DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Cures and diseases are so closely related. They often define each other -- a cure is designed to erase a disease, which in turn must build resistance and immunity in order to survive and destroy. As I found out again this summer, booster shots introduce a small amount of the disease in order to help the host recognize and withstand a larger attack. And in very rare instances, a cure can manifest itself in an overwhelming dose of the disease.
So it might be for Basketball Madness. At some point during the 12-hour stretch of five games on Saturday, I felt my strength and gumption flag. I was woozy and overcome, and experienced the very first pangs of disinterest. I was facing down a firehose of college hoops at close range, a huge and highly concentrated amount, and I felt myself drowning.
I looked up at the Ocean Center game clock, and it read 11:23. I looked up soon thereafter, and it read 4:23. I zoned out. I lost focus. I stood on apathy cliff, and stared over the edge into the swirling darkness.
The Glenn Wilkes Classic is no televised 24-hour college basketball marathon, where you're free to get off the couch, go take a nap or walk the dog. You can always catch up later with the DVR. No, this was 36 hours of total basketball immersion over three days -- the college basketball ironman triathlon. It was a test for the body, the stomach and the soul. At every moment there were two choices: keep going and keep watching basketball, or give up.
I stuck around. There in the four-decade old Ocean Center in downtown Daytona, I personally witnessed what could very well have been the most intensive, undiluted display of Division I college basketball in history. There have always been high school, juco and NAIA multi-headers that go from sunup to well after midnight. But not even the old-timers in the house could remember any event that brought 10 teams into one building, all of which are fully eligible for the National Championship, to play three games each over three days. With no lunch or dinner breaks.
This was the third annual GWC. Two years ago, when it first started, there were eight teams. Last year, the organizers had trouble filling the field and had to bring in a pair of lower division schools to play with the four D-1's. But this year, SportTours International brought together Akron, Auburn, Austin Peay, Drake, Georgia State, Howard, IUPUI, Niagara, North Carolina State and Central Florida.
Seven of the competing teams are on our side of the Red Line, so I watched 13 of the 15 games with intense interest. And SportTours is arguably the most mid-friendly multi-team event company out there, always making sure that teams from the Other 24 get a fair shake. It was one of the first pioneer that explored the limits of the "Hawaii exemption," bringing teams overseas to . Now, they're making the most of the 4-for-1 possibilities of the post-2-in-4 era.
The small-school spirit was everywhere. Bret Seymour, the on-site manager of the GWC, is a Bradley grad. And Glenn Wilkes, the man the event is named for, is a legendary local coach who won 674 games in 41 seasons, mostly with nearby Stetson. The Atlantic Sun, the Hatters' current conference, was the official host (mostly because the NCAA mandates that a school or conference has to be the official host). The Stetson sports information crew, one of the most diligent and resourceful in the league, handled every single game, and never took a break on any of the three days, from 11 am to 11 pm.
All weekend, Coach Wilkes himself sat under the far basket at a press-row table, holding court. Old friends, white-haired locals, and coaches from the 10 participating staffs dropped by his make-believe campfire, and they swapped stories and laughter for hours on end. This is a true mid-major hoops legend, a man who's known across the Sunshine State as the "Godfather of Florida Basketball."
Coach Wilkes never became woozy or overcome. Hearing his big laugh from the other end of the floor kept reminding me, all weekend long, that I have a long way to go in building my endurance, to keep my Hoops Fever at whatever cost. I must keep building up my resistance to the cure.
One of the greatest things about the conference tourneys in March is that towns like Richmond and Albany and Nashville turn into alumni gatherings. Groups of people decked out in t-shirts and sweatshirts, all in green or blue or purple or red, travel in packs around the city, taking over restaurants and bars, chanting their chants and singing the fight songs.
The Glenn Wilkes Classic was a small glimpse of what's to come. Across the famous Florida A1A thoroughfare from the Ocean Center is the Daytona Hilton, a two-towered resort hotel that on this weekend was filled with players, coaches, families and fans.
Walking around the corridors of the Hilton, one could really sense a friendly early-season basketball community, like baseball-style spring training in the late autumn. Players mingled with supporters, and in every conference room and ballroom there was a pep rally, a team meeting or a team meal. The schools involved were from so many different places that there was none of the passive-aggressiveness and antagonism of an elimination atmosphere. Folks in Akron's "Fear the Roo" t-shirts said hello to those in Drake blue or IUPUI red. We were all there for the same reason.
Not many people were there from Niagara or Howard, however. When the two participant schools from the northeast corner of Hoops Nation met on Friday morning at 11 am, there were fewer than 20 people in the stands.
Howard University, located in our nation's capital, received the rawest deal of any of the 10 competing clubs. Not only were the Bison given three consecutive 11 a.m. starts, they had to play in their road uniforms all three times. Howard, a team that went 8-23 as a member of the MEAC last season, was afforded so little respect in this event that the game program inexplicably had the 2008-09 Utah Utes roster listed under the Bison logo. While the public address announcer scrambled for a correct listing, Howard's baskets were answered with empty and unnamed silence.
After that first 11 a.m. game on Friday, when head coach Gil Jackson was asked about playing a trio of morning games, he said, "You think that's tough, just imagine the 6:30 a.m. walkthroughs."
So I guess Coach Jackson could be forgiven for walking the sidelines in an oversized white T-shirt on Friday. He was probably so tired that he forgot he had woken up, and simply forgotten to change out of his pajamas.
His players certainly were pooped. After coming close against Niagara's porous defense in an 82-77 game, the team's performance slipped further as the weekend went on. The Bison could only manage 33 points on Saturday morning against Georgia State, and it took the players a long time to shuffle off the floor afterwards.
Howard scored 27 points in the first 30 minutes against Akron on Sunday, but was able to double the total in the final 10 when the Zips put their bench in. It was about as close to a moral victory as the Bison earned over the weekend, a three-day stretch of three quick losses to put the team in an 0-5 hole to start the 2009-10 season.
As soon as the Glenn Wilkes Classic began, there was a buzz in the Ocean Center. Rumors were rampant. Whispers twisted on the winds. We were due for a very special visitor, no less than the greatest basketball player in the history of the game.
Michael Jordan was coming.
This wasn't some random pipe dream-slash-fantasy. One of the participating teams in the GWC was Central Florida, the designated local school in the tourney among a far-flung field, and UCF is where Michael's son Marcus enrolled over the summer. So important is Jordan the younger to the program that the Golden Knights put their exclusive Adidas shoe deal on the line so that Marcus can wear his father's signature shoes.
UCF is also a classic example of how the Red Line works. When The Mid-Majority began in 2004-05, the Golden Knights were just wrapping up a run of dominance in the Atlantic Sun. We even cheered for them from courtside in the waning days of the 100 Games Project, as they failed to bring about a heroic upset of Connecticut in the NCAA first round.
But when the school went to Conference USA (a decision based on American-style football, as many of these things are), that was it. UCF crossed over the threshold, and we spoke their name no more. But here they were again, almost five years later, with their large support staff in their polo shirts and their logo-monogrammed everything. They had all the trimmings of a power-conference school. They also had a Jordan in tow.
Marcus, as a freshman, comes off the bench; he's generally the eighth man in the rotation. He'll have plenty of time to improve his flat-footed running, his awkward non-arcing shot, and carve a few pounds off his stocky frame. But he's already established a distinct personal sense of style.
As his father revolutionized basketball shorts, transforming their utility from a second pair of underwear into a wearable towel, his second son is bringing basketball eyewear to a new level. He rocks a pair of sleek black Oakleys on the court, tied to his head with a thin strap. Right now, it's more of an Urkel effect, but as I say, he's got time.
Marcus Jordan had seven points in 21 minutes on Friday night against Auburn, but his father didn't share the moment. Michael was nowhere to be found. In among the few thousand in attendance (far higher than any other game at the tourney), there were a number of Bulls jerseys worn by folks hoping for a five-dollar glimpse at the G.O.A.T., the newly-minted Hall of Famer. I could hear the murmured conversations on press row -- "He's such good friends with Coach Wilkes that he let him help run his Flight School... Coach Wilkes swore that he'd be here tonight!"
I know what I'd say to him. I've thought about this for years, on long car drives all across the country, and I've boiled it down to six simple words. If I ever meet Michael Jordan, the greatest of all time, I'll shake his hand, then I'll say in my best deadpan voice...
"You were great in Space Jam."
A pale, curly-haired kid in a blue No. 23 Wizards jersey walked around the court, around and around in circles, clutching a pen and a notebook while scanning the crowd for his hero. Was Michael in disguise? If he was, it was a good one. That slightly overweight African-American guy sitting alone in the far back of a courtside section wearing a Reebok ballcap... nawwww, that couldn't have been him.
Or could it have been?
On the second night, as UCF was blown out by Niagara, the stories got wilder. He was going to come in for just a few minutes, at the end. He was going to come out onto halfcourt and wave to the crowd. He was coming in a limo, and would be surrounded by bodyguards. He was coming, he was coming!
By the third night, people had given up hope. When UCF put in a late run to defeat Drake 59-50, the crowd was about a third of the size of the one on Friday. It was just a regular old basketball game.
At the end, the general consensus was that Michael's non-presence was a security issue. Brett from SportTours noted that there are no private boxes at the aging, paint-peeling Ocean Center.
"Seriously, where would we put him?" he asked me with a pronounced shoulder shrug.
Indeed, there was no place for Michael Jordan at the Glenn Wilkes Classic. This wasn't an event for superstars or millionaires. This was a mid-major event, named to celebrate the accomplishments of a mid-major coach, stocked with mid-major teams. There aren't many private boxes or dedicated security details on this side of the Red Line. MJ simply didn't belong.