The last time I wept when a favorite team lost was in 1972. Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Bob Moose threw a wild pitch, allowing George Foster of the Cincinnati Reds to score from third, sending the despised Reds to the World Series.
I watched this at a friend's house (who's now a sports radio host in Seattle), burst into tears, walked home sobbing, hoping not to encounter any of my large tormentors on the way. I was a big Roberto Clemente fan, and the thought of him and the Pirates not repeating as world champs killed me. Little did I know that two months later, Clemente would die in a plane crash, assisting victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. That put the Pirates' loss in the proper perspective.
Tuesday morning, hung-over from wine and emotion, I looked at the front page of the Indianapolis Star. The bold head read SO CLOSE over a large photo of the Butler basketball team leaving the floor, oblivious to the streamers and confetti falling for Duke around them. Their blank, shocked expressions hit me, and I began sobbing.
Why? To be honest, I really haven't followed Butler this season. I passively rooted for them, nodding appreciatively when I saw they'd scored another victory, the longest winning streak in men's hoops this year. But I felt no intense connection with the Bulldogs. My mind has been consumed with other issues, college basketball well down the list. When the NCAA tournament began, I had no real stake in who would win it. I made predictions to friends (West Virginia in the Final Four my most accurate pick), and was sympathetic to Syracuse out of loyalty to my pal Barry Crimmins, who bleeds Orange when not wearing Yankee pinstripes, but that was about it. Butler was at best on the periphery.
My father told me about Butler early on. Dad's a longtime Bulldogs fan, attends many home games. Earlier this season, he was raving about this team. I replied that yes, Butler has a solid hoops program, one of the better mid-majors, alongside Gonzaga and Xavier. Dad shot down this comparison. "Son, they're better than that. This is one of the best teams in the country."
I considered this booster talk, nothing more. Whatever makes the old man happy. But once the tournament started, it became clear that something was happening. Dad said, "Just you wait. You ain't seen nothing yet."
I watched highlights of Butler's first two games, impressed with their tenacity and grit, their team defense beautifully suffocating. When they moved on to play top-seeded Syracuse, I thought, well, the road ends here. Not a bad run. Yet the Dawgs hampered the Orange, absorbed solid hits and kept coming. The ball bounced their way enough to pull the upset. While I felt bad for Barry, I was stoked by Butler. Only Kansas State stood between them and the Final Four.
I worried about K-State's speed and offensive firepower. With Syracuse gone, I'm sure they thought Butler's luck would fade. That might explain the frustrated, confused looks on K-State's faces as the Bulldogs slowed them down, cut off easy threes, harassed them into turnovers. As the clock ticked down to yet another Butler victory, I jumped around my living room, yelling and laughing. Given some of my bizarre private behavior, this celebration was positively sane. Butler was going to the Final Four in their hometown. No way I was going to miss this up close.
My relationship with Indianapolis is complicated. I was born there, grew up there, spent my Army enlistment there. I knew Indy intimately, and like most intimate arrangements, you clearly see negative features. I hated Indy's provincialism, its conservatism, its dullness. I couldn't wait to leave for New York, an urge that began when I was 14. At 22, I finally did.
But in the three years leading up to my departure, I spent significant time on the Butler campus. Several close friends were enrolled there, most of whom were pre-med. I was stationed across town at Fort Ben Harrison, fulfilling my duty to Sam. Whenever I had free time, I drove my dented, grill-less, weed-reeking, fast food wrapper and 8-track tape cluttered Mercury to Butler. It remains one of the happiest periods of my life.
NEXT: My non-college college years, and coming to terms with Hoosier roots.