Recounting the Magic of Childhood Through the Final Four


I’m reminded of this because I am a father now of a 7-year old son, almost the exact same age I was the last time a title game at the Final Four was played beyond my memory. So I thought I would go back through life through the lens of the Final Four, and reminisce about growing up, framed around the Final Four.

I remember watching the 1983 title game on a little black and white TV in our dining room (I think there was remodeling going on at the time). I was rooting for Phi Slamma Jamma-has there ever been a team so talented that never won it all? I remember how sudden and shocking the ending of that game was, an early lesson in the uncertainty of sports.

I was between 11 and 14 years old for the Final Fours from 1986 to 1989. That’s the golden age of sports, people. My good friend Doug Drinen talks about how the sports world attained perfection when you were between 12 and 14 years old. From my anecdotal observations, he’s right, and I suspect if you ponder your favorite athletes, you’ll find the same thing. Deron Cherry is larger than life to me, and Bo Jackson was simply the most amazing athlete I have ever seen. If you can’t see that by looking at his more pedestrian overall career numbers, then you are simply handicapped by not being 12 when he ran over Brian Bosworth or 14 when he led off the All-Star game with a home run. Your loss.

This was also a time of transition for me, as my family would move away from the neighborhood where they had lived all their lives and where I grew up, to the suburbs. In 1986, I actually (gasp) rooted for Kansas. They were a city phenomenon. Kansas fans are a bit spoiled now, but that was the best team in a while at Kansas.  We would pretend to be Ron Kellogg when we shot at the church gym that year. That Duke-Kansas game, in which Kansas came out in red uniforms, was supposed to be for the title. As has happened many times over the years, it didn’t end up that way, and Pervis Ellison became a phenomenon.

The next year, 1987, I was fully invested in the tournament for the first time, and not just watching the title game. For whatever unexplainable reason, I forever became a Missouri fan while watching Lee Coward, Derrick Chievous and Lynn Hardy go to an improbable Big 8 title. My family was, by then, in the process of moving in just a few months, and I think that my adopting of that team was very much a safe haven for this introverted 12-year old. I watched every Saturday through January and February, foregoing childish pursuits like cartoons, and celebrated when they won the Big 8 tournament and cried when they lost to Xavier.

I vividly remember that tournament, from Austin Peay to Billy Donovan to a fantastic game between UNLV and Iowa in the West regional final-a high paced affair that is rarely seen among the elite teams today. I watched Keith Smart hit a baseline jumper to win the title, on one of those old large wooden TV’s with the turn dial in my grandparent’s living room.

The following year, the Final Four was in Kansas City. My dad took me to Kemper Arena for the team shoot-arounds on the Friday before the games–Arizona with Sean Elliott, Oklahoma with Mookie and Stacey, Kansas with Manning and Duke with, as fate would have it, Quin Snyder. I got a “50 years of the Final Four” program, which I absolutely wore out and memorized over the next few months (go ahead, ask me about Arnie Ferrin or Irwin Dambrot). Over the next several Marchs, I would always play an all-time tournament in my driveway, pitting all the prior championship teams in my head, as I rained down shots from the bushes as Oscar Robertson took on David Thompson.

I was begrudgingly rooting for Oklahoma, as my family had a lot of dirt farmers and Cherokee Indians from Oklahoma. OU/Arizona was supposed to be the title game played in the semis, but yet again, it didn’t work out that way.

I was on Michigan early in 1989, especially after a good Missouri team with Anthony Peeler that had defeated North Carolina in the preseason NIT bowed out in a close game to Syracuse in the Sweet 16. I rooted for Glen Rice’s high socks raining threes and Rumeal Robinson’s late free throws to win the title against Seton Hall, and for the first time that I can remember, was actually rooting for the team at the Final Four that eventually won (I’m drawn to hopeless cases, I think). By then, I was entering high school, and the next several finals, from UNLV’s dominant run (I was rooting for the Dennis Scott/Kenny Anderson team in that tourney), to Duke’s stunning upset the next year in the semifinals were witnessed on a big screen TV in the basement, a far cry from the black and white affair back in 1983.

Since then, others stick out, I remember all of them, but I’m not sure any are quite as magical as those you experience growing up, before the world becomes a place of productivity over imagination. I remember rooting against Arkansas vehemently during college (I may not Clemenate any player, ever, as much as Scottie Thurman). I recall the Kentucky-Utah championship, not necessarily one that would stand out in most people’s minds, because it was set against a wonderful road trip that involved seeing Mark McGwire’s first home run at opening day in 1998, traveling to Atlanta to see a Braves game, then on to visits at the University of Georgia and Florida (the pretext for the trip). In 2001, I attended the Midwest Regional in San Antonio and got to root for Bill Self against Kansas, and was hoping the Arizona team I saw there could knock off Duke. In 2004, I was on Galveston Island at a bachelor party for the Saturday game between Duke and UCONN, before returning to my wife and infant child that Monday, about the longest I’ve been away from them since he was born.

And now, I get to watch my son get ready to enter that magical age, where the sports heros are a little more pure. And I get to write about sports, just like that shy 12-year old who obsessed about tournaments of the past in a driveway, would have always wanted. Life, and the Final Four, is still good in 2011.

[photo via Getty]