I have spent the past several day in front of the television, and the next couple of weeks should bring more of the same. The Atlantic Coast Conference began on Thursday, with the championship game played this afternoon (this morning for me, on the West coast). Now begins the NCAA championship, winnowing an exceptional field of 64 teams down to a single national champion.
I am a graduate of Duke University, and we Blue Devils take basketball very seriously. I’m also the daughter of a jock, so it’s doubly ingrained. March Madness is a sacred time of year.
When I was applying to colleges, I submitted only three applications: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University, and the University of Virginia. Finances were tight, so I offered to go to UVA as an in-state student, but my parents wouldn’t hear it. Even with partial scholarship, MIT was the most expensive option, so we compromised on Duke, which turned out to be a very good fit. There was some concern about ACC rivalries — pretty much everyone in my father’s family has been a Virginia Cavalier at one time or another — but my Blue Devil transgression was forgiven in that we had a common rival: the Tar Heels (University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill).
Growing up, I’d thought that the rivalry between UNC and UVA was strong, but it’s nothing compared to the friendly tension between UNC and Duke. Maybe it’s because the schools are just 15 miles apart on Route 15-501. Maybe it’s because both schools wear the color blue (make no mistake: there is a big difference between Carolina Blue and Duke Blue). Maybe it’s because UNC has a goat as a mascot. But it’s a very healthy rivalry that pushes both teams, especially in what my father calls “roundball.”
But what happened to UNC during the ACC tournament? Ranked number one in the conference going into the tournament, they very nearly fell to Clemson in the quarter finals (what was that about?), then narrowly lost to Georgia Tech in the semifinal game. But the second-ranked team, Wake Forest (of which my step-brother is a recent grad), didn’t make it out of the quarter finals at all. It was a weird tournament. Despite not having a deep bench this season, Duke pulled through the tournament to win the championship game.
They have announced the four regional brackets for the NCAA tournament, beginning on Tuesday. Duke has moved up to a number 1 seed in the Austin region. It’s time for me to print out the brackets and tack the paper on the wall for easy reference.
But what March Madness comes down to for me is missing my father. My father is more of a college basketball fanatic than I am. When Virginia won the ACC tournament years ago, my parents ran outside and painted the driveway Cavalier orange. My father still buys season tickets every year, driving to Charlottesville for the home games and even traveling to see away games from time to time. While I never went to a Duke game while I was a student — there were very few seats available, and I didn’t want to cut class to camp out — I always followed the games on the TV in my dorm’s commons room.
The last few years I was living in Richmond, Dad and I fell into a kind of rhythm as the NCAA tournament got under way. The early games we might watch independently, checking in with each other on the telephone from time to time, but as the “Sweet Sixteen” teams began to play each other, I’d show up at his house with a mass of chicken wings (Dad’s favorite) and would watch games late into the night.
But now we’re 3,000 miles apart. This year, I’m watching basketball alone.
Dad and I touched base a few times during the regular season, and again during the ACC tournament. We were both excited that Virginia made it out of the first round, only to lose to Duke in the quarter finals. Then there was the shocking loss of my step-brother’s Demon Deacons. On our wireless phones, we tried to figure out what had happened to the Tar Heels, when Dockery might rejoin the Duke bench after his injury, and what teams might end up in the NIT instead of the NCAA circus.
With the NCAA tournament starting this week, I’ll have to start a new, solo tradition. I doubt there will be chicken wings involved, but I have high hopes for homemade humus and herb bread, with the occasional pizza or Chinese delivery making an appearance. And I anticipate a few calls on the wireless phone back to Richmond.