“No, that can’t be him.”
The scene: The Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rounds one and two of the NCAA Basketball Tournament on March 14-16. The UCSB men’s basketball team was scrounging around somewhere.
“Yeah, well I’m 99 percent sure that’s B.J. Armstrong,” Matt Heitner tells me.
I walk by again. I retrace my steps and take another look at the baby face of the former pro player. “Is that the point guard for the Chicago Bulls who rode Michael Jordan’s coattails to three NBA titles?”
Examining and memorizing his silhouette at less than a yard away, I keep thinking it’s him. I’ll just stick out my paw and introduce myself and …
“Are you B.J. Armstrong?”
Damn, I just pulled a Steve Lyons and had my pants yanked down by the ex-Hawkeye.
Sure enough, B.J. Armstrong was chilling in The Pit and I was frigid in the pits, at least for that one bonehead moment.
The host city was like a wacky pair of dancing shoes that 64 teams tried to squeeze into. Gonzaga, Wyoming, Arizona, Miami, Missouri, Davidson, Ohio State and UCSB: please raise your hands. Thanks for attending the Big Dance here.
We’re sorry, but the parquet could eventually only fit one team at the Big Dance finale. Maryland shuffled its way to its first national championship in Atlanta on Monday night. The Terps’ lunch pails fit snugly. No Cinderella slippers here, folks.
Every team (except Winthrop) had a chance to win the whole Megillah. Even the Gauchos – at least assuming by the way they courageously fought back and pulled together against cocky Arizona – would have battled all 64 teams till the last poignant bead of sweat dried on the hardwood.
The look in the eyes of UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams and his assistants, Marty Wilson, Dave Campbell, Mark Amaral and Matt Stock, proved to everyone in the building that they were serious about winning basketball games in Duke City. The players stared compellingly and intently at the challenge in front of them. Santa Barbara was inhaling the thin Albuquerque altitude and thinking, breathing, living victory over the University of Arizona the whole time.
The Gauchos were this close to winning.
UCSB represented everything right with the NCAA Tournament. The players played to win and to soak what they could or wanted to from the night. For most people who love the game of basketball, the tourney is a special trip. Even for a reporter in the margins.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget UCSB junior forward Mark Hull’s opening half three-point barrage against the Cats. 6 of 6. UA junior forward Luke Walton wasn’t going to forget that shooting display anytime soon.
“I thought he was unbelievable,” Walton said after Arizona pulled off an 86-81 epic on March 14. “Those things were nothing but net.”
Walking into a jubilant Missouri locker room after the Tigers thoroughly thrashed Ohio State in the second round was also a treat.
A voice in the throng of journalists, photographers and television reporters with a splashing of mascara and eyeliner yelped out “Rickey Jordan” for beaming Mizzou guard Rickey Paulding. Paulding, who happens to wear number 23, lifted off from the free throw line to throw down a vicious jam ala Michael Jordan in the opening minutes against OSU. The Pit convulsed in joy.
The Buckeyes were buttered toast at that point.
Albuquerque and March Madness treated me to two awesome days of basketball. ESPN’s Curry Kirkpatrick scuttled about the arena. The Wyoming faithful donned cowboy hats at the games. Olson was booed vociferously. Former UNM coach Fran Fraschilla prowled the tunnel the day before he was canned. (A big thanks to Bob Williams for not even considering New Mexico and signing here in Santa Barbara until 2008 and longer). The Zags and dynamite All-American Dan Dickau were one and done. Basketball made everything beautiful from where I was sitting those two nights at The Pit.
The Gauchos made the dance. Their presence was felt.
UCSB will be back for a dose of more madness soon enough.