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.

Nevada faces challenging non-conference schedule

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Nevada will likely be a preseason top 10 team as the Wolf Pack have major expectations following last year’s Sweet 16 appearance.

With head coach Eric Musselman returning most of last season’s roster, while adding some key new pieces, Nevada has huge expectations entering the 2018-19 season. That means a proper non-conference schedule to challenge this team, which was released on Wednesday.

A Sweet 16 rematch with Loyola is one of the key games on the schedule as the Wolf Pack will head to Chicago for a game on Nov. 27. Nevada will also play some Pac-12 opponents with road games at USC and Utah and a neutral court game against Arizona State. BYU, South Dakota State and Grand Canyon are a few of the challenging opponents from mid-major leagues while the team also had neutral court games against Tulsa and either UMass or Southern Illinois.

It seems as though Nevada will only have a few cracks at top-25 caliber opponents during non-conference play, but this schedule doesn’t have a lot of bad games while also including a healthy amount of neutral games. Since Nevada won’t get as many challenges playing in the Mountain West as a typical top-25 team, they’ll have a lot of eyeballs on them during some of these games — particularly the USC and Arizona State matchups.

The rematch with Loyola should be another fun road test as the crowd should be rocking in Chicago for that one.

Former Mizzou tutor plans to reveal ‘full list’ of participants in academic fraud case

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A former Missouri tutor that admitted in 2016 to providing improper academic benefits to multiple Tiger athletes on Monday said that she has been named in a new Notice of Allegations and intends to expose more people attached to the investigation.

Yolanda Kumar tweeted that she is planning on releasing “the full list of students, classes and coordinators on twitter” at 6:39 p.m. on Wednesday, adding that she was dropped from the original NOA but was added back into the latest version after she refused to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Missouri responded on Monday by acknowledging they had met with the Committee on Infractions and that the result of the investigation will prove that they acted with “integrity.”

“On June 13, 2018, the University appeared before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions to review its investigative findings, and the Committee has since added a previously unnamed involved party and given notice of the Committee’s allegation to that individual,” a statement Missouri released to ESPN said. “While the University may not disclose the names of any involved student due to FERPA, we remain confident that this review will reveal that the University, as well as its student-athletes and staff, have shown great integrity in responding to the allegations raised. In order to protect the investigation’s integrity and in accordance with NCAA rules relative to ongoing investigations, we are unable to comment further any part of the process until it is completed.”

In 2016, Kumar told the Kansas City Star that she had been asked to offer special assistance to football and men’s basketball players, and confirmed to compliance officials that she had acquiesced, helping a dozen athletes. That led to the NCAA’s investigation, and as a result, a defensive tackle named A.J. Logan was suspended for six games.

Kumar also tweeted in 2017 that she was willing to sell the information she had involving the case for the $3,000 fee she needed to pay Missouri to get her transcripts from the school. On Monday, she tweeted that her debt was cleared by a couple from Kansas City.

All of this allegedly occurred during the tenure of former Missouri head coach Kim Anderson.

Michigan, John Beilien ink five-year extension

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Michigan announced on Wednesday that head coach John Beilein has signed a five-year contract extension with the school that will keep him in Ann Arbor through the 2023 season, at least.

“I am grateful for the opportunity the University of Michigan has given to me over the past 11 years,” said Beilein. “Kathleen and I love Ann Arbor, our University, our fans and the state of Michigan. We will continue to work very hard in the future to have our basketball team reflect the greatness of this University. I thank Mark Schlissel and Warde Manuel for their faith and commitment to our coaching staff and basketball program. The future of men’s basketball is bright and I am excited to be a part of it.”

The deal that Beilein signed is a rollover deal, which means that the contract will renew every year. In other words, as long as Beilein and Michigan want the option picked up each April, he will have a five-year contract with Michigan regardless of how long he coaches at the school.

This is Beilein’s 12th year with the Wolverines. Last season, they won a program-record 33 games and reached the Final Four, losing in the national title game for the second time in six seasons.

He is already Michigan’s all-time leader in wins with 248, and, through 41 seasons as a college coach, has amassed a career record of 799-461. In 11 seasons in Ann Arbor, Michigan has made eight NCAA Tournament appearances with four Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights in addition to the two trips to the Final Four. He was named the he 2013 Big Ten Coach of the Year and has won two Big Ten regular-season titles as well as the last two Big Ten Tournament titles.

There was some speculation earlier this month that Beilein would be leaving Michigan after he had an interview with the Detroit Pistons, but he withdrew from that search after the news became public and it seemed likely that Dwayne Casey would be hired.

Former Michigan athletes Austin Hatch, Abby Cole tie the knot

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The life of former Michigan basketball player Austin Hatch has not been without its challenges, as during his pre-college years he survived two separate plane crashes that took the lives of his parents, a stepmother and two siblings.

Hatch’s scholarship offer to Michigan was honored by head coach John Beilein despite the impact that the crashes had on Hatch physically, and Hatch would go on to earn his degree and land a job at the corporate office for Domino’s. This past spring, Hatch was honored during the team’s Senior Day festivities.

By that point Hatch was already engaged to Abby Cole, who played volleyball at Michigan from 2013 to 2016. And over the weekend, the two tied the knot in what was a highly emotional day for all involved. Below is a video of their wedding day, which was chronicled by Derek Postma.

Congratulations and best wishes to Abby and Austin on their marriage.

Arizona lands Cornell forward Stone Gettings for 2019-20 season

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Arizona landed its first addition for the 2019-20 season on Monday, as an Ivy League power forward revealed his intention to join Sean Miller’s program as a graduate student.

6-foot-9 forward Stone Gettings, who averaged 16.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game at Cornell last season, picked Arizona over Stanford and Vanderbilt according to Evan Daniels of 247Sports.com. A second team All-Ivy selection, Gettings is on course to graduate from Cornell in December. Instead of using his final season of eligibility at Cornell, Gettings will sit out this season before playing at Arizona.

Gettings does have a connection to the Arizona program, as one of his high school teammates was former point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. The addition of Gettings will give Arizona a front court player who can score around the basket and from the perimeter, as he shot nearly 37 percent from beyond the arc last season.

Gettings isn’t the first Ivy League player to make his decision regarding a new school well in advance of his being able to move as a grad transfer, as former Yale point guard Makai Mason took a similar approach. Mason, who missed the entire 2016-17 season with a torn ACL, announced prior to last season that he be joining the Baylor program as a grad transfer for the 2018-19 campaign.

Not counting Gettings, Arizona has four scholarship front court players on its current roster who will have eligibility remaining in 2019-20, in current junior Chase Jeter, sophomores Emmanuel Akot and Ira Lee and freshman Omar Thielemans.