If last weekend is my favorite part of the NCAA basketball Tournament this weekend is my least favorite.
I’m looking at it, mind you, from a purely selfish standpoint. It has nothing to do with the potential quality of the basketball to be played; in fact, this is as good a Sweet Sixteen as we’ve had in years because so many non-power schools have made the second week. Here’s my dream Final Four: Cornell, St. Mary’s, Northern Iowa and Butler—which gets the nod out west over Xavier because it is located IN Indianapolis and because it plays in Hinkle Field House, still one of the most historic places in basketball. (Think ‘Hoosiers,’ if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
For me though—and for my writing brethren—this weekend is a nightmare. On Thursday and Friday the first games don’t start until almost 7:30 which means at the pace tournament games are played these days it is close to 10 o’clock before that game ends. With all the NCAA rules about cooling off periods and the clunkiness of taking players to interview rooms it can take 45 minutes to an hour to get enough in your notebook to think about writing. That means even someone who is fast like me isn’t going to finish writing anything off the first game before 11:30, which is fighting deadline for the home edition of the newspaper (we still care about stuff like that believe it or not) and means that you pretty much miss the first half of the second game because you’re writing.
There’s no chance to write anything that’s going to make any editions off the second game since it won’t tip until at least 10:15—why the NCAA lists “9:57,” I have no clue because there’s no way the game is starting then—and will end about 12:30. So you go to the locker rooms hoping to get a column to write for the next day while the guy writing the game story—here in Syracuse it is Zach Berman for The Post—tries to write a running story (written during the game with a quick lead that goes on top at game’s end) that makes some semblance of sense.
There is nothing worse than trying to write during a game. For one thing you MISS a lot. For another, something that seems critical and worth three paragraphs at one point can be meaningless 10 minutes later. My worst experience with a running column—which is different than a game story because it doesn’t need to contain that much play-by-play--was the national title game in 2008. With a 9:22 tipoff and the game ending after 11:30 I needed to hit the send button within two minutes of the buzzer or the column would miss more than half the newspapers printed that night.
I had written my entire column on Memphis winning the national championship, on how it had proved that its record coming out of Conference-USA was not the result of a weak schedule and that it had beaten two of the great traditional programs of all time in The Final Four: UCLA and Kansas, to finally exorcise the ghosts from its Final Four losses in 1973 and 1985.
Then Memphis’s Achilles heel—free throw shooting—kicked in, Mario Chalmers hit the three just before the buzzer when John Calipari decided not to foul and the game went into overtime. Every word I had written was worthless. I instantly began rewriting on the premise that Kansas was going to win the game. I kept the ‘Memphis-wins,’ column as backup, figuring I’d go back to it if Memphis won, but I was pretty convinced Kansas was going to win at that point.
Of course it did and the paper pushed the deadline for all of us writing to midnight and we just got in under the wire. The screaming and cursing directed at Chalmers and Calipari from press row that night wasn’t personal on any level. We were all just followed the first rule of journalism as explained by the great Dave Anderson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his columns in The New York Times: “You are always allowed to root for yourself.”
So tonight, here in Syracuse, I will be rooting for Cornell—how can you NOT root for Cornell if you aren’t a Kentucky fan?—and I will be hoping that something happens in the West Virginia-Washington game that will give me a column of some kind I can write QUICKLY so that I can watch most of the Cornell-Kentucky game.
The other thing about covering the regionals is there’s too much time to kill. I got up here yesterday afternoon in time for the practices and press conferences so I could write a column for today (Column: In NCAA Tournament, Cornell's Big Red and Kentucky's 'Blue Mist' are miles apart on the spectrum). It’s nice that the NCAA opens the locker rooms during the press conference period but it didn’t help anyone that during the time that Steve Donahue was on the podium, the NCAA pulled Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote and Louis Dale—Cornell’s three best players—out of the locker room and had them sit and twiddle their thumbs in a holding area next to the interview room.
As it was, people were falling over one another in the Cornell locker room, which is about as big as my hotel room, even with Wittman, Foote and Dale not in there. In a dome like this they can’t find four reasonably-sized locker rooms?
Anyway, as soon as I finish this I’ll go swim. That will take me to noon and then….we wait. The first weekend you have afternoon games so you get up, swim (I hope) grab something to eat and go to the arena. That’s fine. Some guys don’t mind down time in a hotel. I go nuts. I like to be doing SOMETHING.
Those who are going to stay for the regional final—not me, I’m out of here tomorrow after I write my column for Saturday’s paper—have TWO days to sit around and do nothing. They can go to the dreary off-day press conferences—no access to practice or the locker rooms—and find something to write and then they SIT until tipoff on Saturday at either 4:30 or 7. Brutal. One year at the Meadowlands I drove home on Thursday night and then drove back for the final on Saturday at 7. Life’s too short to sit around. If we were in Florida or a big city it might be different. But we’re not.
So, I’ll hope for the best tonight, knowing I’ll be lucky if I write something mildly passable. It’s like Bob Woodward said to me years ago when I was wrestling with a lead: “Johnny (he’s one of three people on earth, my mother and David Maraniss being the other two, who ever called me Johnny on a regular basis) some days you just have to fill the space.”
Tonight, unfortunately, is probably about filling the space—and filling it fast.