If only I could remember what I felt like waking up on Saturday, March 9, 1974 but I can’t. Way too long ago.
I do know I was a senior in college and I know I had to be excited out of my 21-year-old mind. N.C. State, en route to its first national title, was playing Maryland that night in the finals of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, and, by golly, I was going.
Not only was I going, I was set to sit courtside to watch such Titans as David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe for State and Tom McMillen, John Lucas and Len Elmore for Maryland go at it with it all on the line.
It wasn’t really fair that I was going and sitting courtside. But the ingenuously named Chapel Hill Newspaper, the paper I was working for, had only two full-time writers, Ladd Baucom and Mark Whicker. And it so happens that while the CHN was an afternoon paper five afternoons a week, our Sunday edition came out in the morning.
And as such, somebody who knew far more than me had to stay behind and edit the copy, write the headlines and probably paste the type up on the dummies. Whicker, who had attended the first two days, knew how to do it. I didn’t.
The shame of it all is that Mark — the guy whose seat I took – is one of the best sportswriters I’ve ever known, a fast friend from Reidsville who went on to make a real name for himself with the Winston-Salem Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Orange County Register and his current gig with the LA Daily News/LA News Group.
But if Mark couldn’t be there, then somebody had to.
So it just so happens that the first game I ever saw at the ACC Tournament turned out to be what is universally considered the greatest game in ACC history. N.C. State was ranked No. 1 in the country, having won 32 straight conference games. Maryland was ranked No. 5.
But only one would advance to the NCAA Tournament in a day that only one team from a conference received a bid. The Pack of those days always figured out a way to win, as they did that night by outlasting the Terps 103-100 in overtime.
For the next 42 years I attended the ACC Tournament hoping to see something that good again. I followed My Elusive Dream, as the song goes, from Greensboro to Landover back to Greensboro back to Landover to Atlanta back to Greensboro back to Atlanta back to Greensboro back to Landover back to Greensboro back to Atlanta to Charlotte back to Greensboro back to Charlotte back to Atlanta back to Charlotte back to Greensboro to Washington back to Greensboro to, of all places, Tampa back to Charlotte back to Atlanta back to Greensboro back to Atlanta back to Greensboro and back to Washington.
I saw some unforgettable games while chasing that dream, the most memorable to me being Randolph Childress’ legendary performance while leading Wake past arch-rival North Carolina in 1995 to the Deacons’ first conference title in 33 years.
But for all the miles I traveled and all the thousands, if not millions, of words I wrote, I never saw a game to match my first. And by the time the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1975 to include more than one team from a conference I realized I probably never would.
When the tournament moved to Brooklyn last season, I had been chasing that dream long enough. Old, worn down and still recovering from shoulder surgery, I passed.
What I realized while missing my first tournament since 1974 was that I really didn’t miss it all that much. Yeah I missed hanging out with so many good friends, particularly the all-night hell-raising sessions in the beer-drenched hospitality rooms. I missed the excitement of championship Saturday night or Sunday and I missed the dove bars and free sodas and popcorn.
But today it’s just different. I promised myself when I retired I would not be an old curmudgeon grousing about how nothing today is as good as it was back in “my time,’’ but there are some days it’s harder to keep that promise than others.
Today I’m happy to be watching from the comfort of my hacienda, drinking my own adult beverages and texting with friends all around the country – some of them on site in Brooklyn.
Here’s hoping you’ll hang out at least part of the week with me, and lend me your thoughts on the proceedings. I did this last year while still with the Winston-Salem Journal, and had a blast.
I’ll be paying particular attention, of course, to tonight’s game between Wake and Syracuse. I’ll be curious if the Deacons make it to Brooklyn in spirit as well as body, but they look for all the world like a team that packed it in weeks ago.
Predictions were never my thing as a working sportswriter (I know, I know, contradiction of terms), but I was coerced into coming up with one before the 2012. That’s the year I picked Florida State and even wrote a song about it that I posted on my original blog My Take on Wake.
The Seminoles, sure enough, roared to their first title and when word of my prediction made its way to the FSU fan base, I swear for a week there I could have been elected mayor of Tallahassee. Of course that would have require relocating to Tallahassee.
So what the hell? I might as well dip my quill once again in the ink of prognostication just for fun. And what fun is it to pick Virginia or Duke, the two favorites? Personally I’m picking State to knock off Clemson and then lose to Virginia in one side of the bracket and Miami upending Duke in the other.
And just for smiles, I’m picking Miami to win it all with Chris Lykes, the 5-7 freshman pepper pot, being named Most Outstanding Player.
In case you’re wondering, I expect Wake to be headed home tomorrow after losing to the Cuse tonight.
But that’s just my two-cents worth and I’d love to hear yours.
Let’s do this thing. Tip off in 10 minutes.