Call Off March Madness

14 Mar

Let’s face it, the concept isn’t as radical as the Grinch’s attempt to prevent Christmas from coming in the 1966 classic movie.  That was flat-out heresy.  What I’m proposing here is simply common sense.  It is inconceivable to me that the NCAA would even consider going ahead with the tournament when Jeff Klein won’t be in front of the television to watch it.  It would be like the Lakers playing without Jack Nicholson in the front row, or the Knicks playing without Spike Lee front and center.  Jeff might not have the same star power that those guys do, but would anyone really argue that there is a bigger fan of March Madness ?  So as for playing the tournament this year ?  It’s just wrong.  At least for one season anyway.  College basketball should give itself a year to adjust to a new world order without Jeff in it.  Without Jeff in it…that hurts so very much.

Well, you get the point.  To Jeff, Thanksgiving and Christmas were great, his birthday was certainly an annual highlight, the NBA playoffs were big, but there was nothing that got his juices flowing like March Madness.  Everything about it got him fired up: play-in games, frantically flipping channels on Day One and beyond, bracket-busting upsets, incompetent referees, participating in multiple bracket pools himself, and the list goes on. And this year, he’d even have the new “First Four” round to watch, with the expanded 68 team tournament.  More teams, more upset chances !  Seeing how excited he got gave me great joy, and I watched as many games as I could with him each season.

Jeff started working at Weil, Gotschall in November 2009.  He called me one day in January to tell me that he had already submitted a request to take his first two vacation days on the first two days of the NCAA tournament on that Thursday and Friday in March.  I queried whether it wasn’t a bit too early to be asking for vacation days after having worked there for less than two months.  He reassured me that it was quite ok, as they accrue one vacation day per month, and ultimately you either use them or lose them.  And of course, what better use of vacation days than to watch the opening of March Madness, with the remote in hand and the trigger finger ready.  By the end of the conversation, I was thoroughly convinced that Jeff absolutely MUST take these days off.

Last February, I was having trouble thinking of something fun to get Jeff for his 23rd birthday.  Then it hit me that neither of us had ever been to the Big East Tournament at the Garden.  So I went and bought two tickets for the semi-finals so that we could do something else that neither of us had ever done- watch two games in one night !  Basketball Heaven for Jeff’s birthday !  And what a great appetizer to get us in the mood for the big tournament a week later.  We each went straight to the Garden that night from work, and when Jeff arrived, he started searching for his ticket.  “Uh Dad, I think I left my ticket in my brief case at the office,” he dejectedly told me.  Well son, I told him, the game starts in 25 minutes and the subway is right there, so go get it and I’ll have your beer ready.  Getting from Madison Square Garden to 59th and 5th, and then back again, is no picnic at rush hour, and I didn’t give Jeff much of a chance to make the start of the game.

Jeff's 2010 Big East Semi-Finals ticket still hangs on his bulletin board

I should have known not to sell my son short when it comes to making a basketball game, and sure enough,  just as they were about to tip off, he showed up at our seats absolutely drenched in sweat.  The subway couldn’t have been that hot in March, I said.  “Well”, Jeff replied, “I decided not to take the subway back, but when I realized I couldn’t get a cab, I started to sprint.”  Sprint ???  From 59th and 5th to the Garden in business loafers ???  It turns out that Jeff “only” sprinted half that distance (an incredible endeavor nonetheless) before finally finding an available taxi.  He downed his beer like it was a shot.  I can’t think about Jeff at the Garden without thinking of those beers in the plastic cups with the handles that have an opening in which they place a pretzel stick.  He thought that was the greatest thing ever, and to prove it, he always made sure to consume several of them per game.

And so despite Jeff’s shaky start, we had a great night, first watching Georgetown blow out Marquette in an upset and then watching West Virginia edge Notre Dame in a 53-51 thriller.  By night’s end, we had had our fill of beer and basketball.  I am so thankful that we had this special night together for his birthday, because although we went as a family to a few Yankees games over the summer and a final Knicks game on October 30th, this was the last live sporting event that we attended alone, just the two of us.

Now back to March Madness.  How ironic that the last NCAA final game of Jeff’s life featured the ultimate underdog (Butler) against the school that two of his best friends attended (Duke).  As he told me before the game, it was a “no-lose” situation for him.  As has been mentioned frequently on this blog, Jeff lived for dramatic upsets, always rooting for the underdog to topple the big favorite.  And so there we were, just the two of us, upstairs in our TV room, going crazy watching an incredible final game that truly lived up to its billing.  And what could have been better for Jeff than the fact that it all came down to the final shot, which could win the NCAA championship, and the underdog had the ball !

When Gordon Hayward of Butler launched the final half court prayer for the potential win, I positioned myself so that I could see both the TV screen and Jeff at the same time.  Jeff’s jaw dropped open as the ball was in the air and it looked like it was right on target.  When it rattled out, we both let out a loud and simultaneous “ohhhhhhhhhh !,” which shook the house.  I looked at Jeff and asked, “How bummed are you ?”.  With no hesitation, he said, “Not at all.  Would have been wild, but I’m really happy for AB and Ryan.” And I’m pretty sure he then proceeded to send them a congratulatory text.

And so here we are a year later on the eve of March Madness, which starts tomorrow without its biggest fan- my precious son- and without regard for my view that they should still call the whole thing off.  I guess down deep I know that canceling it now could pose a bit of a problem for all the teams, players, tv networks, advertisers and fans across the country.   The issue for me is that my feelings about March Madness are a microcosm of my broader view of life right now.  It is hard for me to come to grips with the fact that all things in life, including the things that Jeff was passionate about, will go on without him.  I console myself, though, in the thought that the NCAA officials do, in fact, have a valid reason for going ahead with the tournament this year.  It’s because they know that Jeff will absolutely be watching, as he always has.  From here on out, he will just be watching from a different perch, one that is higher with a perfect view, which some might argue is actually the best seat in the house.

-Rich Klein

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