Me, My Dad, and March Madness
The NCAA men’s basketball championship is tonight and, although I really don’t have an emotional stake in the outcome, I always get a little pang around this time of year because it reminds me of the torrid 3-year affair I conducted with my first sports love.
My mom and dad both attended Ohio State, and there was never any question about where our sports loyalties resided. I was sort of a chubby, unathletic kid, though, and the sports gene pretty much lay dormant until the winter of 1959 - 60. That year, a once-in-a-lifetime recruiting class became sophomores and eligible to play at Ohio State, including Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell and Bobby Knight. I must have contracted my dad’s enthusiasm, and we started setting aside time on the evenings - Saturday and Tuesday, usually - when they played, and we’d strain our Toledo-area radio’s capability to pull in the Columbus radio station (WTVN) carrying the games.
As this first wondrous season unfolded with victory after victory, we at some point got caught up in scorekeeping. My dad must have seen a bonding opportunity in this virtual sport, an opportunity that hadn’t germinated in the freezing duck blinds and torpid bobber-watching forays he’d previously tried in vain to inure me to, and he made the most of it. He had scoresheets printed (mimeographed - these were the old days) at his office with the hallowed starting five filled in, and blanks for subs, and we assiduously recorded field goals attempted and made, free throws attempted and made, and personal fouls. We’d compare notes at halftime and at the end of games, and compute the shooting percentages for individuals and the teams, and try to do it fast enough to compare ours with the post-game wrap-up on the radio.
We also filled in the opponent’s ledger, and tracked vaunted enemies like Terry Dischinger (Purdue), the Van Arsdale Twins (Indiana) and their wonderfully-monickered coach Branch McCracken, and of course the hated Bill Buntin and Cazzie Russell of Michigan.
We were aided greatly in this endeavor by undoubtedly the most egregious homer announcer I’ve ever heard, a guy named Joe Hill. His call was so precise that it was amazing how close our radio-informed statistics would track the official numbers. And, an added bonus, Hill would really scourge the refs if he felt we were being jobbed, and, for the first time in my life, I tasted the seething vintages of the sports fan’s hatreds.
The Buckeyes won the national championship that year that Lucas and Havlicek were sophomores, and went on to post a 73-6 record over the three years those guys played. They were beaten, however, in each of the next two national championship games by Cincinnati. I honestly think I lost my religion the Sunday morning after the second Cinci loss. Sitting in church with my eyes closed but nonetheless blinded by the Blade’s “CINCI WINS!” headline emblazoned in Hiroshima-sized type on my retinas, I finally knew the universe for the cold and brutal place that it is.
Ohio State had a couple of good years after that with Gary Bradds, another all-American, at center, but, for me, bra sizes began to replace field-goal percentages as my stat-du-jour, my dad began to suffer stress from occupational angst and personal demons, and our period of Buckeye bonding dissipated.
Still, we had it, that period of delirious sports lust, and its corollary, the searing heartache of defeat and entitlement forfeited. Good fortune, time and mobility allowed my dad and I to enjoy each other’s company until he died last fall, and I’ve had satisfying adult relationships with other sports teams, but I always feel a little nostalgia during March Madness for those nights by the radio, brow furrowed and pencil poised, urging Big Luke to sink another of his soft hooks.
(Pictures from The Golden Age of Ohio State Basketball by Lee Caryer)
Bonus shot - Basketball cognoscenti familiar with the scowling, silver-haired visage of Bobby Knight might get a kick out of the shot below, taken at the Cow Palace after the 1960 national championship game: