Back in the forties, when I was a boy, I was a Dodgers fan … A Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Those were the days when there were eight teams in each league, none of them, for God’s sake, on the West Coast, one hundred fifty-four games a season, and no need for asterisks next to records. Football and Basketball meant nothing to me, I had never heard of soccer, and save for the two occasions on which I actually went to a game [in one of which I saw Rex Barney pitch a no-hitter against the Giants at the Polo Grounds], my connection to baseball was the little radio on which I could listen to the play-by-play after I had gone to bed.
Well, the Dodgers moved to LA, the Giants moved to San Francisco, and nobody I knew rooted for the Yankees. That would have been like rooting for General Motors. In the Sixties, when I was teaching at Columbia [or, as it calls itself, Columbia University in New York City], I had a brief fling with the Mets, and rooted for Cleon Jones the year he hit 340. I even sat in the bleachers at Fenway and watched Yaz during my years at Harvard. But real serious fandom died in me when the Dodgers left town.
Nine years ago, after I retired, Susie and I moved to Chapel Hill. I had dragged her north from here in ’87 to marry me, and it seemed only fair to return the compliment twenty-one years later. I knew Chapel Hill was a college town, so the first thing I did was to go downtown looking for a bookstore. I figured there had to be one, what with UNC Chapel Hill being a big deal State University and all, but when I found it, it seemed to be selling nothing but Tar Heels memorabilia in a sickening shade of light blue. I very quickly learned that the university and the entire town were basketball crazy. Michael Jordan could have been elected mayor unopposed if he had not considered it beneath him. Instead he opened a Nissan dealership in the next town over.
Which brings me to the Sweet Sixteen. Every American, even those consumed by radical politics, knows that the annual NCAA men’s basketball championship, known as March Madness, is a six round sixty-four team elimination played over three weekends. On the first weekend, the sixty-four are winnowed down to sixteen – the Sweet Sixteen. The next weekend, which begins tonight at 7:30 Eastern Time, reduces the survivors to four, The Final Four. On the final weekend, the semis and finals are played and a champion is crowned.
UNC Chapel Hill has won five championships, far and away the greatest boast of this supposedly educational institution. Not even a horrific scandal involving twenty years of phony grades awarded to basketball players [and frat boys, but nobody seems to have cared about them] could weaken the loyalty of the entire town. It tells you pretty much all you need to know that the coach makes two and a half times as much as the University Chancellor.
This year, UNC Chapel Hill was seeded first in its bracket, and having won its first two games, will participate tomorrow evening in the Round of Sixteen. I have been compelled by irresistible social pressure to pretend to root for the Tar Heels. My wife, who is a fanatic basketball lover, actually divides her loyalties between UNC and the Duke Blue Devils, but since Duke was obliterated last weekend by a lower rated opponent, she is free to put all her considerable support behind the Tar Heels.
So don’t try to reach me tomorrow evening. I shan’t be picking up the phone.