Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 9.37.09 PM

I remember Scoonie Penn cutting down the net. It was still light out, but Ohio State had just become the first team to punch their ticket to the 1999 Final Four. I was 11 years old, sprawled out on the couch, and I couldn’t believe it. Not that the Buckeyes were advancing, but that it was almost over.

I’ve recently begun describing myself as an optimistic pessimist, but I can never decide if a pessimistic optimist would be superior terminology. For example, on Wednesday I start getting excited for the weekend. On Saturday morning? The weekend is basically over, I think, and I’m inconsolable. If you tell me I get paid tomorrow, I start worrying about the two weeks after that. And when the Elite Eight rolls around, I start getting scared that the NCAA Tournament is already over.

I used to watch all the games I could. Sometimes I credit my love for college basketball to the fact that CBS was the only channel we got growing up, as it was piped through an old antenna that was attached to the back of our house. Sometimes CBS would be scratchy, and my brother or I would run out into the yard and start slowly rotating the antenna as the other shouted, “more! More! Good! Stop!” I can still feel the weight of the metal antenna in my hands, about the width of a broomstick, creaking as it easily rotated. When I would look up at the important part, suspended 20 feet in the air, it made me slightly queasy. Maybe I was afraid of heights, but in the opposite sense.

In high school we made brackets in Barb Sorenson’s classroom. We would tape them to the wall and every Monday we would cross out the wrong picks and circle the correct ones. I badly wanted to get all of my picks circled so that people would know how much time I poured into college basketball throughout the year. These teams they were hearing about for the first time I’d known about in November, I’d followed their every win, loss, shot, dunk, charge, rebound, and steal. Most of my classmates didn’t know Scoonie Penn from Penn State, and it irked me when their picks were better than mine, as they always seemed to be.

It was a stupid idea, that the time I wasted all season would somehow turn out to be useful in March. But it’s still an emotion I feel to this day.

For the greatest game in Vermont basketball history, I was in a most unusual place. As the entire state – nay, country – watched the #13 UVM Catamounts go toe-to-toe with Jim Boeheim’s #4 Syracuse Orangemen, I was in the green room of a high school theater production of a little-known play named “Don’t Look Down.” My part already done, the game went into overtime as I repeatedly called my best friend Tate from a landline phone in the science room that served as our “green room,” and Tate excitedly narrated the game over the phone. This was years before you could watch the games on a computer or phone. Hell, it was 2005, and years before our high school got high-speed internet.

As the biggest shot in the biggest game the Catamounts ever won went up, Tate went silent on the other end. Point guard TJ Sorrentine was letting it go “From the Parking Lot,” 28-feet deep with a one-point lead and the shot clock running down with just over a minute remaining in overtime. Tate screamed so loud the phone started going in and out.

“What happened?!” I whispered, desperate. It was hard to tell if it was a good or bad development. It sounded like someone had gotten murdered.

Tate got back on the phone what felt like minutes later, yelling things at me in a frenzy. “HE SHOT THE SHOT, IT WENT IN, OH MY GOD, IT WENT IN, CHARLIE IT WENT IN.”

“Tate, slow down, what the fuck happened?”

Later we watched the game as a large group, Tate having video-recorded it for me, and for posterity. Honestly, it was bittersweet. I couldn’t believe I had missed it. 13 years later, I still can’t believe it.

On Monday I went into Barb’s classroom and crossed out my Syracuse pick. Again, it was bittersweet.

I went to college at a small liberal arts school where hipsterdom prevailed. Basketball wasn’t cool. I faked it pretty good my freshman year, acting like I was more into music than sports. But as the year went on, I was increasingly found out, and I kept coming back to sports like a moth to the flame. By sophomore year I’d befriended some guys a year above me that seemed to love the tournament as much as I did. We watched just about every minute of that tournament, the 2008 one, together. We ran into the dorm’s parking lot screaming after a deep Western Kentucky buzzer beater downed Drake in the first round. Our RA – her dorm room sharing a wall with the room we watched all the games in – was emotionally done with the tournament the first night it happened. We didn’t have the heart to tell her there would be nine more nights like it, and that we didn’t plan on watching the games elsewhere.

My bracket was on track that year, too. I had picked Memphis to win the whole thing, and as it went into the National Championship, the Tigers just needed to win and I’d be the champion and have pocketed $90 ever so briefly, prior to buying a bag of weed with all of the proceeds.

It looked good, too. Memphis was up by 10 with under two minutes remaining. But then they stopped making free throws. Mario Chalmers hit a three that sent it to overtime, and I tried to act like I didn’t care. There was no fooling anyone. I was near tears as Kansas salted away a national championship victory, I’m pretty sure.

Not just because I lost, though that was 90% of it. But that it was over again.

I moved to Chapel Hill two and a half years ago, when I was 28. I thought it’d be kinda cool to live in a town that is so passionate about college basketball, and it is. I never dreamed that I’d land a job writing for a newspaper, and that I’d cover NC State games, Carolina games, and Duke games as a reporter. That I’d go to NCAA Tournament games in Raleigh one year, and shrug off the chance to cover NCAA Tournament games in Charlotte this year. A decision like that would have made the 11-year-old version of myself sick.

I cheered the Tar Heels on as they beat Gonzaga, redeeming the loss in the final to Villanova the year before. I ran onto Franklin Street with my friend Charlotte, a co-worker and new friend, and we partied with the Heels fans like there was never a doubt that they were supposed to win, and that we were supposed to be there.

But one thing I still have in common with that 11-year-old lounging on the couch, worried about whether or not he had to run outside and move the antenna around again just to see the games more clearly, is that anything beyond the Elite Eight still makes my heart sink.

I think of Scoonie Penn, who cut the nets down 19 years ago now. He enjoyed a professional career overseas in relative obscurity as hundreds of players made their name in March, only to be largely forgotten to time moments later. I wonder if he thought it’d be over so soon. I wonder if Scoonie Penn hates the Elite Eight as much as I do.