This week, Daily Campus Sports is celebrating both the highs and the lows of invested fandom with a series of personal articles telling the stories of our sports memories. This is Fandom Week.
March Madness is a beautiful thing. In fact, if you ask me, it is the most beautiful thing in all of American sports—better than the Super Bowl, the World Series or the NBA Finals. As much as I am currently reveling in the sports heaven of late October, this magical Yankees postseason run most of all, it simply cannot compare to the sheer joy and infectious chaos of an NCAA tournament.
My love for college basketball, however, came long after my obsession with baseball or football. I grew up cheering for the Yankees and Giants, but was never drawn to college sports. In 2011, that changed in dramatic fashion.
I was in seventh grade. My social studies teacher at the time, Mr. Broderick, was kind of my idol at the time. He was the first teacher who I really saw as a human being, and my friends and I were drawn to his youth, laid-back nature, biting sense of humor and, perhaps above all, love of sports. While he was responsible for teaching U.S. History to us, he really became a de facto member of the group—though he was also quick to reprimand us if we stepped over the line. We would often ditch the cafeteria to eat lunch with him. We lightly teased him like any other student. We even knew the name of his girlfriend (and constantly pressured him into proposing).
Mr. Broderick, who attended UConn not much earlier, kept a huge Huskies banner hanging above his desk. My friends, being devoted UConn fans already, occasionally discussed the results of the men’s team throughout the season, but it wasn’t until the Huskies stunned their conference by winning the Big East Tournament that people really started paying attention.
My friend Jonny suggested that our whole group, Mr. Broderick included, do a bracket pool (for the record, there was no money involved). I had never even filled out a bracket before, let alone paid much attention to March Madness. But I decided to do it, not really expecting to care much about the tourney. I could not have been more wrong.
Just filling out the bracket alone was exhilarating. The idea that 68 teams enter (2011 happened to be the inaugural year of the “First Four” play-in games) and only one remains at the end was fascinating to me. The four days between Selection Sunday and the opening day of the Round of 64—the single best day in all of sports—were spent incessantly discussing upset picks, assessing Final Fours and of course, debating just how far the Huskies could go. I was completely and entirely enthralled and the tournament had not even begun.
Part of what made that experience so special was that rather than using ESPN’s online Tournament Challenge or whatever Yahoo equivalent there may be, we filled out all of our brackets by hand. I remember I kept about three to four printed brackets with me at all times, all identical copies, to compare with whoever was remotely interested. There’s just something about doing brackets by hand and scoring them yourself that makes you feel so much more invested in the tournament. After each round, we would all gather in Mr. Broderick’s classroom and count how many games each person had correctly predicted, assigning larger point values the later the round.
I actually picked UConn to win it all. Having not watched much college basketball all year, I was mostly guessing anyway, so I just figured I’d go with the hometown favorite. In hindsight, that may be the best bracket I’ve ever completed. If you’ve ever been in a bracket pool and your clueless friend won it all despite not knowing a shred about college hoops, that was me in 2011.
If there was ever a year to serve as an introduction to the madness that is the NCAA Tournament, 2011 was a great choice. It was a tourney chock-full of upsets, leaving a Final Four composed of a No. 3 seed, a No. 4 seed, a No. 8 seed and a No. 11 seed. I followed every minute of it.
As is typical, with each successive round I paid less and less attention to my bracket and more and more attention to the tournament itself. As you helplessly watch your bracket spectacularly self-destruct before your eyes, you tend to turn your eyes to the action: the players, the coaches, the emotions of elation and sorrow. In 2011, we collectively turned our eyes to the UConn Huskies.
UConn was a third seed, considered high for a team that had lost nine games during the regular season. The Huskies were hot off a Big East championship, the best conference in the country which ultimately sent a record 11 teams to the tournament. But expectations were tempered, considering the Huskies’ mediocre regular season and the high likelihood they’d have to get past Kyrie Irving-led Duke to reach the Final Four.
The tournament began and with it, one of the most magical runs in UConn basketball history.
Bucknell. Cincinnati. San Diego State. Arizona. The Huskies won, and won and won, and just kept winning. With each game, the excitement and tension built, and with each victory, fantasy inched closer to reality.
In Connecticut, I’ve grown accustomed to dealing with opposing fanbases. My hometown of Ridgefield is a battleground of heated rivalries, especially that of the Yankees and Red Sox, and of the Giants and Patriots (another reason why 2011 was a great year in sports).
But March Madness was different. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was willing on the Huskies. It was a kind of unity in sports that I had only otherwise experienced during the World Cup, and it was both inspiring and thrilling. I found myself rooting for UConn just as passionately as I did the Giants or Yankees. I fell in love with a team, or more generally, a sport, that I had mostly ignored just a few weeks earlier.
UConn was the team we rallied behind, and no player was a greater symbol of that fandom and unity as star point guard Kemba Walker. In the short span from Big East Tournament to the NCAA Tournament final, he went from a little-known player outside of devoted Huskies followers to a household name. I remember chanting his first name with my friends in the hallways the day after a huge win, and even the sports-averse would smile with recognition.
In particular, I’ll never forget his game-winner against Pittsburgh in the Big East quarterfinal. The mismatch, the crossover, the fake drive and of course, the ankle-breaking stepback. I still get chills watching that back today. My classmates and I imitated that move for years to come, calling “Kemba!” each time we did it. Walker became the face of the Huskies, and for me and many others at the time, the face of college basketball, and demonstrated the beauty of a player being immortalized before your eyes on the biggest stage in college hoops.
Before I knew it, the Huskies found themselves in the Final Four. At the time, I didn’t quite realize how huge of an achievement that was. Looking back, though, it didn’t matter; the eagerness and exhilaration all around me was beyond infectious.
Spoiler alert: the UConn Huskies went on to win the national championship. They defeated Kentucky by a single point in the Final Four game and topped Butler in the title game. Kemba Walker was forever enshrined in the history of unbelievable March Madness runs and UConn claimed their third national championship in school history.
Today, the 2011 title game is considered one of the ugliest in tournament history; a defensive battle where neither team could score effectively. But at the time, I couldn’t care less if UConn had won by a score of 2-0; they had actually done it. I watched the confetti rain down on Kemba, Jeremy Lamb, Jim Calhoun and company in a state of pure euphoria.
Sports are a rollercoaster. It often seems that there are more downs than ups. There are times when I realize how much anxiety, pain and devastation I could’ve saved myself if I had never rooted for a team or followed a sport. But the highs of sports – the burst of happiness when your team defeats a heated rival, the nail-biting tension of a close game, the stunned awe after an incredible upset, the unparalleled joy when your team wins the championship – are only great because of those lows.
It sounds corny, but the 2011 NCAA Tournament truly changed my life. That was the moment I became a lifelong fan of college basketball, of the perfect chaos of March Madness and of the UConn Huskies.