What started as 68 teams has quickly been whittled to 16, with no shortage of comebacks, surprises, or upsets. I was lucky enough to land tickets to the first and second round games played in Salt Lake City, and attended all six games over the Thursday and Saturday schedules. I went purely as a basketball fan, with no particular pull towards any of the eight teams participating. My wife also came with me, an amazing experience for her first March Madness ever. She had never seen a NCAA tournament game before Gonzaga and South Dakota State tipped off at 12 noon Thursday. I went expecting to enjoy the games, enjoy the atmosphere, and potentially even see a number one seed knocked off. But what happened instead was unexpected – I left that weekend with a new-found appreciation and love for the tournament that I didn’t have before; all because I saw the tournament from Kayla’s eyes.
I am an extremely passionate sports fan, as Kayla will plainly tell you. From the minute we started dating, she has had to deal with a whole new level of sports than she was used to. She confessed to me early in the relationship that she had never watched a college basketball game. Our first date was to a Utah State football game – also her first. We had a Super Bowl party – the first party she had thrown for the big game. I dragged her to intramural games, church ball, and even to watch a day of high school basketball at my alma mater. All of this was within six months of dating, so she knew right from the get-go what she was getting into. When college basketball started, I compromised and would only watch games in which Duke was playing – and even then, only on my phone unless she agreed to watch on TV. I don’t say these things to make fun of her or anything, just to highlight how inexperienced she was with the diehard sports fandom I was used to.
So take that girl – my loving wife – and put her in the Vivint Smart Home Arena with 18,000 screaming fans. Many were wearing the blue and red of Gonzaga, but Northwestern purple dominated much of the arena. We sat on the very top row, but I didn’t care. We were there. The madness wasn’t just happening on the TV screen anymore – it was REAL LIFE. It became even more real when South Dakota State made an immediate run at the number one seeded Bulldogs right out of the gate. I kept checking on Kayla to make sure she was okay and that she hadn’t either fallen asleep or left the building yet. The second half of that game had me considering falling asleep, however, as Gonzaga pulled away from the Jackrabbits quickly. The game ended with a comfortable victory for the Bulldogs.
The next game was the most anticipated of the day. I explained to Kayla as we watched Vanderbilt and Northwestern warm up the magnitude of this game. I talked to her about seeding, and how this – the eight/nine matchup – was rightfully predicted to be anyone’s game. I also explained the magic behind Northwestern’s appearance in the tournament. I told her about how this was the schools’ first appearance and that was why they had an overwhelming fan base – these fans had literally been waiting their entire lives to see this day. Kayla paid attention to the game with much of the same focus of the game before.
And then March Madness’ magic kicked in.
When Northwestern forward Nathan Taphorn hit a deep three and made a slitting-the-throat motion towards the Vanderbilt fans, Kayla sat straight up in her seat. She grabbed my arm and asked what that was about. I explained the motion and its place in the game and she responded, “So it’s over? They’re going to win?” I noted the slight excitement in her voice – she was starting to root for the Wildcats. Vanderbilt then mounted a comeback to tighten the game. As the two teams went toe-to-toe and traded baskets, Kayla visibly got more and more excited. With every slashing layup or floater by Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh she sat up a little more, and as Vanderbilt guard Matthew Fisher-Davis heated up, she got a little more uncomfortable with Northwestern’s lead. What was most surprising, however, was when my mild-mannered calm wife exploded out of her seat when Matthew Fisher-Davis inexplicably fouled McIntosh with Vanderbilt holding a one point lead. She jumped up, grabbed me and excitedly asked, “What? Why did he do that? They’re winning!” As McIntosh calmly sunk both free throws to give Northwestern the lead – this time for good – Kayla clapped loudly. As the final buzzer sounded and we started to head out of the arena to re-enter for the next two games, she gushed about how exciting the game was, asked questions about basketball terms (Cinderella, upset, and flagrant foul were some she was unsure about), and asked me if every game would be that exciting.
At halftime of the St. Mary’s/VCU game, I wasn’t sure they would all be exciting. Kayla asked who I had picked in my bracket and I sheepishly said I had chosen VCU. She grimaced and reassured me by saying, “Vanderbilt came back, so can VCU.” I didn’t believe her. But then the Rams, behind their lightning fast guards and stifling defense, made a run. We were all back into it, cheering and yelling with every VCU steal and basket, willing them back into the game. In the end, they came short, losing to a St. Mary’s team who seemed to make every big basket down the stretch, including Calvin Hermanson’s emphatic one handed dunk that about brought the house down. I was pleased to see that Kayla was enjoying this game very much as well.
The next game was less eventful, with Arizona stomping North Dakota’s early run en route to hanging 100 points on the Fighting Hawks in a high-scoring, fast-paced affair. But, even within a blowout, I saw flashes of Madness in Kayla. When Allonzo Trier slammed home a vicious dunk on a fast break just seconds after missing one, Kayla cheered just as loud as I did. Friday we talked about the games, and when her parents asked about them, I was so incredibly happy to hear her reply. “They were really fun!” She then told her parents a little bit about the Northwestern game, explaining in remarkable detail the final minutes, including the foul by Fisher-Davis and the game-sealing free throws.
But my wonderful wife had saved the biggest surprise for Saturday. As we walked the streets of downtown Salt Lake City, weaving our way towards the arena, we started talking about the day – and games – that lay ahead of us. Kayla was excited when learning that Northwestern would be playing in the first game of the day. As we took our seats in the Vivint Smart Home Arena to again enjoy a day of fast-paced intense basketball, she said the words I had been waiting to hear.
“You know, I think I’m a Northwestern fan. Actually, I think I’m becoming a basketball fan. You’re turning me into a basketball fan.”
I hugged her harder than I’ve ever hugged her before. If she never would have become a fan of the sport, I would have been fine with that. Even now, with her admitted fandom, she wasn’t too interested in watching the games on TV with me last night. She did stop me from not breaking everything in the house as Duke’s title hopes slipped away one turnover at a time, but she didn’t watch all of the games with me. I don’t expect her to. But while watching the end of the Oregon/Rhode Island game, I couldn’t help but notice her look up from her phone as Tyler Dorsey sealed the win for the Ducks, excitement in her eyes.
After Villanova’s loss on Saturday, my bracket was essentially busted. Duke’s heart-wrenching loss last night buried it for good. But as I’ve thought about this March, and this tournament, I’ve decided to stop checking the bracket standings after every game, trash-talking my little brother (who, by the way, is still riding high on his Michigan Wolverines), or playing the “second half” bracket games I usually play when my bracket is busted. I’ve been able to see this tournament a little differently this year. I’ve seen the games for what they are – college kids, some who will never play beyond college, pouring their hearts out game after game in hopes of winning that elusive National Championship.
I saw it this weekend – in the tears of VCU guard JeQuan Lewis after his 30 point performance wasn’t enough to bring VCU a win, in Calvin Hermanson’s scream after his posterizing dunk. I saw it in Arizona forward Rawle Alkins as he came back from a hand injury to give Arizona the lift they needed against St. Mary’s. And I saw it the entire weekend from the fans and players at Northwestern – a school that had been waiting for this March Madness opportunity for over 70 years. Isn’t that what this tournament is all about anyways? It’s not about perfect brackets, or office pools, or even your own team. It’s about showcasing the 68 best teams in college basketball and giving them a chance to show to everyone what college basketball is all about.
The atmosphere, the emotion, and the raw excitement of college basketball turned my wife into a basketball fan. It wasn’t me, or my family, that did it. It was the tournament. And it wasn’t just her who it affected. As I mentioned before, this weekend gave me a whole new appreciation and love for the NCAA tournament, all because I saw the tournament through Kayla’s eyes.