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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.

Given Washington’s struggles, just how hot is Lorenzo Romar’s seat?

Lorenzo Romar
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We tried to warn you what was coming on Wednesday night.

We tried to tell you just how bad things were for Washington right now, that, according to a coach that had faced the Huskies this season, “they were so ******* bad defensively” that “they looked like they hadn’t been coached.”

That’s not a good look for anyone, let alone a head coach that has missed the NCAA tournament the last five seasons despite having five first round picks come through his program during that time.

Which is why you shouldn’t have been surprised that the Huskies were gutted by No. 8 Gonzaga, losing 98-71 in a game that was never competitive at any point. And, given that Markelle Fultz, the potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is on the Washington roster, it’s the nightmare scenario.

So.

We need to start talking about the elephant in the room, because there’s a lot to unpack here:

Just how hot is Lorenzo Romar’s seat?

RELATED: What has gone wrong with Washington this season?

The simple answer? Scalding. Romar is one of just three Power 5 head coaches that have missed the NCAA tournament for five straight seasons without having to find new employment. You don’t get six tournament-less years and survive, not at this level.

But there’s more to the conversation that simply relaying the number of first round picks he’s failed to get to the Big Dance.

Four of those five first round picks played in two different seasons, meaning that in the other three seasons, Washington was led by C.J. Wilcox, the No. 28 pick in 2014, and Nigel Williams-Goss. In 2011-12, Washington had Terrence Ross, then a sophomore, and freshman Tony Wroten on the roster. They started slowly out of the gate, going 7-6 in non-conference play, before winning the Pac-12 regular season title outright. They missed out on the NCAA tournament in large part due to the fact that the conference as a whole went 1-29 against the RPI top 50; only two Pac-12 teams earned bids that season. Ross and Wroten both left after the season.

The other year that Washington had two first round picks was in 2015-16, which both Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray shocked everyone by becoming one-and-done talents. Both were drafted almost entirely on potential; Chriss was clueless defensively, fouling out of 15 of the 34 games he played, while Murray’s jumper left him a long way away from impacting an NBA game. The conversation about this Washington team would be totally different right now if Fultz had those two on the floor with him.

Part of the reason those two were able to leave early was because of Romar’s coaching style – he lets his most talented players play regardless of whether or not they’re making mistakes – and in part because the 2016 draft was bad.

Romar is, in part, a victim of circumstance, even if he dug himself into this whole in the first place.

RELATED: For Michael Porter Jr., Washington was all about family first

Washington is still paying Romar a relatively small amount. After the 2010 season, when he led the Huskies to his third Sweet 16, Romar got a 10-year contract extension worth $1.7 million annually. It runs three more years after this season and comes with a $3.2 million buyout, which isn’t massive but is expensive for an athletic department that projected to operate at a $15 million deficit in 2016. Then you have to consider what it would cost to hire an upgrade on Romar.

For comparison’s sake, Tubby Smith made $1.8 million in 2015-16 at Texas Tech and got a raise to more than $3 million-a-year for the next five years at Memphis despite the fact that he wasn’t the guy the school initially targeted. But Brad Underwood will make $1.2 million a year for five years at Oklahoma State, which makes him the lowest-paid coach in the conference.

If new Washington AD Jennifer Cohen wants to hire a new coach, she’d certainly be able to afford a replacement that we be, at the least, a respectable name, but there’s no guarantee that a replacement is going to have any kind of success there. Romar is far and away the most successful coach Washington has ever had. He’s been to six NCAA tournament and three Sweet 16s in his 15 seasons. The Huskies reached the Final Four in 1953, and in the nearly 50 years between that day and the day that Romar was hired, Washington reached just six NCAA tournaments and two Sweet 16s.

Romar is not having the same level of success that he had when guys like Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas were on his roster, but Washington is still somewhat relevant due to the pros that are coming through Seattle. There’s no guarantee that any replacement will make Washington more likely to get to the NCAA tournament, but at least Husky fans get Markelle Fultz this season and Michael Porter Jr., a top five prospect and the son of current U-Dub assistant coach Michael Porter Sr., next season.

That’s certainly more enjoyable than rooting for, say, Washington State.

And it’s certainly a factor that Cohen has to consider. Porter clearly picked Washington because Romar, his godfather, is part of the family.

“As we continue to look where we’re going and where we think we can go and what our plan is, then I’ll have more information about it,” Cohen said at her introductory press conference. “But absolutely, I’m 100 percent behind him right now.”

And if Washington can’t get back to the Big Dance?

“We haven’t gotten to that point yet,” she said. “So we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

CBT Podcast: ESPN’s Dana O’Neil discusses her book about Villanova

Villanova head coach Jay Wright celebrates as he cuts down the net after the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game against North Carolina, Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. Villanova won 77-74. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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On today’s podcast, I was joined by ESPN’s Dana O’Neil, one of my personal favorite writers who has penned a book chronicling how Jay Wright was able to build the Villanova program into a national title winner.

Dana spent seven years as a beat-writer for the Wildcats before making the move to ESPN, and she has some great stories about how the book came together and, frankly, how that Villanova team came together.

It’s a little “Inside Baseball”, but it was a fun conversation about a book that you know is going to be really good.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

VIDEO: World War II Veteran play anthem on harmonica before Pearl Harbor Invitational

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Peter DuPre’, a veteran of World War II, opened last night’s Pearl Harbor Invitational between Seton Hall and California with a moving rendition of the National Anthem, which he played on his harmonica.

Amaker becomes winningest coach at Harvard after 74-66 win.

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 22:  Head coach Tommy Amaker talks to Siyani Chambers #1 of the Harvard Crimson in the first half against the Michigan State Spartans during the Third Round of the 2014 NCAA Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 22, 2014 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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BOSTON (AP) Harvard’s Tommy Amaker still feels the influence that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski provided. It’s helped lead him through a successful coaching career.

Amaker became the winningest coach in Harvard history on Wednesday night when Chris Lewis scored a season-high 22 points and Seth Towns had 18 to lead the Crimson to a 74-66 road victory over local rival Boston College.

It was Amaker’s 179th win in his 10th season, moving him ahead of his predecessor, Frank Sullivan (178-245), who was the coach from 1991-2007.

“I’ll communicate with coach for sure,” Amaker said. “He has so many different guys that he likes to keep track of. I don’t want to be a burden in any way, but obviously his influence has been paramount. It’s been as big as it comes for me.

“I’ve always thought of him as an amazing teacher, leader. I’ve always tried emulate some of the things he’s taught through the years.”

A star guard with the Blue Devils from 1983-87, the 52-year-old Amaker felt he could take Harvard to a successful level that’s led to five Ivy League titles in the past six seasons.

“We always thought if we could build our basketball program to go along with the things that happen at Harvard, we would feel good about ourselves, and we’ve done that,” he said.

It was the third straight victory for Harvard (4-4).

Jerome Robinson led Boston College (4-4) with 25 points. A.J. Turner scored 13.

The Crimson looked dedicated to driving to the basket on most possessions from the start, collecting a number of easy looks when they shot near 60 percent in the opening minutes. It triggered a 13-2 spree that helped them open a 23-10 lead.

“The last couple of games I was encouraged of what we were doing defensively, but we took a step back,” BC coach Jim Christian said. “We’d played seven games. These guys have played a lot of minutes – bad defense is bad defense.”

The Crimson pushed their advantage to 39-21 after Bryce Aiken’s driving basket capped a 6-0 spurt.

The Eagles trailed by 19 points with just under 10 minutes to play, but made a late charge, closing the deficit to 69-60 on Robinson’s 3-pointer from the left corner.

Both teams then went nearly three minutes without a basket before Harvard closed it out.

BIG PICTURE

Harvard: The Crimson seemed to have figured out what type of team they have become after opening the season 1-3. They showed balance in a two-night span when they beat Northeastern on Tuesday and Boston College. On Tuesday, they scored only 18 points in the paint and they had 20 at halftime against the Eagles, finishing with 34.

“We’re constantly trying to preach that we set the tone and be the aggressor early,” Amaker said. “I just thought they responded very well and made the necessary plays.”

Boston College: The Eagles need to find some more consistent scoring to go along with Robinson. The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard entered the game second in the Atlantic Coast Conference, averaging 20.1 per game.

REFLECTION

“I’m very proud of that,” Amaker said of the milestone. “I’m proud of our program and our team.”

PERFECT TEST

The Crimson looked at playing consecutive nights as a warm up to how things will be in conference play, when schools mostly compete on Fridays and Saturdays.

“We approached these two back-to-back games how we’d see Ivy League play,” said point guard Siyani Chambers, who had 11 assists. “We’re trying to figure out who we are.”

SERIES

BC leads the all-time series 34-16 and had won the last two meetings after losing six straight.

The two schools first met in the 1905-06 season when Harvard won 42-6.

UP NEXT

Harvard: At Houston of the American Athletic Conference on Friday.

Boston College: Hosts Hartford from the America East Conference Friday.

No. 8 Gonzaga throttles Washington

Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, right, shoots while defended by Washington guard Markelle Fultz during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Spokane, Wash., Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
AP Photo/Young Kwak
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SPOKANE, Wash. — Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points as No. 8 Gonzaga beat poor-shooting Washington 98-71 on Wednesday night in a resumption of their cross-state rivalry.

Przemek Karnowski added 17 points and Jordan Mathews had 14 for Gonzaga (9-0), which dominated from the opening minutes.
Freshman Markelle Fultz had 25 points and 10 rebounds for Washington (4-4), which has lost three straight. The Huskies came in averaging 88 points per game.

NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster writes about how Fultz may be destined to relive Ben Simmons’ year at LSU in which the No. 1 NBA draft pick missed the NCAA tournament

Noah Dickerson had 12 points and 15 rebounds for Washington, which shot just 30 percent for the game. Gonzaga shot 53 percent.

Williams-Goss, who played for Washington before transferring to Gonzaga and becoming eligible this season, made 9 of 13 shots against his former team.

Johnathan Williams scored Gonzaga’s first three baskets and Mathews added consecutive 3-pointers as the Zags jumped to a 16-4 lead.

Mathews’ hit another 3-pointer as Gonzaga pushed the lead to 27-6. Washington made only two of its first 16 shots.

Gonzaga led 35-10, after shooting 73 percent from the field, while Washington made just four of its first 25 shots.

Mathews had 14 points as Gonzaga led 47-22 at halftime, after making 64 percent of its shots from the field. Washington shot just 21 percent (9 of 42) and missed all seven of its 3-point attempts. But the Huskies did have a 17-0 advantage in offensive rebounds at halftime.

Washington’s shooting picked up early in the second half, but so did Gonzaga’s and the Huskies could not make up any ground. Silas Melson’s 3-pointer lifted Gonzaga to a 68-34 lead.

The teams first played in 1910, and have played intermittently ever since. Washington ended the home-and-home series in 2006, after Gonzaga won eight of the previous nine games.

Washington and Gonzaga actually renewed their rivalry in the Bahamas last season in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, an 80-64 Gonzaga win.

Washington’s last victory in Spokane occurred in 1944.

The Huskies still lead the all-time series 29-16, with their last win in 2005.

BIG PICTURE

Washington: Fultz came in averaging 22.7 points per game, 13th in the nation and tops by a freshman, while four other Huskies score in double digits. Washington is third in the nation with 7.7 blocks per game. The Huskies seek to end a five-year drought in going to the NCAA Tournament.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have been to the NCAA Tournament every year since 1999. They last opened 9-0 in the 2013 season, before losing to Illinois. Six Zags are averaging at least 9 points per game, led by Josh Perkins at 13.1 ppg.

UP NEXT

Washington hosts Nevada on Sunday.

Gonzaga hosts Akron on Saturday.