In August or September, it would still be madness.
What else would you call a picturesque six-hour drive Thursday afternoon from wonderful Vineland, N.J. to slightly-more-wonderful Pittsburgh, Pa., alone with my thoughts and an iPod full of songs I’ll be sick of by Harrisburg?
(Note: I’m in Vineland to coach Loyola’s club ice hockey team in the National Championships. I am compensated for this role by the school, though not nearly enough to change the tone of this essay.)
I’m making that trip — and returning the next morning in time for a Friday evening hockey game — because when I arrive on the banks of the Three Rivers, a ticket will be waiting to see my alma mater, the Loyola Greyhounds, play in the NCAA basketball tournament.
For generations of alumni, it’s harder to believe that last sentence than the lengths to which many, myself included, will go in order to be a part of it.
At the very worst, what I’m doing Thursday is financially irresponsible and a waste of time. At best, it will be a memorable waste of time. I’m 23. If it doesn’t seem like an ounce of reason went into my plans — I still have nowhere to stay in Pittsburgh — that’s because it didn’t.
The tournament, and all that goes with it, defies logic. Unseen powers collaborate and anoint a darling or two that, after the fact, seem obvious for their skill, talent, and experience. But as it's happening, those teams — recently Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason, and to reach back a bit, Richmond and Princeton — seem to subsist solely on the belief that when they need it most, a little more magic is left in the coach’s jacket pocket.
I’m not naïve enough to think that will be Loyola’s fate this month, though I’d be thrilled if it were. For starters, the way Jimmy Patsos sweats, any magic dust in his pocket would likely turn to goop by the first media time-out.
Even if the magic eludes Loyola on the court Thursday, the game of musical chairs that is the regular season has ended. As the music played, powerhouses like Duke, Kentucky, and Syracuse never got up. When the music stopped, their spot was guaranteed.
But of all the little guys, no-hopers, and after-thoughts that scrambled for one of the few chairs they were entitled to, Loyola — my school — got one, and the week since has been unthinkably fun.
After Monday’s MAAC Championship win over Fairfield, the ramifications of the game were hard to process. The week leading up to Selection Sunday was just as Loyola Athletic Director Jim Paquette described them to me in October 2010 when, for a class, I interviewed him about the impact basketball could have on our school.
“There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, like knowing your name is going to be called on that Sunday,” he told me. “That’s the best feeling, and for a school like us, we’d have that whole week of buildup knowing that we’re in the tournament.”
He was right.
As I watched the selection show, I sprung forward every time a 15-seed was to be announced (and even 14s, because a man can dream, right?), and let out a yell that would have made the Nature Boy proud when LOYOLA (MD) finally flashed onto the screen.
That’s what automatic bids are for. Tiny moments for people and teams that deserve them. I’m happy for Jimmy, who will tell anyone who’ll listen about the dredges he pulled the program from since his arrival from the Maryland. I’m happy for my friend and the team’s leading scorer, Erik Etherly, and the rest of his teammates. They deserve this opportunity more than anyone. So does the school.
From my classmates in the Class of 2011 to the Greyhounds whose diplomas read Loyola College, all the way back to the poor guys who attended Loyola before they admitted women, this edition of the tournament is their own.
Thursday will be memorable for all involved; for those of us who had a row to ourselves in Reitz Arena during early-season games against Florida Gulf Coast and Coppin State, and those who hopped on the bandwagon in time to jostle for an armrest at the Iona and Fairfield games; those for whom the game will be backdrop to a reunion, a long-held promise that they would go if — not when — Loyola ever made the tournament, and those for whom Thursday will be an ill-conceived one-man pilgrimage that they’re convinced will provide peace and resolution to a myriad of not-really problems.
And though a loss would put a damper on the evening, there’s no way to fully brace yourself for it. However small, the thought remains that maybe, just maybe, Loyola can pull off the upset. And that too, in any month, would simply be madness.