MIDWEST MISERY By Adam Hirschfeld
It finally happened. I know. I was there.
After some ungodly number of years and even greater number of heartbreaks, close calls, and near misses American University is in the NCAA Tournament.
Surprisingly, my flight home the next day was not delayed by the presence of winged swine in the atmosphere.
If you’ve never followed a team that was seemingly jinxed, then you cannot know what it feels like when that team finally breaks through. A euphoria that is part runner’s high, part scoring a date (or simply scoring) with the prom queen, and part loss of an old friend washes over you. You feel as though your eyes deceive you, but your brain tells you otherwise.
I felt it nearly 14 years ago when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup. I was there too.
It feels pretty terrific.
Last Friday was a rather interesting day. I returned to the AU campus for only the second time since I graduated in 1999. I strolled on from the Massachusetts Avenue side down into the tunnel for a pre-game pep rally. Despite the fact that the school was practically a ghost town, closed for spring break, a fair amount of students and others gathered to psyche themselves up for the big game.
If you ever want to feel old, stand in the middle of a collegiate pep rally at your alma mater clutching a gift for your toddler in one hand while checking your Blackberry for work e-mails with the other.
I met up with Matt H. on campus (he scored me a most excellent seat) and we met up with his brother-in-law at some restaurant that used to be Quigley’s. Apparently, Quigley’s was a popular bar near campus while I was at AU. I must have never been because I had to follow him. In my defense, I spent my sophomore through senior years under the distinct impression that the school had partnered with the District of Columbia to close down any bars within stumbling distance of campus. I still shed a tear when I walk past what used to be Maggie’s in Tenleytown.
Matt D. joined us at “No Longer Quigley’s.” Although I hadn’t seen him in three years, there was a time when he and I were as close as I have ever been with a person. In fact, if I think about it, Matt D. probably saved my freshman year of college from being completely miserable.
We had seats in the third row, seated behind AU great Kermit Washington and Seven Other AU Alumni Who Did Not Amount to Much as Professional Basketball Players. Kermit and the SOAAWDNAMPBP spent most of the game analyzing the defects in each team’s strategy and otherwise not cheering as much as myself and the two Matts. I wonder if Kermit would have been more likely to stand up had Rudy Tomjanovich attended Colgate.
Colgate is an excellent school, infinitely better academically than AU, and also the alma mater of approximately 7,000 people with whom I work. I have it on solid info that a number of them watched the game from my company’s board room.
Anyway, the game itself was mostly excruciating. The teams played sloppily, the officials missed countless calls and made countless more incorrect ones, and for the better part of 40 minutes, it looked like my school was going home a loser and this was going to be a sappy column about how wonderful it was spending the day with two old friends whom I rarely see face-to-face anymore.
But something strange happened down the stretch. AU made every single important play. Jordan Nichols scored a bucket, grabbed a board, and blocked a shot. As I clutched a Matt in each hand like the New York Giants in the “Wide Right” game, Derrick Mercer and Brian Gilmore each hit a pair of free throws. And with 2.9 seconds left, when Gilmore was fouled after a jump ball, something occurred to me. We could not possibly lose this game. This was really happening. The euphoria started setting in.
More than a decade ago, I did not charge the basketball court when the American University women’s basketball team upset then 7th ranked Virginia in Bender Arena. I was keeping statistics for the AU Athletic Department; jumping over the scorer’s table and onto the court would have been taboo. Heck, doing so also would have violated the unofficial code of the sports media (a group in which I was desperately trying to become a member at that time): there is no cheering in the press box. When Tora Suber’s shot at the buzzer fell short, my butt remained glued to my seat.
This time, however, I had no such moral restriction. When that buzzer sounded, I raced to the center of the court and joined the throbbing mass of Eagles fans as we all jumped up and down in celebration.
When I escaped the pile of humanity, I stared at the scoreboard, briefly considering what to do next. After all, mine is a school that will never win the NCAA Tournament. I had seen the most important game AU would ever win. After 14 years of following the team as my own, road trips throughout the Mid-Atlantic, the Ohio State debacle, Steven Miles, Holy Cross, Jose Olivierio, and so many disappointments, AU finally did it. I was finally free to pay only passing attention to the future trials and tribulations of my alma mater. It was like graduation day all over again.
Only I didn’t graduate for too long. Not three seconds after it was revealed that AU would be playing Tennessee in Alabama, I got a call from my old roommate and broadcast partner Scott. Apparently, Birmingham is in driving distance from Atlanta. We had been talking about going to the NCAA Tournament when and if AU made it for the better part of a decade.
What can I say? I’ll be in Alabama this Friday. And I’ll be ready to hit the court just in case.