There were maybe 20 of our purple-clad gang sitting around an outdoor patio table at the mainstay Salt Lake City postgame gathering spot, Gracie’s, just blocks away from Vivint Smart Home Arena. As we chilled in the uncanny 75-degree weather, a pair of TVs 20 feet away repeatedly cut in to March Madness coverage with images of THE Goaltend (joining “The Pass” and “The Foul” in NU hoops lexicon), followed by a long shot of Chris Collins’s facial grimaces on the post game dais. We couldn’t hear the audio, but the frequency of the visuals let us know just how big a story this had become.
We were part of a hundred or so mellow Wildcat fans who had exited the arena after Nate Taphorn and Vic Law saluted the Wildcat crowd one last time. None of us had much interest in watching Arizona-St. Mary’s after the mind-boggling experience fresh in our memory banks. We were perhaps halfway through the 12 stages of recovery from the game and were slowly transitioning in to reflective mode. Our table was a mix of my fraternity buds from college, a handful of Wildcat fans from the ’07 era who joined our group and my father-in-law, Jack, as diehard a non-NU alum as you’ll find.
It was the very same bar, that just 48 hours earlier, was packed to its entirety with jubilant Wildcat fans celebrating the nail-biting Vanderbilt victory. A simple LTP email and blog post meant to Julie McCoy the sea of purple had turned an initial small group gathering in to some sort of Wildcat Fibonacci multiplier. Gracie’s owner, Dino, had told me he’d save the upstairs for Wildcat fans if I could bring 100 (he sounded skeptical). He estimated the actual turnout to be somewhere between 500-700 and proclaimed it the biggest crowd he’d ever had.
On this night, the much smaller crowd had created its own sub-groups gobbling up pretty much every seat on the patio. As Wildcat fans trickled in, we all gave thumbs up to one another with smirks, which seemed to say the same thing – “great comeback, crappy call, proud of our team.”
The debate about Chris Collins’ passion being what got us there versus the need to contain himself in that moment was playing out at our table. Having been in the arena to witness the incredibly poor first half play by our ‘Cats that was only topped in infamy by the terrible officiating, most sided on the fact we would’ve done the same thing. The refs were brutal – both ways, no less – missing a handful of incorrect out of bounds calls, missed fouls (hello Isiah Brown tip) and a choppy, ticky-tack turned no-call inconsistent game that dominated the conversation.
As the second half Wildcat rally began to unfold, the emotions in that arena were hard to convey. Incredible noise and bandwagon Cinderella fans turned Vivint in to a home game once again. Northwestern had more fans than every other program all weekend, but when Nate Taphorn hit his first of two threes, it was game on for the rest of the arena.
Each crappy call turned grown adults in to the same emotional plane as Jim Phillip’s son who became the most popular social media meme of the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga fans in our row conceded “this is just brutal, brutal officiating – both ways.” If Gonzaga was our latest rock, when you combined it with our own fault-induced first half hole and the officiating, we were facing basketball’s Mt. Everest.
Yet, there was the moment – the one we’ll all cling to as that instant frozen in time where we thought “we’re winning this thing.” Once down 21 in the second half, the lead was down to seven with under six minutes remaining. Bryan McIntosh’s pull-up 3-pointer caromed to the right and an unguarded Vic Law elevated and jammed home a two-handed put back that had the entire arena in full-on, full-throated primal screams. The ‘Cats now down just 5 forced a Gonzaga timeout among man-hugs galore. Section 113, my section (half court upper deck) was tackling one another with joy as we jumped up and down. Welsh-Ryan west was on.
Jack, my father-in-law, had declared he was in with me on this can’t-miss trip back on March 1, 2017, the night of “The Pass.” He watches every game and attends every home football tailgate we’ve had. He’s a die hard. He’s also the same guy who 48 hours earlier served as my human crutch to get me through the final minute of the Vandy game. At this point, he was straddling the role of an NU die hard and a third party observer to this circus show of a weekend. He just nodded and paced in our row saying, “I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe it.” There wasn’t a sliver of doubt we weren’t going to win this game. Destiny’s darlings, no doubt.
The ensuing Scottie Lindsey swat with a hair over 5 minutes to go kept the volume at a max of 11 on a scale of 10. Then, Dererk Pardon’s goaltended shot happened. The ensuing tech on an incredulous and animated Chris Collins. An instantaneous 4-point swing that shattered the chisel pounding basketball’s Everest.
The video scoreboard, about the size of Welsh-Ryan itself, displayed what you saw at home – a no-brainer missed call, by three officials. I still can’t believe it. Goaltending is not reviewable, but this very play I hope leads to a rule change where coaches get one official challenge a game.
I’ll go to my grave believing in the sliding doors of live that we win that game if they make that call.
“Having found their way this month to a fresh perch of giddiness, Northwestern fans on Saturday found their way to a further pleasure of fandom: aggrievedness. Lucky them.
Like so many of their American brethren of basketball and football, they’ll get to spend the rest of their days with the chance to practice one of the treasured human pastimes: reliving an officiating error, then envisioning how the whole wretched ending would have altered without said officiating error.”
Chuck’s bittersweet empathy note struck the note we all left Salt Lake City with….we belong. The officiating screw job is part of the new club we’re in – the club of basketball relevance. Every program of note has one of them in their NCAA Tournament annals. We are now part of the “N Club”. “N” for normal basketball program that can be a regular participant in the Big Dance without having it be THE national sports story just for participating. “N” for never having to hear about the basketball version of the scarlet (purple?) letter in every basketball telecast ever as “the only major conference team to never have made the tournament”. “N” for not having the words “Northwestern basketball” conjure up “negative” sentiment as we no longer have to feel as though the basketball Gods are conspiring against us (NCAA refs, well, that’s a different club).
As the sun began to fade on our season at Gracie’s the group was debating the best locale for the 2018 first round draw. Nashville emerged as the favored choice, though several members of our new NU optimists club pointed out a good seed would likely send us to Detroit for geographic consideration. These are the nice problems to have. A new normal.
Our crew began rationalizing how next year’s likely NCAA Tournament appearance would perhaps be even bigger in size from a fan attendance perspective. Those of us who attended will want to bask in this all over again. Sure, the novelty of “First.Time.Ever” had us all using the term “Basketball Rose Bowl”, but we chatted how we feel even more compelled to strong arm anyone who didn’t come for nothing more of wanting them to share such a joyful experience.
I heard two phrases all weekend long that kept popping up from the dominant 1990s era throng of purple. One was the ESPN 30 for 30 (I call dibs on making it, by the way) mantra – “What if I were to tell you…” and the other was “1.21 gigawatts” in reference to the iconic Back the Future line, implying we had been transported to this moment in a time machine.
While nothing in my sports lifetime will compare to the Northwestern Rose Bowl appearance, from a Wildcat fan experience, Salt Lake City was actually better in a few ways. The condensed downtown area was similar to Indianapolis, where every fan is staying within a six-to-eight block radius of the arena. For four days, purple dominated the streets to the point where you didn’t even have to give a sly, “Go ‘Cats”. On route to games, pep rallies and postgame bars, we barely recognized any other colors, and certainly no throngs of fans. Salt Lakers commented repeatedly on the amount of fans and we took over the town. The concentration of fans made it easy to congregate as one, yet surreal in many ways as well.
After the Vanderbilt win, things got really wacky. My buddy Mike kept inquiring about how many “marriage pesos” (in reference to the currency mostly guys used to extend or attend their visit to “Bracketville”) friends cashed in to get here. Now that we were here through Saturday, there was an element of “what the heck do we do on Friday?”
Coincidentally, ComicCon, a wildly popular comic book character convention was kicking off on Friday at the convention center next to the arena. So, there we were, a town filled with thousands of purple-clad fans in wildly unseasonably warm weather (it was 75 and sunny the entire time) passing adults dressed in everything from Harry Potter outfits to scantily-clad, I-have-no-idea characters. Throw in St. Patrick’s Day on the in-between game days and you have an elixir for a scene that really defies description.
It felt like a live version of the old game show “This Is Your Life” was unfolding.
On Thursday, a pregame, in-arena text beckoned me to meet in the concourse for a group of fellow WNUR Sports (student radio station) alumni.
On Friday, Kyle Henneberry, a former Wildcat basketball walk-on (’97) organized an alumni basketball game at a nearby rec center mixing a few varsity guys and my club basketball teammates (we played again on Saturday and have committed to growing this tradition in future tournament cities to make it our own “tradition unlike any other). Kyle, a Spokane native and diehard Gonzaga fan as a kid, became the angle for fan coverage in his hometown.
Every fan in Salt Lake seemingly had a passionate story, a membership application of sorts for being in the club.
That Friday afternoon, Jack (my father-in-law) and I happened to stumble upon the Lumpkin and Taphorn families in a sports bar. Jack got the full family story from Sanjay’s grandfather and enjoyed his time with Grandmother Lynn who regaled him with tales of attending every single game in Sanjay’s time (and explaining that “Sanjay” means “victorious” in Indian). Meanwhile, my always-on, dig deeper for a story sensibility was in gear talking with Nate Taphorn’s mom and dad. Lisa Taphorn described “The Pass” from her vantage point in the stands and she hilariously re-enacted how she was trying to get his attention in the aftermath from the stands yelling “Nathan…Nathan…” to no avail. As she watched hundreds pour on the court she looked around and said “why not?” and she too flooded on to the floor to join the embrace.
In between all the events, I spent much time text shaming friends in to joining us in Salt Lake, sending photos of me with friends they knew – and it worked. My buddy Scott, the New Orleans Pelicans team doctor, made a day of decision, bought a flight and would crash on my hotel room floor. A bunch of grown-ups back in the time machine acting like kids again.
The Northwestern brass hit the “lather, rinse, repeat” button for the alumni pep rally, which I described in detail here from Thursday. Greeny returned as emcee and after Jim Phillips asked the crowd and the band if we knew the way to San Jose, Pat Fitzgerald popped on stage and became chief cheerleader. This was an encore to Fitz’s Thursday act, where he stood on his chair in the arena leading the arena in “Let’s Go ‘Cats!” cheers that reverberated throughout the arena. Jack sat there and nodded, saying “There is no other school on the planet that has this…it’s simply unbelievable. What a special, special feeling this is. That is your football coach for crying out loud.”
Jack repeatedly asked rhetorically “what made the connection so special?” throughout the weekend. I pondered that question as each day went by. Was it the small size of the school? Was it the connection of many of us that dreamed the dream of big time academics and the Big Ten athletic experience, that never quite materialized until after we graduated?
Nope. It was the people. Plain and simple. The kind of folks you created deep meaningful connections with because you admired most of them in ways that celebrated their uniqueness. Sure, many other schools have that I’m sure too, but something about this mix is indeed tough to put your finger on. That underdog bond so many of us share. Five, ten, twenty years later seeing people and slipping right back in to being 20-year-olds again.
A part of me thought the ComicCon characters were going to grab us and shove us back in to the 1990s where our group first originated “will it ever happen?” dreams. Instead, a former club basketball teammate of mine who had married my college girlfriend, high-fived me and introduced me to his beautiful kids and asked to pose for a photo to send back their mom. That moment provided a lump in the throat – somehow living in this time machine-driven future and connecting the dots of life backward and feeling pure joy for so many of the friends whose lives have turned out so well.
It was fascinating to catch up on the sliding door decisions of life for all of the friends and acquaintances I hadn’t seen in ages that converged like a 68-team bracket funneling down to the national championship. They had been in my “early rounds” of life, as I had to them, and now, just like the Final Four slogan, it felt in some ways like “The Road Ends Here”.
This was the moment. The one that we pictured in a funny way, wondering what age we’d be and life juncture we’d be, when the day finally came when we went dancing. March 16 and March 18, 2017. Salt Lake City. A city forever etched in ‘Cats fans’ minds and tinted purple.
I repeatedly shared my past 20+ year journey and how I had lucked out on my own life “draw”, including my wife, whom I met through a fellow NU grad and of course, my three girls. Jack became one with Wildcat nation as we both bragged about my wife/his daughter to whom I didn’t have to use any marriage pesos for this moment.
Of all the ‘Cats fans in my extended network, only two of them did not make the trek. On Saturday, it was almost an even exchange of a new influx of friends and fans replacing the outflux who had overdrawn on their marriage pesos.
One of the no-shows, was my pal Dan. As I sat in the cafeteria area of the concourse 45-minutes before tip-off, hundreds had gathered to watch the end of the Wisconsin-Villanova game on a big screen. Northwestern was the dominant fan base in this area so I figured, why not bring Dan in the arena with us? Scott and I Facetimed him. I stood up with my phone so he could see the crowd and simply yelled a series of “Go-U…” chants which were met with boisterous “N-U” responses. He lost it laughing, shaking his head.
The other die hard missing was my friend Willie. He was in New York City giving the eulogy for former Wildcat football standout and 1955 team captain, Sandy Sacks, whose memorial service was lined up a long time ago for this date. The passionate Wildcat fan and former head of the New York alumni club chapter was LTP rapid in his love of all things Northwestern. The irony of this date, coinciding almost with tip-off of Northwestern’s second round NCAA Tourney game was apparently not lost on attendees. Northwestern president Morty Schapiro, conspicuously missing from round two festivities was attending these very services.
It’s gestures, and priorities like this that make me proud of our community.
It’s the one-word takeaway from four days in Salt Lake City for those of us that attended will forever bond us. The sense that “we were there” as the brand ambassadors for our school that had been a punchline in basketball circles for the past eight decades and was now a team and a brand that stood for packing a punch. Seeing Arizona, St. Mary’s and general basketball fans on their feet partaking in ear-piercing “Let’s Go ‘Cats” chants is, like so many elements of this experience, indescribable. We had no idea what the commentators were saying, but you could just feel the nation tuning in and trying to collectively will what very well would’ve been the most epic comeback in NCAA Tournament history. Something that seemed so right for this team and this program.
Back at Gracie’s, serious debates around potential 2018 NCAA first round sites continued. We discussed the Allstate X-factor of next year and Wildcat fans we’d never met before impressed us with their intimate knowledge of every returning player on this team. This much passion this deep in to March made us chuckle that we hadn’t even begun the mental countdown to football season (only five months til kickoff), yet we were already locked in for next basketball season, even pondering Chris Collins’ non-conference scheduling philosophy.
The player-by-player optimistic opinions and unfair projections began in earnest. What will B-Mac be like as a senior? Can Vic Law improve his consistency? Will Scottie Lindsey make another leap in his game this off-season? How will Pardon’s incredible play in clutch minutes translate in to his junior year? Will Falzon be the old Falzon post injury? Can Gavin Skelly improve his 3-point shooting? What will Rap’s post presence do to our depth and chemistry? We were having basketball school conversations, just like most “high hoops IQ” programs.
The sense and true belief that this experience could become an annual? Well, it was pretty comforting as we reflected on one of those you had-to-be-there-to-believe-it experiences.
Jack did not sleep on Saturday night. He was so pissed off at the goaltending call he woke up in the middle of the night and re-read the coverage of the game. This run wasn’t supposed to end this way, or so he thought. He mentioned repeatedly how he wished, in retrospect, he had gone to Northwestern so he could be even more a part of this “N” club. What he didn’t realize is that he actually was – and is – no longer does it need to be assumed you “must be an alum” if you’re simply a fan. Wildcat basketball fandom is not exclusive, it has never been more inclusive. Hop on board, grab a friend and come cheer for our fair name.
That’s what normal programs do.