Twenty-two years ago, right around this time, my knees were shaking beneath a table. My hands were twitching. My mouth was dry.
I was a University of Delaware sophomore, covering the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Dayton. My Blue Hens were playing Cincinnati, and I truly believed we had a shot. Delaware was in the midst of an historic season—27-3 record, first-ever March Madness appearance. Coach Steve Steinwedel’s club was big and deep. All five starters averaged in double figures. Alex Coles, our power forward, was a high-jump champ with 1,001 fancy dunks. Our center, Spencer Dunkley, was a 6-foot-11 shot-blocking machine. Brian Pearl, the freshman point guard, was a top-level recruit who could have played at bigger colleges. We had two gunners (Kevin Blackhurt, Rick Deadwyler) off the bench, and Mark Murray and Anthony Wright were legit scorers.
Small conference? Meh. Little experience? Ha. A loss to Bucknell? Hey, shit happens.
This was going to be the upset to end all upsets. It was our time, and I just knew it …
So my legs shook and my knees knocked and the referee tossed the jump ball and Delaware scored first and we were on our way and … and … and …
God, it was ugly. Humbling. “We wanted to prove we could play against major-college competition, but we didn’t,” Pearl said afterward. “For me, this takes away from the season. For the team, I know we’re all embarrassed.”
I’ve written about the game before. About the blowout, the disappointment. But what I often forget—and need to remember—is the experience. I was 20-years old, covering the tournament. I was given a free basketball coaster from the NCAA, put up in a hotel, granted special access to the team and the coaches. I felt like a man for the first time in my brief writing career. I was standing alongside the bigs of the profession, attending an event I’d only dreamed of attending.
My team lost, sure.
But my career began.