They don't call it March Madness for nothing. Not being a basketball fan, however, I've never personally participated in this rite of spring, that is until I decided to bring my youngest son cross-country with me on a business trip so that we could share some quality time together. By quality time, I had in mind hiking through Muir Woods or along the beach at Drake's Cove in northern California. Rudy, who graduated from the University of Maryland in January, had different plans.
No sooner had we landed at San Francisco airport than we hit the Red Carpet Club in search of a TV. The sets in the rest of the airport were tuned to cable news, no doubt forcing thousands of basketball fans in transit to fork over hundreds of dollars to join the pricey, private airline lounges that provide wide-screen TVs in addition to free local telephone calls for their annual fee.
This being California, however, we were only partially in luck. The sets were all tuned to the NCAA tournament, but it was the match between UCLA and Hofstra, not Maryland vs. George Mason. As I learned on this trip, games from different regions play simultaneously over the first two rounds of the 19-day tournament. CBS paid $6 billion to air the games over the next 11 years, but beams different games into separate regions over local affiliates, largely depending on which regional favorites are playing.
No matter. Up in the left-hand corner of the screen, the scores from other matches were visible. So for two hours, my son could watch a team he had little interest in while he got quick glimpses of the score from Maryland's game every few minutes. What's more, Rudy called his father and oldest brother, another Maryland alum, who gave him play-by-play descriptions, long distance. Mercifully, the network switched to the Maryland game for 56 seconds before half-time and 5 minutes at the conclusion of the game, allowing Rudy to see Maryland's come-from-behind victory.
But that win, of course, meant that I would have to watch even more basketball in the days ahead -- and not just the Maryland games, because other teams' wins and losses would determine which teams Maryland would play in subsequent rounds, not to mention its chances of winning.
So, while blue skies shone overhead, whales migrated up the coast within sight of the shore, and harp seals gave birth on Limantour beach just a short drive away, Rudy and I sat transfixed to the tube, the shades pulled down, munching junk food in our cabin at Point Reyes.
Saturday, however, would prove a greater challenge. Rudy decided he wasn't willing to settle for watching the score box alone, and it became my duty to find a satellite dish hookup somewhere that would carry the game live. The thought of driving 90 minutes back to San Francisco, down America's most winding highway, along sheer Pacific cliffs just to see a basketball game seemed crazy indeed. So I began looking for bars -- sports bars to be exact -- nearby. We were in luck. The Flatirons in San Rafael, a mere 45-minute drive along America's second most winding highway (but no cliffs) would air the Maryland game at 12:20 p.m.
We were not alone. At a time when most decent people are cleaning their gutters or planting their spring bulbs, here were a couple dozen, mostly respectable types hanging out in a bar at midday. Three generations of Marylanders sat at the next table, grandparents, a young married couple and their adorable infant daughter. The baby seemed unperturbed at the hoots and hollers when the Terrapins' ball went swoosh through the hoop. Also on hand were two young computer software guys, who graduated from Maryland the same year as my oldest son, and a forlorn character, who said he had attended St. John's College in Annapolis, and had already had way too much to drink by the time we arrived at noon.
In a country in which 16 percent of the population moves each year, we need something to anchor our lives. We could do worse, I suppose, than spend a few hours each spring watching a bunch of boys from back home dribbling an orange orb up and down a gleaming court.