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When March Madness is more than just a game: Remembering a friend

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Four years ago today.

March 31st, 2010.

I woke up at 6:00 am to my phone ringing. By the time I got to it, the ringing had stopped. Three missed calls. All from my mom, the first coming at 4:15 am. She had left a voice mail saying to call her immediately, it was an emergency.

That’s never good.

So I called.

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I’ve always loved sports.

When I was little, I used to clear off the floor of my family’s living room to stage games with the football figurines I collected. I would grab a handful of quarters from my parents change bucket to design plays on our kitchen table. The walls of my old bedroom in my parents house in Connecticut are still covered with pictures that I cut out of SLAM and SI and ESPN the Magazine. Hell, I played strat-o-matic baseball. A lot.

I’m a die-hard hoops head these days, but football was my first true love. A Connecticut native, I’ve been a lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan because my mom got me a Joe Montana costume for Halloween one year when I was about five. My dad “wanted me to have my knees” when I was older so the only time I ever donned shoulder pads and a helmet was when I was Joe Montana.

I tried my hand at baseball. I wasn’t bad, either. When I was nine, I was moved up to the “minors” in the Max Sinoway Little League in my hometown. That’s the first level where they allowed the kids to pitch. I still remember my first game. Ed Prokop, who was three years older than me and would eventually sprout to 6-foot-5, was pitching. He was a hard-throwing lefty. In each of my first two trips to the plate, I got hit with a pitch. That was the end of my baseball career.

So basketball it was.

By the time I reached high school, my entire life revolved around hoops. My family scheduled vacations to avoid missing practices. I was on the varsity team in high school for three years. I played AAU ball with a pretty good team, the CT Gold. We had a handful of Division I players during my tenure, sending a couple guys to Atlantic 10 schools. Tim Abromaitis, who played at Notre Dame, came from the same program four years later.

Personally, I was slightly above average. I was never much of an athlete — I couldn’t actually dunk until my junior year in college — but I had a quick release on my jumper and range for days. One of my coaches in those days said I had a high-major jumper and Division IV athleticism. And while I shot a higher percentage from three than I did on layups, it was enough that I got a lot of interest from D-III schools in the Northeast.

I ended up going to Vassar College, a small Liberal Arts school in Poughkeepsie, NY, a city now better known as Snooki’s hometown. I made the decision to play college basketball — or at least attempt too, I only managed two and a half years on the team and a whopping two starts — because of my love for the game. I wanted to say that I had been a college basketball player. No one could ever take that away.

Growing up in Connecticut, we didn’t have a pro sports team after the Whalers bailed on us. There was always that constant struggle between the Boston fans and the New York fan, but regardless of where your allegiances lied, those teams weren’t ours.

The UConn Huskies, however, were.

Nothing brought me more happiness than watching college basketball, which is why I ended up starting a blog, called Ballin’ is a Habit, seven long years ago. I grew up idolizing Ricky Moore and Doron Sheffer. I still remember bargaining with my father about whether I could stay up to watch the end of the Big East Final between UConn and Georgetown in 1996. I was 11. He said I had to go to sleep if UConn got down by ten points. They got down by 11. I negotiated for another couple of possessions. UConn made their run. I got to see Ray Allen’s miracle floater live.

The NCAA Tournament? That was the best. The first weekend was the highlight of my year. Still is. That first Thursday and Friday is a holiday for me. I haven’t gone to school or work since junior high — more than a decade ago — just so I would able to soak in every second of the Madness.

These days, I get paid to do it. I’m not complaining.

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Building true friendships is not an easy thing to do. Finding that similarity of interest, mutual respect, and level of trustworthiness in another person is like chasing an inside straight. The smart play is to fold. The odds are stacked in the wrong direction, and risking more by chasing the longshot is a fool’s errand.

But when that longshot hits, the winnings are huge. Having a friend, a confidante, that will always be an ear to listen or a shoulder to lean on is a terrific feeling.

It’s not an easy thing to cultivate, however, especially when the distance that needs to be covered is 4,500 miles.

I come from a big family, particularly on my mother’s side. My mom is one of five kids and her mom is one of five kids. Ever since I was little, we would gather the family together for massive reunions every year. It was great. I have a relationship with relatives that live far enough away — places like London and Texas — that I probably never would have known them if it weren’t for the insistence that we put family first. I’ll forever be thankful for that.

My mother’s older brother moved to Alaska. He happened to have a son, Lew Allen IV, that was just a year older than me. Naturally, every time the family got together, we were locked at the hip. As we got older, we only got closer. He was starting a career as an MMA fighter at the same time that I was playing college basketball, so the summer rendezvous’s became week long training sessions. Hill sprints in the Rockies, four mile runs on the Delaware beaches, endless push-ups and sit-ups and pull-ups.

Lew became my confidante. When I had girl problems, I’d call him. When I had issues with a coach or with my workload, I’d call him. Hell, if I couldn’t figure out which pair of shoes to wear, I’d call him. Sometimes we’d talk every day. Other times there would be a month in between.

Didn’t matter.

It doesn’t when you have a friend like that.

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It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was never going to be able to play professional basketball.

In high school, I didn’t get a single letter from a D-I school. If that didn’t tip me off, the fact that my handle bordered on terrible and that I was 6-foot-3 was a pretty clear sign. Getting kicked off during my junior season — I was an idiot in college — certainly didn’t help matters, either.

But I loved the game. Everything about it. And I always knew that I wanted to be a part of it. Coaching high school ball didn’t strike my fancy. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher. College coaching didn’t appeal to me, either. I would have been a terrible recruiter.

My first job out of college was with a lobbying firm that represented the interest of foreignly owned companies operating in the United States. I sat at a desk. I answered the phone. It was miserable. I would actually get excited when they would task me with stuffing 1,000 envelopes to send out to our members. In my down time I started a blog, and the more I wrote, the more I realized I loved it.

So I quit that job, started waiting tables and bartending to earn some cash, and set out to make it as a writer covering college hoops.

That was in 2007. I haven’t had a single regret since.

Sure, I questioned the decision when it was 4:00 am in the middle of January and I still had 1,500 words to write before heading to work at 10:00 am for the lunch shift, but I can honestly say that trading sleep-deprivation in the pursuit of something I love to do is 10,000 times more rewarding than being miserable and cashing a steady paycheck.

Call me crazy, but that’s the truth.

It’s also true that the Madness of March isn’t just the action on the court. I learned pretty quickly that covering conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament is a grind. The basketball is played for more than twelve hours a day. There are people that not only want constant updates on the action, but that want to read reactions to the outcomes. Quotes need to be taken. Stories need to be written. And all this happens while the next game is tipping off.

And that’s just in your location.

Sleep is a luxury. Praise and gratitude? Those are non-existent. You’re more likely to be ripped by a fan base that is unhappy with the way you worded a sentence referring to a sophomore that plays eight minutes a game than you are to receive a “thank you” from a reader for giving them a brief respite from whatever menial task their boss has them doing that day.

Sportswriting is not a glamorous profession. It requires a lot of hard work and sleepless nights and time spent away from loved ones. It doesn’t pay all that well, especially when you’re an independent blogger.

And I loved every second of it. Still do.

It’s what got me through that first March after my mom’s call.

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“Your cousin Lew killed himself last night.”

No.

That was the unfortunate message my mom had to pass along to me.

He was 26 years old. He was married, the father of two kids and the step-dad to two more. He never ended up going to college. It wasn’t because he lacked the intelligence. An education is secondary to a paycheck when you have mouths to feed, and Lew stepped up. He worked two and three jobs at a time just to pay the bills.

And despite that, despite the issues that he was going through and the pressure that he was dealing with, he never stopped being a loving and attentive father. He never stopped answering my phone calls. He managed all that even when his job as an electrician required him to spend weeks at a time on “The Slope”, a petroleum-rich wilderness the size of Utah in the northernmost portion of Alaska where the nights never ended and he spent his “days” battling frostbite and mean little arctic foxes.

That’s what hurt the most.

His kids would never know what kind of man their father was. They wouldn’t know how hard he worked or how caring he was or how much he loved them. They wouldn’t know that he could perfectly replicate Jim Carrey’s smile in The Mask, or that he was able to do Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean dance in its entirety, moonwalk included.

When I got the call, it was the Wednesday of Final Four week. I was boarding a plane for Indianapolis in 50 hours. I made the decision to get on that flight. I knew Lew would have been pissed at me had I not gone on his account.

It was the best decision I could have made. Preparing for that Final Four, experiencing that Final Four, writing about that Final Four. A healing process, it was not. A pleasant distraction to keep my mind off of losing my best friend?

Absolutely.

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The following season, for the first time ever, I did not look forward to the month of March. I dreaded it. I knew what was waiting at the end of the month.

It didn’t help matters that my birthday is now one day after the anniversary of Lew’s death.

But like the Final Four in Indianapolis, what got me through the month — hell, the year — was college basketball. It was March Madness. It kept me busy. It kept me entertained. It kept me distracted.

Most of all, it kept me happy.

And therein lies the beauty of sports.

In the long run, they don’t matter. Sports are a game. We play them for fun. We watch them for our enjoyment, and if the stars are aligned right, for some excitement. We watch sports because the young men and women that are competing are incredible at their craft. Because they have the kind of athleticism most of us only dream of. We pay absurd amounts of money to go to games because there is nothing more beautiful than a well run fast break, or a perfectly turned double play, or a well timed fade route. We cheer for our favorite teams because, for one reason or another, we have a special bond with that team. When they win, it makes us happy.

But sports won’t solve the conflict in Ukraine. They won’t fix the issues in our educational system. The Super Bowl isn’t going to change anyone’s position on same-sex marriage. The World Series won’t bring the two sides together in South Sudan.

March Madness isn’t going to solve the world’s problems.

And it certainly didn’t solve mine.

But it sure made them easier to deal with this past month.

No. 1 Kansas rallies to beat Oklahoma 73-63 on Senior Night

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) celebrates a 3-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Harvard in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Frank Mason III scored 23 points in his final game at Allen Fieldhouse, Devonte Graham hit a series of crucial 3-pointers in the second half and top-ranked Kansas rallied from a 10-point deficit to beat Oklahoma 73-63 on Monday night.

Graham finished with 16 points and Josh Jackson had 11 points and 12 rebounds for the Big 12 champion Jayhawks (27-3, 15-2), who trailed 54-42 before finishing the game on a 31-11 run.

The Sooners (10-19, 4-13) were poised to spring a big upset on the day the Jayhawks ascended to No. 1 for the first time this season. But after they took their biggest lead with just over 10 minutes to go, Mason got the comeback started with a nifty basket inside.

He added a steal moments later to set up Lagerald Vick’s 3-pointer, and Jackson scored before Graham hit back-to-back shots from beyond the arc. And when Mason added another basket moments later, the Jayhawks had put together a 17-2 charge that gave them a 64-58 lead with about 5 minutes left.

Kansas slowly drew away to make senior night memorable for Mason, big man Landen Lucas and reserve guard Tyler Self, whose father – Kansas coach Bill Self – called him “my favorite Jayhawk of all time.”

VIDEO: Kansas’ Carlton Bragg misses breakaway dunk

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There are few things more exciting in sports than a player dunking on a fast break.

There are few things funnier than a player flubbing that dunk.

Kansas’ Carlton Bragg proved that second point Monday in the second half of the No. 1 Jayhawks’ game at Allen Fieldhouse against Oklahoma.

There’s a strange beauty in that, isn’t there?

Motley plays big in No. 11 Baylor’s win over No. 10 West Virginia

Baylor forward Johnathan Motley (5) reacts to a play against Texas in first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 74-64. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP)
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP
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Even as Baylor has floundered some down the stretch, the Bears have been able to count on Johnathan Motley being a monster. The 6-foot-10 forward has been putting up numbers and shooting up draft boards.

Against No. 10 West Virginia, he showed off all his skills – and it resulted in a win, as the 11th-ranked Bears topped the Mountaineers, 71-62, in Waco on Monday in a much-needed victory.

Motley was superb once again, going for 23 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and two assists in 35 minutes. He shot it well from the field, going 6 of 12, but was a perfect 11 of 11 from the free-throw line. It was a big-time performance, especially with point guard Manu Lecomte out with an ankle injury.

Monday was nothing particularly special in terms of performance from Motley as he’s been consistently great during Big 12 play. He had 27 and 11 against Iowa State and 21 and 16 against Oklahoma just last week alone. He’s been overshadowed some by Baylor’s early season success – the story was the Bears and coach Scott Drew, not Motley – and that Frank Mason is not only the no-doubt Big 12 player of the year, but maybe the frontrunner for the national award as well.

He’s been really, really good.

Motley is averaging just short of a double-double with 17.3 points and 9.8 rebounds along with 1.0 blocks per game. He’s not the double-double machine of Caleb Swanigan, but he’s got nine during Big 12 play. He also put up 32 points and 20 rebounds against Texas. There aren’t many better performances than that around the country.

Against the Mountaineers, Motley struggled some early, going 1 of 5 from the field with just four points in the first half. He made five of his next seven shots, though, and made nine second-half free throws to score 19 after the break to get Baylor in the win column after a three-losses-in-four-games stretch.

Jo Lual-Acuil rightfully gets a ton of credit for being the anchor of Baylor’s defense, but pairing the 7-footer with Motley is what makes the Bears’ defense so stout. Teams have an effective field goal percentage of just 44.8 against the Bears and are making just 43.8 percent of their shots inside the arc. The length of Lual-Acuil and Motley is a huge reason why.

The game was somewhat rare for West Virginia as the Mountaineers forced 18 turnovers, which was at a rate of 26.5 percent (better than their Big 12 average), and still lost. Some of it certainly can be attributed to the absence of forward Esa Ahmad, who was out with a back injury, but 3 of 15 shooting from 3-point range was a killer overall.

West Virginia and Baylor are jockeying with Iowa State for second place in the Big 12, but if everyone holds serve, it’ll be a three-way tie in the country’s toughest conference. If the Cyclones can win in Morgantown on Friday, though, Steve Prohm’s group will claim the spot outright. If West Virginia wins, the most likely scenario (assuming Baylor beats Texas) puts the Mountaineers second, Baylor third and Iowa State fourth for the tournament in Kansas City next week.

No. 23 Virginia holds No. 5 North Carolina to 43 points in statement win

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 27: Kyle Guy #5 of the Virginia Cavaliers shoots the ball during Virginia's game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at John Paul Jones Arena on February 27, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)
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What a difference a week makes.

Just eight days ago, down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina handed Virginia the kind of whooping that changes the narrative of a season. The final score was 65-41, but that really doesn’t do it justice. At one point late in the second half, the Wahoos were trailing 63-36.

The story was totally different on Monday night.

Despite digging themselves a 7-0 hole in the first two minutes of the game, No. 23 Virginia knocked off No. 5 North Carolina, 53-43, in a revenge game. The Tar Heels haven’t been held to 43 points or less in a game since Feb. 24th, 1979, and that game came before the shot clock was introduced to college basketball. Dean Smith’s Tar Heels stalled for the entire first half, taking just two shots and heading into half time down 7-0.

They would eventually lose 47-40:

The previous low for points scored by a Roy Williams-coached UNC team was 45 points when they lost 57-45 at Syracuse on Jan. 11th, 2014.

That should give you an idea of just how impressive Virginia’s defense was on Monday night before you factor in that the Tar Heels are one of the nation’s top five offensive teams, according to KenPom. But they just never could get into any kind of a rhythm. Tony Bennett had them scouted to perfection, eliminating Kennedy Meeks from the game with his patented post-doubles and using London Perrantes to harass Justin Jackson for 40 minutes. Jackson never once looked comfortable, not for one possession.

With the loss, the Tar Heels now need to beat Duke in the season finale at the Dean Dome to win the outright ACC regular season title.

And while the attention for this win is going to be on UNC and their struggles, the real story here is Virginia.

UVA’s loss to UNC last Saturday was their third loss in a four-game losing streak. They snapped that streak against N.C. State over the weekend, and seemed to find their groove again on Monday. Their issue has never been on the defensive side of the ball; it’s their ability to score, and they may have found their cure: Kyle Guy. The kid with the top-knot that is incorrectly referred to as a man-bun by everyone. (Trust me on that.)

Guy had played just two minutes in the overtime loss to Miami earlier in the week and was just 1-for-10 from the floor in the previous three games, a stretch where UVA scored just 144 points in 125 minutes of basketball. He had 19 points in the win over N.C. State and 17 points on Monday night, hitting five threes and providing UVA with a go-to option offensively. He’s uniquely suited to playing the role that Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris have played because he’s a lights-out shooter with quick feet, a quick release and an ability to read defenses as a runs off of screens. His presence opens up their offense.

As long as he’s good enough defensively, he’ll be able to see the floor.

And if he’s good enough defensively, UVA can be good enough offensively to win games like this.

Prosecutors detail allegations against Creighton’s Watson

OMAHA, NE - JANUARY 21: Maurice Watson Jr. #10 of the Creighton Bluejays receives and ovation before their game against the Marquette Golden Eagles at CenturyLink Center on January 21, 2017 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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Former Creighton star Maurice Watson appeared in front of a Douglas County judge Monday after turning himself into authorities Sunday following the issuance of a warrant for his arrest Thursday on the charge of first-degree sexual assault.

Watson’s bail was set at $750,000, which he would have to produce 10 percent of to be released from jail.

Prosecutors also detailed some of the allegations against Watson from the night of Feb. 3, when a 19-year-old woman alleges he raped her. Graphic details of the prosecution’s allegations can found here.

Watson’s attorneys said he denies the allegations.

Creighton said Sunday that Watson is barred from campus and not enrolled as a student, according to the Omaha World-Herald.  The Bluejays announced last week that Watson, who has been sidelined since tearing his ACL last month, had been suspended.