Basketball Rose Bowl

It’s happening. I really can’t believe it. I’m staring out at the Wasatch mountain range that borders the far outskirts of Salt Lake City and thinking “this is the city”.  I always wondered whether it would be Providence, Albuquerque or some other tiny locale that would be subject to the purple invasion, but SLC –after being here just 12 hours seems, so,  well, Northwestern.

My “moment” came yesterday when former LTP contributor, Phillip Rossman-Reich sent a photo of Northwestern practicing on a floor graced with a March Madness logo.  I stopped in my tracks. It was breathtaking. Like a beautiful newborn baby.  Then, hours later as the purple invaded Squatter’s in SLC (thanks to the friend of LTP spreading the word) Kevin Rankin shared the cover photo with me.

No words necessary, right? Squatter’s in downtown Salt Lake City became an incredible impromptu reunion. A slew of former players were there as well as what was one of the largest NU alumni reunion contingents convening for a hoops gathering outside of Evanston. I told Teddy Greenstein that I didn’t see a bar full of people, but just a sea of stories waiting to be told. One former classmate told me my LTP group emails that were passed along inspired them to come – you were on the fence, but the passion and “this is it” factor put you over the edge. It’s KILLING me that I didn’t drag a few of the others out here. Those of you reading this that are feeling the “that’s me” – yes, it is you. I wish you could experience this.

The surreal factor of being on the “Road to the Final Four” was exacerbated by SLC’s liquor laws.  Take the quirkiness of Evanston’s Burger King bagging rules and The Keg’s food and drink policy and you have every bar in SLC.  Our pack of purple mingled by the bar and we expanded well in to the “dining area”. The workers were pissed as we clogged their lanes of serving folks. You couldn’t open up a tab b/c they don’t “technically have bartenders” but they will hold your credit card and charge you at the end. Then, my favorite, the Zion curtain rule – if you order a mixed drink, they mix it behind a black curtain or in a separate room – I kid you not. It felt so, well, Northwestern.

My running icebreaker with any former player I saw and talked to was 1)ask about the emotion of what this means and 2)tell me about your recruiting trip compared to other places.   I was on a podcast recently and the topic of Evan Eschmeyer came up and how big a deal it was to land him as a recruit in the 1990’s. I spontaneously told the West Lot Pirates podcasters about his recruiting trip since it involved Kevin Rankin calling me and Mark Gordon to see if he could “hang out with us and this big time recruit” at our fraternity. It was summertime so there was no one on campus and nothing to do. We talked in a room for 4 hours and then decided to go to White Castle at 1 am in the Edgewater part of Chicago. No Chicago, no meeting women…nothing…just a few nerds hanging out.  I’ll never forget Kevin the next day telling me “well, after that scintillating recruiting showing, there is no way in hell he’s coming here.”

Yet, he did.

And so did so many people who turned down “safe” offers to try and make a difference in a program and school’s history. Every single person that played at  Northwestern bought in to the dream. They bought in to the dream of being “the one” or “the team” that broke through. I can’t even begin to imagine the emotion going through your veins right now. As former Wildcat guard, Joe Branch (’98) told me last night “that dream was sold and bought by hundreds of us.”

The scene at Squatter’s grew cooler by the hours. Guys were handing out beer b/c “my buddy Sean bet me 2 years ago we wouldn’t make it to the Dance within 2 years…I won $500 and here it is in beer form.”  Bar-wide chants of “Go U, N-U” broke out every 30-45 minutes (OK, so it was me starting two of them) and watching regular patrons look at us like the purple mob we were..well…it felt “like the least Northwestern thing ever” as Seth Meyer’s tweet of the year said.

Teddy Greenstein told me last night this is the “Basketball Rose Bowl”.  I said “that’s it – that’s the title of my next post”, yet when I went to log in to LTP the damn site was broken. First time ever. On this day. Well, that is so, Northwestern.  Within minutes of those words, Darnell Autry – “The Real Deal”  – and star of our 1995 Rose Bowl team literally bumped in to our group.  I smiled. I pondered. This was real. Football Rose Bowl.

I asked Darnell what he was doing on New Year’s Eve 1995 and how much he remembers that night. The moment before the moment. He described his night before every game ritual – visualizing every single thing that could go wrong – fumbles, bad moves, etc.. – everything. And then, he would think “none of that is going to happen” and he fell right asleep.  In some ways I feel that mentality is what we’re all going through. We’re transitioning our mindsets around Northwestern by flushing out the negative. A win today….? Man, what that would do to us.

Nothing says Basketball Rose Bowl like Darnell Autry in the house.
Nothing says Basketball Rose Bowl like Darnell Autry in the house.

Darnell also talked about being so caught up in the moment that it wasn’t until he ran out of the tunnel right before the game and “saw more than half of the stadium in purple” (his eyes widened as he told it) that it became very, very real. I was there. Many of you were there. It was, and will always be, the single best sports moment in our lives. We had arrived and the tiny school that could had packed a Rose Bowl with 55,000 purple fans. We all were speculating on how purple the arena will be today. I’m feeling pretty good about it.

The term “house money” is being tossed around in every conversation. We’re convincing ourselves we’ll be loose. Kevin Rankin described the contrast between Gonzaga’s practice (guys joking around, half court shots, etc..) and Chris Collins running an efficient 2-hour practice in 35 minutes. It’s this moment where we all trust in Chris – a typical mid-March day for him – at the NCAA Tourney. Routine. Business. Results.

Some 20 years from now we’ll be talking to these players about this moment. The moment they take the court in front of a throng of purple and what it means.  For those of us in the stands, it will be indescribable. I CANNOT WAIT.

We all desperately want one win. We want to stick around and savor every second of being nationally relevant. Random folks here are saying “congratulations on your first ever tournament”.  The novelty is a “thing” right now and we all want to ride this train as far as possible. Because despite a bit of the Eeyore complex from so many years of losing, we are the most optimistic of fans. And, with a 1-seed on the horizon, we all kind of think..this could happen. I was just stopped by a table of Gonzaga fans who were congratulating me on the ‘Cats. They knew all about us – and were nervous about a potential match-up with us. “If you can spread us out and play that “D” you guys are so good at, man, you’ve got a chance”.  I told them, I can’t even think about Gonzaga…it’s all Vanderbilt right now. I kid you not, I have not seen one Vandy fan yet (it’s all Arizona, Northwestern and Gonzaga).

Those of you who aren’t here – we’re thinking of you. Reserve your flight now and if we win, pull the trigger. I promise you won’t regret it. Tickets are easy to come by and we’re gonna pack this place with purple. For those of you that are here, here is the itinerary:

– 10 am mt for the Pep Rally (800 confirmed) at Pierpont Place

-Beat Vandy

-Postgame – send everyone to Gracie’s – 326 S W Temple St. – they’ve given us the entire second floor and patio for NU-only fans.

Lot of great pieces going on out there:

 

For those of you here in SLC take photos, tag @LakeThePosts on Twitter. I want to document every ounce of this day.

 

FIRE UP! Go ‘Cats!!!