Not sure about you, but I was completely drawn into the NCAA tournament this weekend. Honestly, I’m not as much of a basketball fan as I used to be. Still love to watch it played at the high school level, but the college and pro games just don’t hold the place in my heart they once did. That said, March Madness is a sporting event no one can really miss and still claim to be a sports fan; so I tune in as much as I can every spring to see how it all plays out. I mean, I have to have some frame of reference for watching the “One Shining Moment,” video at the end of the thing, right?
This year I have been pleasantly surprised by the advance made by Michigan. The Wolverines have reached the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five laced up their sneakers for Steve Fisher, back in the early 1990’s. However, Michigan’s success reminded me of another Wolverine team, a better Wolverine team that came before the Fab Five, one that actually won the national title. It might surprise you to know that I was a huge Michigan basketball fan when I was growing up. I mean, I lived in Oregon, was from Texas, and had two parents who went to Texas A&M – not exactly strong links to Ann Arbor, Michigan, right? Well I did have one link, Michigan point guard Gary Grant who, along with a fellow by the name of Antoine Joubert, made up one of the most dynamic back courts in the game of basketball in the mid-1980’s. As a kid, it was obvious to me Grant must be a relative (us sharing the same last name and whatnot) thus he was my guy, and Michigan was my team.
Unfortunately, Grant was gone from the NBA by the time the Wolverines made their magic run to the title in 1989, but that did not mean I had abandoned them. No, by 1989 Glen Rice was my guy, as was Loy Vaught, Terry Mills, Rumeal Robinson, and Mike Griffin. (Sean Higgins was okay too, but I’m not going to give him “my guy” status.) It was this group of Wolverines who, despite losing their head coach just days before the tournament started (for some reason Bill Frieder accepted a job coaching Arizona State right before the NCAA’s, but still wanted to coach the team in the tournament. However, then-Michigan AD Bo Schembechler let him go early, saying “we want a Michigan man coaching Michigan.” Fisher replaced him, and the rest, as they say, is history) managed to make the improbable run to the title.
I will not bore you with the details of that fantastic March. I will tell you, though, that the Michigan Wolverine team of 1989 was the first team I rooted for since I was a very small boy that actually won a title (and I would not experience this joy again until 2004). I will also let you know that I was so nervous when Rumeal Robinson toed the line for those two legendary free throws that I watched from the front yard of my house in Roseburg, Ore., through the front window and when he made them I ran up and down the street hooting and hollering for the whole world to hear. The 1989 Michigan Wolverines were also the first (and only) team I ever picked to win the NCAA tournament that actually won the NCAA tournament. If you add all of this up, you will see just how much they mean to me, and the spot they will forever hold in my heart.
And so it is upon this foundation that I watch this year’s tournament, and cheer on Trey Burke and coach John Beilein (who, incidentally, mows his own grass – how can you not root for a guy who cuts his own grass?). I cannot even suggest that a Michigan win in this year’s Final Four would mean anything close to me, as what that win in 1989 did, but you better believe it would mean something. At the very least it would be fantastic, just because it would be a wonderful reminder of days long past. Or, maybe, they’ve already accomplished that.