March 25, 2008 12:58 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
This month has its place in the weather calendar, a rock-solid role. March thaw helps keep April showers warm, and as long as everything happens in the right order, May flowers won't be DOA. March basketball, however, is as unpredictable as global warming. You don't know who's going to win, where the path will lead, or how long it will last before you get sent home.
I left Rhode Island on March 13, the middle of Championship Fortnight, and haven't been back since. I didn't rent a car, since nobody could have guessed how long I'd be out for, or where I'd be going. So I drove the family sedan down to Atlantic City that Wednesday morning, just in time for a noon tip, and spent four days at the Atlantic 14 tournament. I had a routine, parking in the Caesar's lot by day, and disappearing out of town when the action was over.
On Selection Sunday, I packed up and headed west towards Dayton for my annual trip to the Play-In Game. That annual evening of 65 fates, I sat in a Bread Restaurant in Western Pennsylvania, the bracket matchups dribbling into my web browser in plain text, in silence. Without waiting for the full bracket, I excitedly fired off an e-mail.
Birmingham. That was the hot one. I could feel it.
In retrospect, I wish I could send a message back to that slightly younger self... Tampa, you idiot, Tampa! But it doesn't work like that. I had no idea that I'd be walking into chalk, the lowest-attended subregional of the eight as well as the only one where the higher seeds won all six games. Or that one of the best games at the Tournament so far, the Butler-Tennessee Easter Sunday second-rounder, would end in overtime heartbreak.
Me, I thought that there would be magic there, a mid-major matchup as well as three teams that we've covered all season with opportunities to power through to the second round. But if an outbreak of pure magic could be predicted, however, it wouldn't be.
Two days in Dayton were cold and drizzly, exactly the sort of post-nasal drippiness that might as well have been left in February. But eight hours of hilly highway later, and I was in someone else's sweet home, the place where stars fell, a city that was sung about by singers from Leadbelly to Harry Belafonte to Randy Newman.
Birmingham was warm, sunny, dry and dusty. It's the nexus of Interstates 65 and 20, with a flattened pair of spurs that complete a loop around the city and closely resemble a football on the map. This is SEC country, Roll Tide soo-ee country, but on this weekend it was one of the eight capitals of hoops.
And it's also one of the few cities where the Flying J (the Mid-Majority's version of the Days Inn) is on a street with a number on it, not miles out on the Interstate. It's conveniently located just four miles from the arena.
And this J was a lot like the others -- a spacious Country Harvest buffet restaurant, a lounge with work desks, faux-antiques for sale in the store shop, and free showers with my loyalty card. This one, however, had an old black man in a "I [heart] Jesus" ballcap who was sleeping in front of the TV all four days I went for my 5 a.m. shower, and lots of crimson Alabama sweatshirts for sale.
So once again, I drove into the parking lot beneath the glowing sign with the yellow, orange and red stripes, and made myself at home. Sweet home, this time.
Just after midnight Central time on Friday, after the first round quadruple-header, I left BJCC Arena and came back out to the car. When I started it up, the red battery light on the console started flashing.
At first, I thought it was some sort of metaphor. As teams we've been keeping track of all year in this space -- like American and Saint Joseph's and Boise State -- were summarily eliminated, the 2007-08 season was running down and dying before our eyes. We were down to our last few volts.
Anybody who's ever owned a foreign car, however, knows that that's the least helpful indicator on the dash. Because while you're trying to figure out what the light means, your alternator is dying a quick death. Nothing says "borrowed time" quite like running an entire car on battery power alone, without the appropriate magnets and coils necessary to recharge it as you drive.
Not that this was a surprise; at over 110,000 miles, the car was still on its first alternator, and it was its time to die. So I drove it back to the J -- slowly -- then shut off all the electronics, and waited until the next morning. Once the sun rose on Saturday, I babied it back to the arena for those 4.5 miles in time for work, and listened as journalists complained about the bad restaurants in downtown Birmingham as I tried to knock out a column. Then I made sure to leave again before the sun set, so that I didn't have to burn the lights.
I repeated the process on second-round Sunday, but because the games ended after dark, I stayed in the left lane and kept the blinkers on to compensate for the rapidly dimming headlights. I felt as dangerously exposed out there on the road as if I'd been riding a bicycle.
But even though the car could have completely died at any moment, leaving no opportunity for flashers or blinkers or heat, there wasn't much panic. March basketball trains a person that the road could end suddenly and without warning, that it could all be over without even moment's notice. You keep moving forward, simply because you still have the opportunity to do so.
At 5:30 a.m. Monday morning, at the crack of dawn before the city rush hour, I rolled the car down Interstate 65 to the closest all-purpose auto shop, eight miles away on the south of town. Once the shop opened at seven, I sat in the waiting room with a pile of old Sports Illustrateds and waited for a diagnosis I already knew.
I jumped up when the mechanic approached.
"Why don't you have a seat?" he asked politely in a thick, slow Alabama.
"That's okay," I offered. "What's the story?"
"No, seriously, you'll want to be sitting down for this," he said. "Trust me."
Four hours and $441 later, I was back on the road north on I-65, headed in an arrow-straight line for Bowling Green, back up through Ohio, and on to Detroit. Western Kentucky had survived to the Sweet 16 with two wins, and I'd be able to see them as they left for the Phoenix regional. Later, on to the Midwest Regional to watch Davidson try to slay more Goliaths.
And who could have predicted any of that kind of magic 10 days ago? Probably a good thing I didn't spring for that rental car.
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