Friday, March 18, 2011

The Impossible Dream

"To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go."

Joe Darion
"The Impossible Dream"

At Richmond and Morehead State today, they know about Cinderella stories in the NCAA Tournament.

And, while theirs may be short–lived, their victories over Vanderbilt and Louisville, respectively, entitle them to enjoy the sensation of having beaten the seemingly unbeatable foe. They may well come crashing back to earth tomorrow.

The NCAA Tournament has a reputation for upsets. It is one of the main reasons that sports fans tune in to the games in the early rounds. They want to know who will be Cinderella this season.

Upsets were sort of uncommon in the old days of the tournament. Of course, part of that was because the field was much smaller, primarily conference champions and one or two independent programs. Until comparatively recently, there weren't enough slots for every team in the Top 20 to participate. It's kind of hard to call a victory for any Top 20 team much of an upset, even if comes against a higher–ranked team.

Still, upsets did occur from time to time.

They became more frequent when the field began to expand. That was what diminished the NIT, but it certainly brought excitement, an air of mystery, to the NCAA Tournament.

I'm not really sure when the tournament began to develop its reputation for upsets. Maybe it was in 1983 when North Carolina State upset powerful Houston in the championship game. It might even go back to Texas Western's unexpected victory over Kentucky 45 years ago tomorrow.

I do know that it was a reputation that was already established by the time the tournament began 25 years ago this week.

I was working on the sports staff of the Arkansas Gazette in those days, and I had graduated from the University of Arkansas, where I had been part of many exuberant crowds at football and basketball games.

Razorback fans were spoiled in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were accustomed to seeing their basketball team compete in the NCAA Tournament, sometimes doing quite well.

But in the mid–1980s, Eddie Sutton was gone, Nolan Richardson had been hired but was frequently distracted by his young daughter's battle with leukemia, and the basketball program sometimes had the appearance of a rudderless ship.

In March of 1986, Arkansas fans were looking elsewhere to fill the void left by the Razorbacks, and Arkansas–Little Rock stepped up.

In the first round of that tournament, two No. 14 seeds won their opening–round games against No. 3 seeds — Cleveland State beat Indiana and UALR defeated Notre Dame. The ride didn't end for Cleveland State right away. The Vikings got to the Sweet 16 before losing to David Robinson and Navy by a single point.

But, for coach Mike Newell's Trojans, that was it. They lost two days later to North Carolina State.

That first–round game sure was memorable, though.

We had no TV in the newsroom in those days so we had to listen to the game on the radio. My memory is that just about everyone on the sports staff was pulling for UALR. It was the only Arkansas team in the tournament and, besides, who wanted Notre Dame to win?

Well, there was one Catholic guy on the staff, and I think he might have been pulling for the Irish, but he wasn't vocal about it.

I remember the Gazette's sports staffers gathered around a radio in much the same way that families must have listened to radio broadcasts during the Depression. A couple of the youngest staff members sat on the floor. The older staff members sat in chairs and listened intently as UALR built and maintained its lead.

Before long, people from the news side had gravitated to the sports department to listen to the radio.

After Newell left UALR, he spoke of his gratitude to all the people who came to the games and pulled for the Trojans in the days before their five–year postseason run that included three appearances in the NCAA Tournament. That, he said, was when he had been "selling a dream."

And, for one evening, UALR's students and fans permitted themselves to dream the impossible dream of being the ones who would cut down the nets and hoist the trophy in Dallas' Reunion Arena.

It didn't happen that way for UALR. It may never happen for UALR.

But, for that one evening, the Trojans could dream of it.

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