March Madness and me

March is a wonderful time of the year.  We begin to thaw out from winter (usually), maybe to some drinking on St. Patrick’s Day, start to see the first signs of Spring.  All wonderful things, but not the most wonderful thing about March.  That belongs to the NCAA Basketball tournament.  Sure, it’s getting over commercialized, and the people responsible for the product should see some of the money, but the tournament holds some special memories for me.

For many years I was a member of the University of Louisville pep band.  And while they are not in the tournament this year because someone tried to lure recruits to the school with strippers and sex, that’s not going to tarnish my enjoyment or my memories.  The tournaments were always a great time to see new places, have fun with your friends, see and compare yourself to other bands.

First, there was the conference tournaments.  While in Conference USA, these were usually in Louisville, Cincinnati, or Memphis.  These were always interesting, especially if we were playing the host school.  There aren’t many times when you’re greatly outnumbered by opposing fans.  I remember one year in Cincinnati, our little corner of the arena had a cheer going on, and it just got completely drowned out by Cincinnati fans.  It was very intimidating.  Not that those fans were particularly hostile at any time, but I remember wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible after the loss.

Our last Conference USA tournament, 2005, was in Memphis, and it was interesting because President Bush was also visiting the city, and likewise, was in a downtown hotel.  This had caused all of the downtown streets to be closed.  Our first game was a noon game, and we just walked down to the FedEx Arena with our instruments.  After the game, many of us hung out in the Peabody Mall, which was mostly empty because no one could drive to it.  We’d then walked down the middle of the empty street back to our hotel.  It was weird to have such a busy street be completely empty in the middle of the day.

In 2006, Louisville switched to the Big East conference.  This meant a trip to New York City and Madison Square Garden.  Actually, that first year meant a trip to Hartford for the Women’s conference tournament, stay there a few days after losing early, and then going to New York.  I’ll just say there isn’t a lot to do in Hartford.  Think we spent one day killing time in a mall (tried all of the massaging chairs in Brookstone) and then some time at the Jewish Community Center, which had an awesome ball pit that adults could get in.

New York is an amazing place.  I’ve been 3 times,  have seen a lot of places and still have so much I want to see.  Playing in Madison Square Garden is an amazing experience.  Being a huge WWF/WWE fan, the place just has an aura about it.  After my final game there, the director convinced the security guards to let us onto the court for a picture, since we were the final game of the night.

After the conference tournaments, you get Selection Sunday.  The day was never that stressful, as it was always pretty clear beforehand whether or not Louisville was getting into the tournament.  What stress there was came from finding out where you were going, and when was the first game.  I always let employers and professors know far in advance that I was not certain when I’d be around in March, and that I would stay in touch.  For example, if it was a Thursday game that we’d fly to, we would be leaving with the team on Tuesday.  If it was a game we were taking a bus to, we’d leave the day before.  So, it would maybe cause some change of schedules if we were flying on Tuesday.

Finally, we’ve made it to the actual games.  The sites would be an interesting mix of fandoms.  With the first 2 rounds, there would be 8 teams at a site.  This lead to some interesting cheering sections.  You could always count on the unaffiliated fans to cheer for the underdog if it looked like there was a chance of an upset.  They would also cheer for any spectacular play by either team.  Or a comeback, just because they’d like to see an interesting game, not really caring who won.  Though there was a 2nd round game in 2005 that comes to mind.  Villanova was playing Florida.  Louisville was playing next.  Well, all of the Louisville fans started cheering for Nova, being that they were about to be conference partners.  Most Nova fans hung around and cheered for Louisville.

The most memorable year for me would be the Final Four year in 2005.  Let’s face it, while I enjoyed parts of every tournament, it is definitely more fun when your team wins.  In 2005, Louisville did some winning.  First there was Nashville, and having a cop threaten to arrest the entire band for inciting a riot.  After a pep rally at the Wild Horse Saloon, we left and played on a street corner.  The Louisville fans walked out of the place and just crossed the street in the middle of the block.  Of course this blocked traffic, and we got blamed for it.  Then there was Albuquerque.  That was a nice flight.  And might I add that charter flights are so much nicer than regular flights.  It was a nice trip.  Rode a sky lift up to a restaurant on top of a mountain.  The Elite Eight game against West Virginia is one of the best comebacks I have ever seen.

Finally, there was the Final Four in St. Louis.  That Friday was just full of amazing festivities.  There were outside pep rallies with amazing fans, we took a ride through downtown on a double decker bus, and everyone is just waving at you, because you’re a participant in the thing all of these fans are here for.  There was a Battle of the Bands competition that was incredibly fun to be at.  Sure, the game itself didn’t go how I would have liked to have been there, but I’m appreciative of chance to have that experience.

Most of my experiences were following the Men’s team, but I did go to one Women’s tournament, but what I want to highlight from that has nothing to do with Louisville.  We were in Nashville playing Vanderbilt, but the game before ours was North Carolina vs University of California Riverside.  UC Riverside, known as the Highlanders, sent a band of bagpipes to play, and they were amazing.  As they left the arena, they received a standing ovation from everyone in attendance.

So these are just a few of my pep band memories.  Thanks for reading my ramblings as I took a stroll down memory lane.  Until next time.

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