It was March 7, 2003, and my 12th birthday was just five days away.
As an early birthday present, my dad and I jumped in the car and drove downtown to watch Drake and Illinois State play in the opening round of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. I think my dad wanted to relive his the glory days by watching Drake, the school he attended many years ago. But I didn't need a reason to watch basketball.
I was obsessed with the college game. Every part of it. So even though I knew little about the Missouri Valley -- just that Drake played in it and Creighton usually had teams in the NCAA Tournament -- I was more than happy to accompany him on this particular Thursday night.
Apparently, they called this event Arch Madness. If only I had known that night it would become my favorite weekend of the year, and that I would quickly learn to love the Valley more than any conference in America. There was a magic to Arch Madness, a calmness and peacefulness throughout the entire arena. I don't remember much about the game, but I remember how I felt. I remember that a Drake player named Lonnie Randolph became my new favorite player, and I remember that the Bulldogs missed a shot at the buzzer and lost by a point.
I have better memories of watching the players storm from the tunnel to take the floor as the band simultaneously played the school fight song. I remember seeing the spattering of every color throughout the building, even though most of the schools' fans would not show up until the quarterfinals the next day. There were the sounds of the tiny student sections chanting inaudible phrases, the smells of the unhealthy concession stand food and the sights of the players and coaches fighting for their lives to save their seasons and avoid elimination. That's what makes this tournament really special. It matters. Besides the few teams fighting for at-large bids, there is a sense of desperation during every minute of every game. You can feel that from your spot in the stands -- that every player and coach has worked for hours upon hours and years upon years for these moments.
When Drake lost in 2003, it didn't matter much to me. I had never heard of any of the players and had nothing invested in it. But you better believe the people in that locker room were crushed.
I knew that night I'd want to come back every single season. And that's what I did, all the way until 2012, which marked my 10th straight Arch Madness. A decade later, as I settled into my seat to watch these same Drake Bulldogs play Bradley, I immediately remembered why the first weekend of March is my favorite weekend of the year. Even with a small crowd on this Thursday play-in night, I wished I could freeze time. I wished I could watch this game forever, that the clock would never stop ticking and I could sit in this seat for eternity. I just wanted to capture this moment: the sounds, the sights, the game, the players, the coaches, the referees. I have just one year left at the University of Missouri, which means after graduating in 2013 I may take a job in a foreign state far, far away from Arch Madness. After next year, I might never come back to this thing.
So every second mattered to me. I was in awe of this game, and it wasn't even competitive. Bradley, the worst team in the league, did not score for the first six minutes of the game and fell behind 12-0 right away. It was a blowout, and yet I was captivated.
I couldn't watch Lonnie Randolph anymore, since he's probably holding a steady job somewhere as he approaches middle age. But I could watch Rayvonte Rice, the skilled sophomore Bulldog who might just be the next star of this program. As he glided from spot to spot, I realized that these players come and go. So do the coaches, and even the fans to an extent. But the Drake Bulldogs show up in St. Louis every single season, a comforting reminder in a world of constant change.
Nostalgia is the most powerful emotion in the world. As I watched Drake play in 2012, I couldn't help but remember 2003. I mostly tuned out the game once Bradley fell behind 12-0. Instead, I watched the coaches. The way Drake coach Mark Phelps waltzed around the sidelines like a madman. The way Geno Ford tried to keep his team calm on the other end, trying to give the impression that his demeanor would never change. I watched the players. The seniors on Bradley would never play basketball again, and they knew it. You could see it in their eyes.
I watched the fans. The crowd was small to begin with, and it shrunk and shrunk as Drake's lead grew. Still, the ones that remained seemed just like me -- happy to be there, no matter the score.
And I still wished I could just freeze time. Or at least travel back to 2003, when Arch Madness was a completely foreign concept to me. In 2012, I wouldn't turn 12 in a few days-- I would turn 21. But even legal beer couldn't be a better present than the first time I watched this tournament. My tournament.
DRAKE 65, BRADLEY 49 03/01/2012
BRADLEY 7-25 (2-16) -- W. Lemon Jr 5-13 4-6 16; D. Simms-Edwards 5-12 3-5 14; J. Eastman 1-11 2-2 4; A. Thompson 2-2 0-1 4; S. Shayok 0-0 2-2 2; J. Crawford 1-5 0-0 3; J. Prosser 3-6 0-0 6; C. Woods 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 17-50 11-16 49. DRAKE 17-14 (9-9) -- B. Simons 5-14 3-3 16; R. Rice 7-13 4-5 18; J. Jeffers 3-9 2-2 8; J. Clarke 2-6 1-1 5; K. Alexander 4-7 0-2 8; D. Smith 1-1 0-0 2; A. Hawley 2-2 1-2 6; K. Woods 1-2 0-0 2; K. Madison 0-0 0-0 0; C. Parker 0-0 0-0 0; J. Welfringer 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-55 11-15 65.
Three-point goals: BRAD 4-20 (J. Eastman 0-4; C. Woods 0-1; D. Simms-Edwards 1-5; W. Lemon 2-6; J. Crawford 1-4), DRKE 4-13 (A. Hawley 1-1; B. Simons 3-7; K. Alexander 0-1; J. Jeffers 0-2; R. Rice 0-1; J. Welfringer 0-1); Rebounds: BRAD 28 (J. Eastman 7), DRKE 34 (J. Clarke 9); Assists: BRAD 8 (D. Simms-Edwards 3), DRKE 12 (B. Simons 3); Total Fouls -- BRAD 14, DRKE 19; Fouled Out: BRAD-None; DRKE-None.