This time of year, there is one thing always on my mind, NCAA Basketball.
Living and growing up in Kentucky, it comes natural to fall in love with the sport. Growing up, as a kid, I remember sitting through the games and even feeling anxiety for the game. My bedroom was not decked out with whatever was hot or popular at the time, it was a soft Kentucky blue with Wildcat border around the walls and Kentucky posters on every flat surface. I remember shooting hoops by myself in the driveway and putting myself in the last second shot during a big tournament game and the whole year hinging on my one shot. Whether I sunk the shot or not, it didn’t matter, if I missed the refs always called a foul on the ghost player defending me. If I sunk it the fans went wild and UK brought home another trophy for the 5th time that day.
In middle school, I realized things weren’t always as easy as I had imagined in my childhood. I tried out and made my middle school squad both my 7th and 8th grade years, it took much effort but I never got that chance to sink the final shot. Most of my dreams passed while I rode the pine. Never getting much play time, for reasons I had no control over (last names go a long way in small towns), I then realized that my dream was just that, a dream. It was a tough pill to swallow at first but then summer came and it all faded from me without me ever really pondering it again.Then high school came and I entered a freshman into a brand new world. I remember checking out the basketball try-outs again, only to notice the same persistent issues with small towns, so I decided to set these years out. I still enjoyed in a shoot around with my buddies in gym or driveways. But the dream of playing as a career had died.
Enter video games. I was always a gamer but never really fully immersed myself into them much during college hoops season. But one day I remember hearing about a NCAA Basketball game coming out for the XBOX. Never really getting into sports games, I was playing catch up. I believe I remember it coming out and being priced at $20 new, which is a great price for a 16 year old working a part-time job at a grocery store. So I picked it up, and never put it down. I remember being caught off guard because my favorite players weren’t on the roster (due to licensing issues), I remember renaming the entire UK team to match their roster and jersey numbers. I was there again, able to sink that final shot without the disappointment of real life.
Once the real tournaments had ended I lost interest in my UK team and set out on a new journey in the game, being the coach. My first year I was hired as head coach of the Youngstown Penguins, a team I knew nothing about (didn’t even know they were a real team). We had 2 shooters who could hit some of their shots from outside the arc, and basically no inside presence. My first game I remember an outlet pass to one of my players on a steal and my player missing the dunk. First thoughts “It’s going to be a long road.”
My first year as head coach was lack luster but it was enough for me to get other job offers. Surprisingly I turned them down, because Youngstown was nice enough to hire me, I figured I owed them a Championship berth, plus the 2 shooters I had were seniors this year, a bond had been formed. This year though I signed some decent recruits. This was our year to get to the big dance.
That we did, we took our division by storm and made our berth. We were a 15 seed (if I remember correctly) in the tourney, so the odds were against us. We rolled thru the tournament up until the final four where we met my favorite team, University of Kentucky. It was a hard fought battle but in the end the AI coach was no match for our 15th seeded team and we prevailed by four, onto the championship game.
I could feel the anxiety as the other final four game was ending, so we could determine who we were playing. Then it was known, it would be Youngstown vs North Carolina in the championship game. The first half things were close, but they went in at half time with a 6 point lead on us. Coming back from half time and after watching the AI animated cheer leaders finish cheering us on at half time, our season perfect season fell apart.
Four minutes in my hot hands three point shooter was fouled going hard in the lane and resulted in a sprang wrist which put a huge damper in our performance, so I had to turn to our bench with which I hadn’t played a whole lot. Things weren’t good, our whole team went cold and our lack of internal size really showed with UNC dunking on us almost every possession. I remember trying to block all the time only to be called for fouls. We ended up heading into the locker rooms our heads down with a 24 point loss.
The season had ended, my year as coach had ended.
At the end of the year, with such an awesome performance last season, found me getting job offers from much more prestigious schools, but I stuck with Youngstown. I played one more year with them and won the championship the following year.
I have played many NCAA basketball games since then, but for some reason, that season stuck with me. I guess it was because I got to get back to my childhood dreams in one form, and feel that same feeling of the crowd going wild, like I had felt all those years ago in my parent’s driveway.
PS: 2K Sports if your reading this, Please bring back the college basketball franchise.