Monday, March 15, 2010

March Madness, or The Day Kentucky Basketball Crushed My Grandfather

In a daylight-savings time induced daze this morning, I heard the ESPN announcers mention that Kentucky was a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.  This news transported me back in time to relive another Grandpa Al story.

Since the mid-eighties, my grandfather and father would attend an NCAA Tournament "Club" event.  This club was for "members" (Ah, the inanities of state laws and loopholes to get around them) to pay a 100-150 dollar fee for two banquets and a pick of one the 64 teams entered in the tourney.  The first banquet was to select the teams, the second to award the payouts.  My grandfather was always excited for the first and soured for the second, as he never won anything.

The format was to draw a  name and let that person draw a number(a double-randomization to avoid accusations of fixing the picks), and then have them choose their teams based on that numerical order.  If this sounds time consuming in concept, it was nothing compared to the execution.  I replaced my father for the last few events and it was interminable, most especially so by the increasingly advanced age of most of the members. 

The person with the winning team was awarded a nice payout, and those whose teams advanced to the "Sweet Sixteen" and beyond got prizes as well. There were all sorts of side prizes to keep things interesting for those who hadn't gotten a top-10 pick. These were things like  worst blowout loss, lowest seed to win a game, highest total score in a game. So there were chances to win at least some money.  It just that, in 20 plus years, my grandfather never did.  He generally had middling picks but still had plenty of those tantalizingly close calls, always one bounce away from finally recouping some money. To add insult to injury, my father has won the big prize three times.  

All this brings us to 2004, and the old man's best chance at winning. Al's name was called and he slowly toddled up to podium to make his pick.  When he pulled the number 2, the room exploded with applause.  This was unusual as people tended to jeer good picks going off the board, but people generally loved my grandfather, and he was the oldest guy in the room at that point.  Al was basking in it, smiling and waving in manner of a presidential candidate at a national convention.  He was practical clicking his heels together by the time he got back to the table, and his happiness overcame my rotten draw of number 48.  He said "You got that phone, Buddy? We gotta' call that sonofabitch!".    So we called my father and the old man crowed about finally having a decent pick. 

My grandfather was hoping desperately to get UConn, but needed a back-up plan as, this being the heart of UConn territory, the Huskies are usually the first pick in any season where they're contenders.  Naturally, he turned to his hapless grandson for advice.   He said " I hope I get UConn, man!  But what I do if don't?  Duke? Kentucky? St. Joe's?"  
Puffed up with faux-expertise, I replied with "You hate Duke and I don't think they're that good this year anyway.  St. Joe's is a nice story but they're probably going to get picked off early. Kentucky looks solid this year and I think they can win the thing.".  Once the draft started, UConn was immediately taken.  Al grumbled something like "That Bastard" and decided to follow my advice (one of the rare instances of a family member to do so), shouting "Ken-Tuck-Eee!".  Despite not getting Connecticut and losing his chance to root for his favorite team while listening on a transistor radio, he left the banquet giddy with the prospect of taking home the big prize.

His joy lasted exactly four days, when Kentucky was knocked off in a one-point upset to UAB.   I called his house as soon as I got the final score to offer my condolences.  He must have expected me, because before I could get out the customary "Hey, Man!", he answered with an exasperated groan, "Aw Buddy, I GOT BEAT!  Number 2 and not even a dime".  Then he laughed about his rotten luck and jokingly(maybe) blamed me for it, saying "I knew I shoulda' taken Duke! Goddamnit!".

And of  course, UConn won the whole thing, Duke made the Final Four, St. Joe's the Sweet Sixteen, and the fool who advised the pick took home $150 for guessing the final score of the championship game.

Poor Al.


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