It would be an exaggeration to say I’ve been an NCAA basketball junkie all my life. My addiction got serious in junior high when my friends and I played pickup games every afternoon and followed the West Virginia Mountaineers on the radio from WWVA in Wheeling at night.
We idolized the great Jerry West, a hero from what seemed to us New Jersey kids a remote and colorful land. “Zeke from Cabin Creek” led his team to the NCAA final game in 1959, losing to California 71-70. Nobody in West Virginia was more disappointed than us Jersey boys. West, of course, went on to a brilliant Hall of Fame career with the L.A. Lakers.
Although my own high school career was undistinguished, I was nevertheless hooked. In college, I had a nodding acquaintance with the late Jim Valvano, and drove down to Princeton and over to Madison Square Garden to watch Bill Bradley play. Meanwhile, I worked on my game, becoming a better player at 25 than 18.
But what really sealed the deal was marrying an Arkansas coach’s daughter. At the University of Virginia, where we met, Diane and I never missed a home basketball game. When you meet my wife, you don’t right away think “basketball star.”
But she told funny stories about her days as a 5-foot-2 forward for the Mount Saint Mary’s Belles. Little Rock public schools had no girls’ teams in those days. So she and her teammates rode school buses to get thrashed by “big old country girls” in places like Jessieville and Guy -- the only Catholics for miles around. Definitely a formative experience.
Having followed Diane the long way home from school, I resisted the Razorback obsession. Football had never been my thing: an equal-opportunity sport for clumsy people, we Jersey boys thought.
Then came Sidney Moncrief, Marvin Delph and Ron Brewer, three black kids from Little Rock, Conway and Fort Smith who changed the face of Arkansas athletics during the late 1970s. Literally, I mean.
“The Triplets,” as they were called, played with a flair and intensity that turned Arkansas into a basketball-obsessed state almost overnight. They did more to better the state’s racial climate than all the preachers and politicians combined.
Reaching the Final Four will do that for you.
For a while there, Moncrief was probably the most popular man in the state. He could probably have run for governor, but he chose to become an NBA All-Star instead. I once wrote a magazine profile of Sidney, and he was kind enough to remember my sons’ names. Brewer, too, had a long NBA career (so did his son Ronnie, also a Razorback). Delph turned down a pro career to preach the Gospel.
Anyway, list your negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Those guys refuted them all. I got really emotional watching the Triplets’ last game together, because I was sure we’d never see their like again.
Except, of course, that we did. Having become a strong local patriot, I wrote another magazine profile some years later about Nolan Richardson during his second season in Fayetteville, when anonymous experts on radio call-in shows insisted that Arkansas’ first black head coach was too undisciplined to succeed. I attended practices and did some interviews. Nolan’s players clearly loved and feared him in exactly the right proportion.
He’d won everywhere else, I wrote; he’d surely win at Arkansas. And win he did, including Arkansas’ only NCAA National Championship in 1994. It’s a story that’s been told better elsewhere, notably by the late Frank Deford.
Suffice it to say that the coach’s daughter and I never miss an Arkansas game on TV. Nor do our sons. One thing we love about the current team is that the roster is filled with Arkansas kids who grew up dreaming of being Razorbacks. Win or lose, it’s our team.
To me, fans of TV teams filled with “one-and-done” players from around the world are missing something important. Given Kentucky’s proud basketball tradition, for example, I’d pull for Western Kentucky and Northern Kentucky if I lived there.
Also, here’s the thing: I feel pretty much the same about your home team too. The opening weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament inspires me with great gusts of Woody Guthrie-style American patriotism. What an amazing and various country we have.
This year, I’m following Virginia, Kansas, Gonzaga, Michigan and Purdue. As the tournament continues, I’ll pick up a couple more.
To the question of whether all those kids we’ve cheered on over the years have been exploited in any real way, I’d say no.
They’ve been given an opportunity, not a guarantee. But sure, I’d give players a decent (and equal) stipend. I’d fix the one-and-done problem by making athletic scholarships a two-year commitment. A player could leave after one season, but the school couldn’t fill the vacancy.
You’d see more hometown heroes fast -- what the NCAA tournament is all about.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President,” St. Martin’s Press, 2000