association retired the first jersey of a woman basketball player, Cdr. Becky Calder (formerly Dowling), a member of the USNA Class of 1998.  As I listened to her biography, I was impressed with her accomplishments on the basketball court.  She was credited with sparking the first successful era for the Navy women’s basketball program at the Division I level. Her class’s four-year total 80 victories set a school record at the time and helped the Navy women win their first Patriot League regular season title. 
Individually, Dowling was selected as the Patriot League’s “Rookie of the Year” in addition to a trio of all-league accolades. She still ranks among Navy’s top 10 career leaders in 15 statistical categories, including 1st in rebounds, rebounding average, steals and minutes played, while also standing 6th in points scored.  Even more so, I was impressed with her accomplishments after graduation from the Naval Academy. Dowling attended flight school and trained to fly the F/A-18 Super Hornet. She became the first female pilot to graduate from Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, more commonly called TOPGUN. Dowling was an active duty pilot for 14 years, serving aboard aircraft carriers during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.  When interviewed after the game, Becky said “I’m extremely humbled to be the first player in program history to have my jersey retired. I’m proud, but what makes me most happy is knowing that I won’t be the last.” I loved that the current Navy women’s team stayed court side during the half-time ceremony, and the look of inspiration on their face was priceless. Way to keep chipping away at that glass ceiling!

After halftime, the Navy women went on to beat Army by 10.  I noticed during the women’s game, many of the male players came out of the locker rooms to cheer on the women.  The tradition after an Army-Navy game is for each team’s alma mater to be played, the winning team’s last.  Both teams (and cadets and midshipmen in attendance) stand at attention for each other’s alma mater, but Army ends theirs with “Beat Navy!” and Navy ends theirs with “Beat Army!”  It is inspiring to watch young people from both academies show their mutual respect to each other and to their rivalry.  (Note that nobody yells “Beat Air Force!” which really gets under the “Zoomies’” skin; in fact, I once saw a bumper sticker that said “Go Navy!  Beat Army!  Air Force is irrelevant.”)

Then it was announced that between basketball games, members of the Navy football team would be in Alumni Hall signing autographs.  I was beside myself.  I bolted from my seat to search out my favorite Navy players.  Mainly I wanted to see Keenan Reynolds (QB) and Nick Sloan (PK).  Although I tried not to be TOO obvious, I have what I can only describe as a “Mom-Crush” on these two players; meaning I wish I could be their second mom.  It is totally irrational, but through three seasons of attending most Navy football home games, and following the ups and downs of the team and individual players, I found myself bonding from afar with these young men. I feel an odd kinship and pride in them like they were my own sons. Reynolds, because we’ve watched him play out the all-American success story – thrust into a big game as a freshman to relieve an injured (and ineffective) starting quarterback and leading his team to victory and who is on his way to becoming one of the most successful QBs in Navy history.  Sloan, the kicker, because he’s from San Diego and I admire how he kept his composure this past season to achieve success following crushing failures.

Tip off at the Navy Men's Basketball Game

Tip off at the Navy Men’s Basketball Game

I walked (suppressing the urge to run) over and found a very long table with my favorite Navy players, Keenan at the end.   I realized that (1) in my haste I didn’t bring anything for them to sign; and (2) most of the people getting autographs were under 10 years old and 5 feet tall.  So, I coolly walked down the table and stared at all of the guys.  I’m sure if any of them had looked at me, I would have creeped them out.   Then I stationed myself near Keenan at the end of the table and just stared at him for a while.  After about 10 minutes of staring, I decided to take action.  I approached Nick Sloan, said something lame about being from San Diego and complimented him on “hanging in there” and shook his hand. To his credit, he acted like he thought me being from San Diego was interesting and introduced me to the guy next to him who he said was also from San Diego and who played my high school in football.  My courage up, I went back to Keenan and waited for my opportunity.  When a break in the young autograph-seekers occurred, I shoved my hand in his face, asked if I could shake his hand, congratulated him on a great season and asked him how his eyes were. (In their Bowl game, a horrid player on the other team was caught on camera trying to poke Keenan’s eyes after a tackle.  In my role as second mom, I’ve been worrying about his eyes ever since.)  He shook my hand and said, in response to my question about his eyes, “They’re fine, ma’am.”

Reggie Miller joins the sportscasting team for coverage of the men's game

Reggie Miller joins the sportscasting team for coverage of the men’s game

Then I went back to my seat and watched Army beat Navy by five points in the men’s basketball game.  But not before Reggie Miller (former UCLA basketball star) showed up to do the play-by-play and sit less than 20 yards in front of me. The “Firecrackers” put on another spectacular halftime show, again bringing the midshipmen to their feet. At the end of the game, the Army alma mater played last, but it was still a great Navy day.  It was the kind of day I have almost come to expect when visiting the Academy, where I am surprised and delighted and inspired by the talent and character of the young people I am exposed to.    And I am never washing my right hand again.