The Ripples Of March Madness Reach Europe More Than You Think

During my junior year of high school, I had a one-on-one sit down with my varsity coach who told me he didn’t think I was ready to play Division I college basketball. He claimed I’d have a much better collegiate career at a Division II or Division III school – especially if I was trying to obtain an athletic scholarship. Who tells their best player that? To be honest though, I’ve always admired the fact that he “kept it real” with me. But for as “real” as he kept it, I recall throwing in the towel.

Looking back now, that’s probably the exact reason he didn’t feel I would be successful. I used to blame it on being a late bloomer, but I’m sure I just didn’t have that degree of work ethic. I was more concerned with getting my license and starting to date. (I mean. I was 16.) Why go to school at 6:00am and work on my handle or jump shot before class? South Park didn’t go off until 10:30pm.

When the games came around, I could outperform my peers on God-given athleticism. John Thompson wasn’t coming to New York’s Hudson Valley for a 6-6 center. If I’m not going to be a Blue Devil or a Tar Heel, I might as well continue enjoying high school and work hard in the classroom to get into a top university, right? I mean, if I couldn’t get an athletic scholarship, then there’s no way I could play professionally, right? D-1 football coaches were still calling, so I had a good little fallback plan; my grades were good enough to earn me acceptances into 11 or 12 schools to which I applied (screw Yale); and it just seemed easy to abandon that childhood dream I used to have. You know, the one where you hit the game-winning shot in the national championship game and are crowned the NCAA Player of the Year? Yeah, that one. Gone with the wind.

It wasn’t long after that meeting ’til I found myself narrowing my choice down to Ivy League Cornell Football, Division III New York University Basketball or playing both sports at Division III Susquehanna. Ithaca winters? No thank you. What the hell is a Susquehanna? Not for me. A Boogie Down Bronx native whose family moved to the suburbs for high school with a chance to go to college in downtown New York City? NYU was the obvious choice, and that was the year (2003) my love for college basketball was born.

Prior to that, it was strictly NBA on NBC. Whether it was the Bulls, Pacers or Rockets, Knicks games with my dad on the couch happened like clockwork. All I knew about college basketball was Fordham University summer camp where I always ended up on UMass. One time my dad took me to Madison Square Garden to see Felipe Lopez and St. John’s go up against Allen Iverson and Georgetown, but I was definitely an NBA kid. However, once my college teammates and I began to watch these NCAA games, more notably March Madness, it was a revolutionary change to the way I’d begin to spend the third month of each year.

The same way I can dredge up images of where I was at during my youth when Jordan went baseline on Ewing, or Reggie made 11 seconds feel like an eternity, is the way I can now call to mind those NCAA moments. I can vividly remember my freshman year when I was going back and forth between this huge term paper and my dorm room TV to watch UConn beat Geogia Tech. I clearly recall the recruit I was hosting during my sophomore year who didn’t have a fake ID so we were forced to “stay in” to watch UNC beat Illinois. My junior year was a hard one to forget, as I drove 12 hours down to Myrtle Beach (real classy, right?) to see a high school buddy of mine and watch the most boring championship game ever between Florida and UCLA. (At least Beef ‘O’ Brady’s had good wings.) And after winning the ECAC’s my senior year – a D-3 version of the NIT – I definitely remember senioritis kicking in and sitting in our favorite West Village dive bar watching Florida go back-to-back beating Greg Oden and Ohio State.

After college, I came overseas to play professionally and suddenly I thought I was “too cool” to follow college sports. I mean, I’m a pro now. Duh. Winning. Luckily my younger brother, who was in his senior year of high school at the time, quickly reminded me how much Madness goes down in March. He was/is a huge Derrick Rose fan, and I remember giving him a bunch of crap after they lost in the championship game – the same crap he gives me now that Rose has to be the frontrunner for NBA MVP, but that’s a story for a later date.

The next year seems like it was yesterday. My girlfriend at the time got me on the Michigan State bandwagon, and it just so happened that they practically had a home game in the championship. It would have been a storybook ending, but unfortunately that Tar Heel team was too strong. And last year, the highlight of the Tournament was sitting a European bar at almost two o’clock in the morning when Farokhmanesh pulled up for that three-pointer. I know you remember. It was so memorable because I was sitting there with two of my professional teammates – Ben Jacobson and John Little – that both played at Northern Iowa with him. Even though UNI’s run fell short, Butler made it one for the record books. And March Madness, for a seventh consecutive year, did not disappoint.

That got me thinking how all of of my current teammates, who played at schools from Santa Clara and Siena to Illinois and Villanova, would, in one word, describe this time of year. They had all been to the Big Dance, so they know better than I do. The answers I got were pretty typical, but a few provoked some thought.

“Intense,” “Upsets” and “Cinderella.”

These were the most popular by far, but then Dwayne Anderson (Villanova ’08) said, “Darwin.” And although that seems like something Jay Wright wrote on the dry erase board before their Final Four game, it brought me to the realization that in the NCAA Tournament the strong survive. As UConn, Washington and a handful of other teams proved in their respective conference tournaments, it doesn’t matter what your record is, who you’ve beat or who you’ve lost to. When tourney time comes around, it’s a brand new season and simply comes down to may the best team, on that given night, win.

Now like I said, I never had a chance to participate in the NCAA Tournament, but I’ve played with a lot of guys that did. Most recently, Louis Dale, who led Cornell – my 2010 sleeper pick – into the Sweet Sixteen. Dicky V claimed he was the best point guard in the Big Dance, and that was after his game against John Wall. Hearing that really reiterates the fact that you never know who is watching during the tournament. A March Madness performance can be your make or break opportunity to play in the NBA. For others, it can be that same scale in terms of making it overseas, or just becoming one of those “student athletes that goes professional in something other than sports.”

My same teammate who claimed Charles Darwin‘s book On the Origin of Species was really a preview to Natural (NCAA) Selection, was also a part of my team last season that won the EuroChallenge Championship. Meaning when we reached the Final Four, it was an all too comfortable feeling. Now the EuroChallenge is basically a tournament that runs parallel with your domestic league where 32 of the top teams in Europe compete for a title. Even though the rounds are a little different – you play opponents home and away – once you get to the Final Four it’s the same thing. One neutral location. One weekend. May the best team win.

Having been the biggest basketball accomplishment of my life, I was curious as to how someone whose been there before (in college) would compare. Although the Final Four was as far as Dwayne made it with Villanova, don’t be so quick to assume that our European title was worlds ahead in comparison. The amount of hype and excitement around a weekend like the NCAA Final Four cannot be easily matched. I’m thinking the Super Bowl and the Olympics. But that’s it. Duke won last year’s title in front of 26,000 spectators. The other night on that Fab Five documentary, Jalen Rose claimed that there were 35 million people watching the championship game in ’93 when Webber called the infamous timeout. I can only imagine how many people tune in now.

Now as my German team (BG Goettingen) is currently in the Elite 8 of the Eurocup (same format as the Eurochallenge just 32 better teams), I wonder if I would want to trade positions with some of my competitors. This year alone, I’ve competed against a number of guys who had tremendous NCAA Tournament runs. Tony Skinn (Braunschweig Phantoms) and Folarin Campbell (Telekom Baskets Bonn) were part of that George Mason team that shocked the world by beating Rudy Gay‘s UConn Huskies. Reyshawn Terry (Brose Baskets Bamberg) and Marcus Ginyard (BBC Bayreuth) both won NCAA titles at North Carolina. And Lee Humphrey (Ratiopharm Ulm) got back-to-back rings with Florida and still holds every three-point record in the Tournament.

Not all of those guys can win championships in Europe this season, but I’m curious to find out how it would compare. Until I get the chance to ask them, I’ll stick to what I know, and what I know is that this time of year is one of a kind. So sit back, fill out your bracket and enjoy the Madness. I’m six time zones away and on a different continent, but you can bet on Jimmer Fredette‘s virginity that that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @blackhercules21.

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