I can't believe that it has been 23 years.
I wasn't much of a basketball fan growing up. I didn't even know Cleveland State existed and as far as my father was concerned Cleveland didn't have an NBA team. He referred to them as the Akron Cavs.
Everything changed in 1985. First I joined the school's basketball team. We only had a 7th-8th grade team. I wasn't very good. I didn't score until the final regular season game of my 8th grade year. But I played hard and I learned the game sitting next to the coach for most of the game. In 1984-1985 season the Cavs started 2-19. But thanks to a very young and skinny George Karl as coach and World B Free hoisting jumpers, they rallied to make the playoffs. In the first round they gave the Boston Celtics a real scare. I also became aware of the Vikings. They were decent but they didn't put their games on TV.
So in March 1985, my brother and I started a tradition that last until I left for college of playing the entire NCAA tournament in our backyard. We would play the last two minutes with our mom's egg timer. If it was a one seed vs a 16 seed, we would say the 16 is down 21. And the one playing a 16 would get a 30-footer worth 20 points before we started. Those games made me a better player and a better fighter as mom would have to invariably run out to break up a fight and then a hour later we would be back out there playing.
My infatuation with basketball was sealed into full-out love the next season thanks to Cleveland State. They were fun to follow. They played 94-feet and runned and stunned. A young freshman, Mouse McFadden, was the missing ingredient to an already strong team.
Of course 1986 was the only year ever my parents decided that for Lent we would give up TV as a family. I listened to Cleveland State's win over Indiana on the radio at school. And I actually watched the win over St. Joes because I was on a "camping trip" in the woods with a friend. I listened to the Navy game at home and was devastated when the Admiral got away with a foul allowing the Midshipmen to advance. It was only a few years ago when I finally got to see the game. And it was everything my mind's eye told me it would be.
I stayed with the Vikings the next few seasons. The games started getting shown locally and they had great battles with Southwest Missouri State. The Vikes went to two NITs and garnered the wrath of the NCAA for Manute Bol recruitment because the NCAA couldn't go after Kentucky and needed show strength somewhere.
And then it all literally went up in smoke, thanks to coach Kevin Mackey's well publicized troubles.
I was excited when coach Gary Waters was hired. I was prepared to cover them in my paper before my boss pulled his power play. I had an in with the coaching staff since Waters' longtime assistant Larry Desimpelare was the head coach of my alma mater while I was there. I was the first reporter to cover him. And when in his third season he finally won a conference game I rewarded him with the headline of "Larry gets first W-HAC"
I quietly watched the Vikings the last two years. The few times they were on TV I would watch but I can't say I followed them. When I went to the opening round game against Detroit, I knew more names from the 1986 team (McFadden, Ransey, Clinton, Mudd, Bryant, Stewart, Hood) than I did for this year's team (Bullock and Moore just because I covered him in high school). I left that game unimpressed. They did not play well and the ticket office was woefully unprepared. With two groups of people in front of us, it took 15 minutes to get tickets.
But I followed the win over Green Bay online and heading into tonight's match-up I was strangely nervous and excited.
Early on the Vikings look over-matched. Having seen Waters' Kent State teams play several times, it just felt like Cleveland State were not close to their level. Those Golden Flash teams seemed like the real deal but these Vikings struggled to score and could be sloppy on defense.
Then Jackson started hitting threes and the defense ratcheted it up. They took a six-point lead with just over six to play. But they couldn't stretch it. In the final minutes it seemed like just one more basket would be enough but the ball just didn't want to get in the hole.
In the final minute, they missed two big free throws. And I admit I was thinking to myself how did I let myself get trapped again. I let my nostalgic thoughts of youth -(I mean really believed they would win it all in 1986. A 14th seed meant nothing to a kid who just started his love affair with basketball. I knew nothing of automatic bids and that the Vikings didn't have one. It was only later that I understood the historical nature of what they did.)- allow me to think of the Vikings again as my team. Here I was the ultimate band wagon fan (something I rail against over and over) and I was going to have my heart broke.
And then they won.
I didn't cry but watching Waters almost cry made it touch and go for a moment.
I remember watching a Buckeye game a few years ago. And I while I like Thad Matta, I said to my friend I wish Cleveland State was relevant so I didn't have to follow the Buckeyes anymore. Now that had more to do with my Cleveland roots and dislike for drunks who never went to college yelling OH at the top of their lungs then the team itself. But I always feel like a carpetbagger when cheering for THE Ohio State.
And I believe Gary Waters knows this. He is aware of people like me. Cleveland State basketball is a sleeping giant. You win and this town will embrace them. Just going to the tournament will get him an extra recruit or two. But if he lost this game, Butler would be that farther ahead on the recruiting trail. Now he has a chance to build something special.
Thanks coach and give hell in the tourney.