Even though it’s actually April now, March Madness continues for at least another couple of days with the women’s NCAA tournament championship game tomorrow night and the men’s on Monday. As I type, I have the Villanova/Kansas game on in the background. Last weekend I and two good friends drove across the state to attend two of the women’s Elite Eight games in Spokane.
I don’t remember when I started following March Madness, but I don’t remember not following it. For as long as I remember, I’ve been riveted to the television and have occasionally attended in person. My dad and I went to the men’s final four in the Kingdome sometime in the late 1990s. I wish I still had that sweatshirt. I remember that Oklahoma State played and had a big guy on their team nicknamed Big Country. Seattle was awash in orange and black, UCLA baby blue and gold. I don’t remember what other teams were there, but I do remember the atmosphere, the electricity and excitement in the air. The trip to Spokane last weekend was similar. I was especially excited to get to see the Texas women play, having spent the past few months between home and Austin, it felt right to be cheering for the Longhorns. The Lady Longhorns beat Maryland in the Sweet 16 but ultimately fell to Stanford in the Elite Eight. And, sadly for the Pac12, (and for other reasons), Stanford lost to the UConn Huskies in the Final Four yesterday.
I played basketball in high school. Mostly, I rode the bench, but I had a few breakout games. I remember watching the Seattle SuperSonics at my grandparents’ house when I was very young—the names burned into my consciousness: coach Bill Russell, players Spencer Haywood, Lenny Wilkens, Slick Watts. Then Jack Sikma, downtown Freddy Brown, The Glove Gary Payton.
Eventually women’s NCAA basketball creeped into my awareness, but slowly. My first girlfriend and high school BFF played on Western Washington University’s team our freshman year, about the same time that women’s basketball started to make strides. The first women’s NCAA tournament was held in 1982 after the 1981-82 season with LATech, UCLA, Tennessee, and Cheyney. Tennessee and LATech became tournament regulars, along with Auburn, Old Dominion, Stanford, and eventually Connecticut. I became a regular at Western’s basketball games, all through my undergraduate and graduate school years. I wrote articles for the campus newspaper on the women’s teams, the coach, Lynda Goodrich, at the time one of the winningest women’s coaches in the country. As my awareness grew, I learned about the struggles women’s coaches faced: they had to fight for practice time in the gyms, drive the team buses, launder the team uniforms, BUY the team uniforms, generally all without any additional funds. So, is it really a surprise that I’d prefer to root for the teams coached by women? Tennessee, Stanford, South Carolina, Kentucky . . . those are the few that spring to mind immediately. Perennial Final Four contender UConn . . . I have complicated feelings about UConn.