In College Hoops Country, The World Just Goes Away MARCH MADNESS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Hartford recently, an unidentified man walked into a barbershop just as University of Connecticut basketball star Rebecca Lobo was leaving. Assured that it was, indeed, the Huskies' center, he scooped a few of her shorn locks into a paper bag and walked out.

What manner of madness was this?

The March variety.

Ms. Lobo and her team were on their way to the women's college basketball championship in Minneapolis this weekend. The men's Final Four is being played, too, at the Kingdome in Seattle.

Madness squared.

Before basketball, mental instability had no special relationship to any month or activity. It meant simply insanity, senseless folly, rage or intense excitement. Then came a 64-team basketball tournament, taking all of it to a higher plane. The two weeks of play culminating now is a festival of spontaneity, a movable feast reminiscence and of unpredictable eruptions from teen-age athletic geniuses, manic coaches and boosters bent upon another round of basketball war stories in a distant U.S. city.

While some may choose to conjure instead with congressional term limits or the fall of civilization in Bosnia, the world of basketball asks itself which team can "run the table" and whether Marcus will go or stay. If you have to ask "Marcus who?" or "Go where?" you're in the wrong newspaper story.

Bosnia, Smosnia. The only country they were thinking about in the world of roundball was "Big Country," the kid with the 7-foot frame who brought Oklahoma State University to the final round. How would he match up with Corliss or Rasheed or the center from UCLA whose name we'll know soon enough?

As Rebecca Lobo said after the hair thing, "The fans, especially the older ones, see you as extensions of their family." We call them (and their coaches) by first names. They bring us all the worry and joy reserved for a family's teen-agers, enough to drive you . . . mad.

By now the die is cast for tomorrow's championship game. Your favorite contender is still "on a mission" or trying to accept the view that it had a really good, if not ultimately great, season. It is a time of fevered anticipation and of rationalizations perfected: "At this point in the season, any team can beat any team on any given night. . . ."

After yesterday's semifinal games, a delirium will have descended upon two campuses, on two coaches and two sets of young men and women who may or may not ever go to class again, assuming they've ever been. Yes, yes, the women go to class. Even though some of them are getting endorsement deals these days from the likes of Nike, there's far less likelihood of a pro career, so class matters. Joe Smith, the Maryland star, and Bryant "Big Country" Reeves will make big bucks in the National Basketball Association. Who will be churlish enough to recall they couldn't compete for one of the national awards this year because they apparently didn't have C averages?

Still, these are often smart, street-wise kids: Last year in March when Bill Clinton was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the Arkansas team, freshman center Darnell Robinson said, "It's great for the team, and pretty good for him too."

In Chapel Hill, N.C., home of the "Heels," there may be a slightly different approach to all of this, a practiced psychological equilibrium, a canny but not jaded equanimity.

Coach Dean Smith has taken his teams and his school's extended family of alumni to the top of the sport year after year, so the Carolina grad knows it will all happen again, more or less, next year. The official color of the NCAA Tournament really should be Carolina blue, right?

Is a Duke grad and Blue Devil fan like V. Thomas Gray III of College Park screaming into his coffee at the effrontery of this suggestion? One can only hope: To provoke the opposition is the first duty of the mad elite at every level.

Listen to UNC's center, Rasheed Wallace: "If you can't stay with the big dogs, you wind up sitting on the porch."

Dean would regard this remark as a bit intemperate, tempting fate, perhaps, a bit of self-indulgent "woofing" better left for late on Monday night, nets safely cut down, trophy in hand.

The sheer uncontrollability of it, the winner-take-all reality of it, bears much of its charm. Then, too, there are the coaches: Rick Majerus, the University of Utah mentor who's been giving commentary at halftime, for example. He was asked to describe how he dealt with losing: "Win or lose," he said, "I ate my ass off." One also saw Indiana's Bobby Knight and Purdue's Gene Keady and realized that basketball madness need not be limited to any single month.

Dean sets a different tone.

"He's not losing 20 pounds of body weight sweating on the sidelines," says Ryan Thornburg, a sophomore from Uplands, Calif. Ryan decided on Carolina while visiting Chapel Hill on the day after the team won it all in 1993. Now city editor of the Daily Tar Heel, he says a different standard governs almost everything in Chapel Hill, a place where managing the post-NCAA riot is a commonplace for police.

"Any other time you'd set fire to a couch in the middle of Main Street and it would be a felony," he says. "Here and now, it's just part of the celebration."

Hundreds of Carolina students camped out to qualify for one of the 300 ticket vouchers allotted to UNC. Susan Mizell, a 21-year-old biology student, was one of the winners.

She and her parents will use frequent-flier premiums to cover what would otherwise be $4,500 in family airfare. The three-game, $70 ticket may only be claimed in person in Seattle, an effort to control scalping.

But, Ms. Mizell says, some Carolina kids set out by car shortly after getting their vouchers with the intent of enjoying the drive -- and selling the tickets when they arrive. Last year, a single seat went for as much as $3,000.

Ms. Mizell almost didn't go this time. She remembers the 1993 championship and the "scary" thrill of celebrating on Franklin Street, a sort of self-contained and carefully controlled riot zone adjacent to the campus where students may burn the odd sofa and think again how blessed they are to be Tar Heels.

"In 1982," Ms. Mizell says, "they painted Franklin Street blue." Since then, hardware stores in Chapel Hill have been ordered to stock Carolina blue paint in the water-based variety only. Oil-based washes away slowly. Bars have long since been cautioned to serve beer in plastic containers.

Ms. Mizell and Mr. Thornburg can barely imagine, perhaps, how students feel at almost any other campus, where the thrill of a championship season is a generational, not annual, thing.

"Everybody's gloomy around here," says Craig Brody, 20, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "Heads are down." Thought of as contenders all season, the Minutemen laid down their arms in the round of eight.

"The whole focus here now is whether Marcus Camby will go pro," says Mr. Brody.

The Camby Watch, repeated on behalf of other good players elsewhere, has everything to do with the big-time hoop dreams. When will UMass land another player like Marcus or like Lou Roe, the senior who graduates this year?

"Lou Roe is an era and the era is over," Mr. Brody said.

At Carolina, The Era is forever and linked to no player. To Dean, of course, but the genius players come year after year.

Some of us were there at what seems like the creation: In 1957, the names were Rosenbluth, Quigg, Brennan, Kearns and Cunningham. And, of course, Ray Stanley. These guys were 32-and-0. They beat Wilt Chamberlain's Kansas University for the title in a three-overtime game. Frank McGuire, whose slicked-back red hair reminded me of my father's, was the coach. Dean's era would not begin for five years.

Rosenbluth was a wraith-like player who scored 47 one night in Woolen Gym. . . . Brennan used to ride up to a girls' school in Southeast Virginia with my roommate. . . . Kearns became a stockbroker and, for a time at least, had Wilt as a client. . . . Quigg went to dental school. . . . As I remember it, Cunningham handled Billy Packer, then a guard at Wake Forest.

And Stanley was a good guy who borrowed my cool little Plymouth coupe. What happened to you, Ray? We should talk some time.

Carolina endures. There is always someone waiting to put on the colors my friend Tom Gray and so many others love to hate.

C. Fraser Smith, University of North Carolina Class of 1960, is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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