May 20, 2018
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NCAA is part of experiencing the things on the ‘bucket list’

By Emmet Meara, Special to the News

Even on a Florida vacation, one must always keep the bucket list in focus. For those who missed the movie of the same name, a “bucket list” is the things you want to experience before you … kick the bucket.

The bucket list is a mercurial thing, which changes with available opportunities. While languishing in Spring Hill at Jane’s Pool, on the way back from Red Sox spring training, I read in the St. Petersburg Times (I still read newspapers every day) that the second and third round of the NCAA basketball tournament, known popularly as “The Big Dance,” would be held at the nearby St. Pete Times Forum.

I have been watching the tournament on television for as long as I can remember, first rooting for UMass and Boston College, back when they had good, even great teams. Now, I had to settle for Big East teams, the closest to home. The chance to watch big-time basketball up close was too good to ignore, no matter what the cost.

The available tickets for six games were $210, which broke down to $35 a game. Expensive, yes, but who could pass up this opportunity? Surely it would never come again.

I went to an NCAA playoff game exactly once before when the very late Paul Harrigan got me seats in Providence to see “Bad News Barnes” foul out of his last college game. I would guess that it was 1974.

But this was the top of the heap. The first four games were Florida-UC Santa Barbara, West Virginia-Clemson, Kentucky-Princeton (Princeton?) and UCLA-Michigan State.

I had no dog in this fight, except for a mild rooting interest in Florida, two-time national champs, with a coach, Billy Donovan, who played at Providence.

I pulled the trigger with Ticketmaster. You only live once, right?

If I had seen the seats first, I might have changed my mind. When I finally climbed to the top of the stadium and my seat in Row P, I was puffing, ready for the hospital. I was exactly three rows from the roof. I should have known when an usher offered me a parachute on the way up. The people behind me were so high that they started yodeling.

The stadium was so steep that it took awhile to get over the dizziness. But there was a mammoth television screen in case you didn’t want to watch the tiny basketball teams. Great, $210 to watch the games on television.

But there is nothing like the enthusiasm at college games. In the first game, West Virginia clubbed Clemson 84-76 and I was glad since Clemson had just eliminated Boston College from the tournament. I applied to BC in 1958 and never heard back, but I forgive them.

I must admit, I watched the cheerleaders closely. On television you don’t realize how many times they perform during a game. Clearly, Clemson had the sexiest squad.

The hall was packed with blue-clad Kentucky fans who must have expected a walkover with Ivy League champs Princeton. Princeton fans must have been outnumbered 250-1, but made up for it with zeal while their Tigers ran with Kentucky until the last seconds. Princeton actually led 40-37, before they fell 59-57 on a last-second shot. I rooted for Princeton, even though Kentucky was coached by John Calipari who once led UMass to the Final Four. Forget the ensuing scandal.

Florida and their fans appeared almost bored as they dispatched Santa Barbara 79-51. UCLA nipped Michigan State 78-76, but by that time, I was home in Spring Hill watching on television. Enough was enough. I was at the stadium for nine hours and didn’t care about either team.

Two days later, I was back at the Forum to watch Erving Walker score 10 of Florida’s last 12 points, to send UCLA back to California. Kentucky and future professional (next year) Brandon Knight woke up to dispatch West Virginia 71-63.

Florida and Kentucky will be “my teams” now for the rest of the tourney since my Big East teams (St. John, Pitt, Villanova, Georgetown, Notre Dame, etc.) have lost, shredding my brackets in the process.

All in all, the basketball weekend was well worth the money, in spite of the seats. I must admit I was almost as impressed by the cheerleader squads as the basketball athletes. Kentucky’s squad once performed an amazing, perfectly synchronized back flip with six male and six female cheerleaders. Strangely, I will remember the losing Princeton squad the most.

I shall now cross NCAA tournament basketball off my bucket list and focus on running the Boston Marathon and flying with the Blue Angels.


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