Finding real meaning in all this March Madness: Basketball experiences like this author has had the past two years stir fun memories & deep gratitude.

By ANDREW OFFENBURGER 

Andrew Offenburger mugshot.jpg

OXFORD, Ohio, April 3, 2024 — It’s hard to relate to college sports anymore.

As a professor of history at Miami University here in southwestern Ohio, I’ve spent nearly a decade teaching students that the past, like the present, is complicated. Even messy. Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation efforts, for example, pale when considering his imperialist agenda. Likewise, Ida B. Wells once chastised the suffragist Frances Willard for her comments on African Americans. Any search for heroes in the past will only find humans.

I live and teach in this world of grays. So it can be tough to understand the allure of athletics these days, which depend on the clarity between a clean foul and an intentional one, between a call of charging and one of blocking. Referees, god bless ’em, need to be resolute amid all the chaos. They must command. I do love seeing them, however, sell a questionable blocking call, arms pumping against their hips while sliding a step or two, insisting they have reached the right conclusion.

How these players must suffer! Their college memories often hinge on the outcome of instant replay. We strive for certainty, to know which team touched the ball last as it careens out of bounds. Players’ entire perspective of success depends on a few pixelated frames and the authority of a whistle. In basketball, as in all sports, we demand objective and fair results, when such an ideal might well be impossible.

And then it happened. Amid these thoughts, of midlife disillusionment and general grumpery, one day a couple of weeks ago, a golden ticket fell into my lap. My dad Chuck Offenburger texted as he and his wife Mary Riche began to make plans to attend Iowa’s games in the women’s NCAA tournament. Mary had conflicting travel plans for the first game, and so Dad wrote, “Do you think there’s any chance you’d want to meet me in Iowa City and go to one or both of the games with me? I won’t have trouble finding somebody else, but thought I’d offer you first, in case you’re interested in experiencing the Caitlin Clark phenomenon, and also if you’d even be available.”

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Caitlin Clark, “from the logo,” as they say.

C-C-C-Caitlin Clark? Count. Me. In.

Suddenly, a person living in a world of grays saw a flash of color. Though my wife Maria and I would be busy shuttling kids between Indianapolis, Oxford, and Columbus that very weekend, we would find a way to make it work. While I may not relate much to an athletic world in black and white, this Iowan can certainly cheer on the black and gold.

And just like that, in a season of budding tulips, the call to return home and root for the Hawkeyes came tinged with equal parts nostalgia and rejuvenation.

* * *

This wasn’t the first time I completely caved for college basketball. Last year, news outlets reported that an unknown men’s team from Teaneck, New Jersey — Fairleigh Dickinson University — would have a chance to play for a spot in the NCAA tournament. The coach, Tobin Anderson, is a second-cousin of mine on my mother’s side. While I wanted to attend his play-in game in Dayton, an hour north of us, midterm exams kept me on campus.

The great news: his team won, and thereby qualified for the tournament’s first round in Ohio’s capital city of Columbus. Mom and I could go! The horrible news: Tobin’s tiny Teaneck team would face juggernaut Purdue University, a number-one seed with 7’4” Zach Edey, the nation’s most formidable player. Despite the odds, there was really no decision to be made.

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Coach Tobin Anderson (left) strategizes with his staff during the game.

My mom Jeffrie Story, who now lives in Oxford, joined me for the game. We hadn’t been in touch with Tobin and his siblings Tucker and Sarah over the years, though Facebook status updates helped us follow Tobin’s career as head coach at several universities. (I might have Googled how to pronounce “Fairleigh.”) But we wanted to support him in the tournament, however abysmal FDU’s chances might have been.

Mom had grown up with Tobin’s mom, Connie, in tiny Essex, Iowa (pop. 700). While they felt more like sisters, my connection to Connie’s kids was sporadic, reinforced mainly on trips back to southwest Iowa. Memories of the Andersons are therefore impressionistic: sharing holiday meals on fancy dishes with glass beads around the perimeter; the musty basement smell that infused our ping-pong matches, constrained on both sides of the table by racks of hanging clothes from the 1970s, accompanied by chirping crickets; the sounds of football bowl games on the television, cranked to full volume due to Grandpa’s wartime injury.

One Christmas Eve, I’m told, my grandpa and theirs — brothers-in-law — rankled Essex high society when they got into a disagreement, which turned into a wrestling match, one that caught my great-grandmother off-guard and toppled her into the scuffle. They took it outside for a fist-fight, and one of them went to jail for a few hours. Ah, family.

I vividly recall, however, that during any gathering of cousins, Tobin would be outside, practicing his hoops. The sound of a basketball bouncing on concrete therefore became a sign of the holidays as much as any wishbones breaking or snowflakes falling.

Memories in tow for the FDU vs. Purdue game, Mom and I arrived at Nationwide Arena with plans to connect with Tucker and Sarah at halftime. If nothing else, the basketball game afforded the chance for a quick family reunion. It seemed fitting, and all the more necessary, due to Connie’s death not long ago. Connecting Mom with Connie’s kids might give them all a small sense of the familiar, of days gone by. We could all feel life’s clock ticking too quickly.

When the game clock began counting down the first half, it was a surreal moment. This cousin, Tobin, this hard-working coach, grinding out a career at smaller East Coast colleges, was on the jumbotron in March Madness. The smell of musty basements gave way to the squeaks of rubber soles on hard wood. Fairleigh Dickinson was holding its own early against Purdue. Was this really happening?

Thought it might be only FDU lead.jpg

Nothing communicates a resignation to fate quite like this snapshot of the scoreboard, when FDU led Purdue 2-0. I was sure it would be FDU’s last lead of the game.

At halftime, we reunited with Tucker and Sarah, and met Tucker’s wife and several FDU supporters. FDU led Purdue by a single point, 32-31. We all agreed: no matter how the game ended, Tobin’s team represented the university well. He should be proud. We were proud. And it was a wonderful excuse to reconnect. “Well, good luck, everybody,” we concluded, resigned to the reality of the impending second half. “We really should do this more often.” “It was wonderful.” We raised a glass to toast the moment as we walked away, like Cubs fans before the month of October.

And then… and then… I still can’t believe it.

Mom had moved from Phoenix to Oxford only a year earlier, relocating to be nearer to us after a minor health issue. As the final seconds of the game ticked down, though, she was cheering and waving her arms so much—wildly gesticulating—that her watch began notifying several emergency contacts of a possible fall. Her heart rate skyrocketed. All of ours did. The crowd was screaming, chanting FDU! FDU! FDU! while concerned family and friends called to check on her. What a memory.

Until last year, in the history of the NCAA men’s tournament, only one team ranked 16th had defeated a number-one-seed. Tobin and his players made that two. FDU, as many of you will remember, beat Purdue 63-58.

By morning, Tobin was appearing on ESPN, talking with Scott van Pelt. He fielded a call from Bill Belichick. The victory spring-boarded him to a new job at Iona University in New York City. And today, that one game, FDU’s upset of Purdue, has its own Wikipedia page.

In a tournament renowned as unpredictable, witnessing the FDU miracle was a rare, precious gift. The memory of triumph remains, yes, but not any stronger than the time reconnecting with the Andersons. Maybe I was relating to college basketball. Or, more importantly, through it.

Tobin Anderson Jeffrie Story Andrew Offenburger.jpg

Before his second-round game against Florida Atlantic University, cousin and coach Tobin Anderson met with Mom and me at the team hotel for the few minutes he could.

* * *

On the seven-hour drive to Iowa City, with Tobin’s miracle in mind, I thought of how one’s relationship to sports changes with age, as we mellow. As a former competitor, at least in high school, I once could understand why teams losing a state or national championship leave the court quickly, letting the confetti to fall on the victors.

But now, as an academic, I wonder why, say, a national runner-up in basketball doesn’t stay on the court and celebrate the achievement, the gift of intense rivalry, and of being tested to one’s limit. As a favorite philosophy professor once asked in earnest, “What’s so bad about second place?”

Yes, I hear you: “News flash, Professor. Nobody likes losing.”

I get it. As a kid, like most of us, I thrived on competition. Who could make the most free-throws out of ten? Who could pop the most threes behind the second line in the concrete in the driveway? One time, my good friend Jason and I were locked in an epic match of Nerf hoops. The basket in my room hung on the door; we had to keep it closed for the rim to be sturdy. (Any true baller knows this.) Our game wore on for hours, a historic clash with post-ups and body-blows, left-hooks and slamma-jammas. Dad, needing to make arrangements for dinner, knocked on the door and poked his head in the room. He recoils at the memory. A humid bouquet of aromas greeted his nostrils, he recalls, of sweaty socks, B.O., and methane.

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Young cousins Andrew Offenburger (left) and Bill Watson getting after it in “Nerf hoops” on the closet door.

Odors notwithstanding, honing those Nerf hoop skills paid dividends in middle-school basketball. Those of you readers lucky enough to get through the doors of Johnston’s middle school gym that day in 1989, and who managed to land tickets for the thrilling “B-team” game, know where this story leads. The Greatest Shot in Basketball History. That’s how it felt, anyway.

In scrimmages that season, with all hopes of making the A-team dashed, teammate Zach Susic and I had begun to “play loose” against fellow B-teamers. We would try some white-boy razzle-dazzle. For serious seventh-grade athletes, that meant the alley-oop, when one teammate passes the ball to another, who—in mid-air—catches it and makes a lay-up.

Looking back on the Greatest Shot now, it takes on special meaning. I’m pretty sure Zach and I experienced different things growing up, at least based on his Facebook posts. He appears adept at skiing, hunting, and enjoying the great outdoors, while I bask in the glow of a 23” Dell monitor. Eat your heart out, Susic! But for that one day, in that one game, and in that one moment—and I now say this seriously—we became locked together and time slowed to a crawl.

The memory is vivid: I somehow intercept a pass from the opposing team and storm down the court, thunder thighs a-blazing. Over my left shoulder, I see Zach, ruddy-cheeked, break a smile. A competitor is catching up to me. Without thinking—never in my right mind would I consciously try to pull this off in a game, with Coach watching—I find my arms lobbing the ball up diagonally towards the basket. Zach instinctively jumps. He nails the lay-up. Bursting inside, I fight the urge to celebrate for fear of angering Coach or the opposing team. Zach, meanwhile, emerges from the two-point masterpiece with a loud “WAHOO!,” pumping his arms in circles like Arsenio Hall.

The entire “A” team lost their minds. It was March Madness, baby! I don’t think Zach and I spoke much in high school, or our social circles didn’t overlap, and not really since then, but that shared moment with him lingers to this day.

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With Mary Riche and Dad as we were enroute to Iowa City. This was at the Interstate 80 rest stop, just west of Iowa City, that pays homage to the Iowa Writers Workshop at the university.

Arriving in Iowa City via Dubuque Street, as it banked to the right, up a hill and onto campus, some nostalgia crept in through the car vents. In truth, I haven’t spent a lot of time in Iowa City, though I do remember several trips with Dad to watch the Hawks in Kinnick Stadium and Carver-Hawkeye Arena. There was the Michigan-Iowa game of 1985, with the golden leg of Rob Houghtlin. Games cheering for Chuck Long. Watching the men’s basketball team make a deep run in the NCAA tournament in the 1980s, too.

One year, as Dad reported for the Des Moines Register at a team practice in Iowa City, 6’ 8” Ed Horton came over to where I stood, all of about 10 years old. I felt the floor buckle with his steps, and a voice like God came down from above: “You ever dunk a basketball, little man?” I’m not sure how I responded, but the memory of the moment alone paralyzes me. I then felt the center of gravity shift, light as a feather, as he plucked me off the earth and pushed me to orbit the rim. My age, the date, the presence of anybody else: all a blur. But the feeling of weightlessness remains. So, too, the lightness of nostalgia.

Anybody in their right mind grew up a Hawkeye fan, but a friend of mine at Miami, Bill, grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, and was therefore indoctrinated into Penn State fandom from birth. He maintains that nothing can compare to hearing the Penn State fight song at a football game on white-out night. Considering this, I suppose the power of tradition gets deeply intertwined with family and those we love, though…Penn State? It still feels like a stretch. After all, Bill never experienced Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the last two games of Caitlin Clark’s collegiate career.

Dad and I met outside the arena, along with some friends, fellow season-ticket holders, and family members I hadn’t seen in far too long. Lookin’ at you, Aunt Chris, a.k.a. “Grandma Sparkles,” Karl, and Adam! With only 30 minutes to spare, we sat down.

Something hit me then. Maybe it was seeing so much black and gold in one place, when I’m accustomed to feeling like the only Hawk in The Ohio State. It might have been the unique design of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, a womb-like structure built into the earth. Or was it hearing the fight song live? Not the short version, but the full song, with the chromatic scale leading into a second verse, when fans sing the lyrics, accompanied only by low brass. The tubas sustain the melody like the crowd supports the team. I wanted to sing loudly, proudly, but refrained from doing so to better take in the moment.

Here’s a video of the crowd at Carver-Hawkeye singing the Iowa fight song before the last Iowa home game of the year, although recordings of these moments never do them justice: https://youtu.be/5WuXA5tbCi8.

The colors and the chorus, the hot dogs and the high-fives, they all brought about a sense of home. Relating to college sports didn’t seem so difficult in that moment.

All this romanticism quickly faded with a warning from the public announcer that pyrotechnics would be used in the pregame ceremony. At this point, in both Iowa games, all excitement turned to anxiety as “what should happen” collided with “what could happen.” This could be the last game for Caitlin Clark and other Hawkeye seniors. I didn’t want to think of driving all this way, only to share in a historic defeat at the hands of Holy Cross in the first round, or, as it turned out, West Virginia in the second. Would family blame me? Had I experienced too much joy with my cousin’s FDU upsetting number-one Purdue that karma would find balance there in Iowa City, and top-ranked Iowa would fall? These thoughts occurred again and again, though, of course, I never voiced them.

When the games started, the first on March 23, and the second two days later, I kept a calm exterior but was a nervous wreck the entire game. Caitlin Clark seemed a bit off in both games, we all agreed, but that’s only if you consider “off” to be 59 total points and setting the women’s single-season scoring record. We all have tough days, you know?

Caitlin Clark warms up before the game against West Virginia: https://youtu.be/zO3MR5rfRkY.

Watching Clark make her first long-range three pointer of the day sent a wave of emotion through the stands. It sounded like the ocean at high tide: the crowd senses her shot—a left side-step and quick hop back—and an undertow of expectation pulls us far from shore. “Threeeeeee!” some fans drone. The ball flies to the basket, spinning backward, as if curling atop the crest. Then the net snaps, popping inside the rim. Fans erupt with fulfillment; a wave of delirium crashes courtside. (This paragraph is overwritten, yes, but accurate.)

How does she do it?

The exhilaration of those shots compensated for the anxiety we all felt, particularly with five minutes left against West Virginia, the score tied. A colleague of mine texted in that moment to say, “I’m watching the Iowa game. This is ugly like the 1990s Detroit Pistons.” Too mentally gassed to find the vomit emoji, I replied with a photo of the arena.

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Dad and I take a quick selfie before Iowa’s first game against Holy Cross, not long before anxiety started to settle in for the day.

Iowa survived, of course. Hope is renewed, unfortunately at the expense of West Virginia, who proved themselves worthy of advancing. Though the Mountaineers would not have enjoyed it, I do think it would have been nice to celebrate their team more intentionally after the game. Is such a notion truly anathema to college sports?

* * *

Between the two victories, on Sunday, in Des Moines, I accompanied Dad to service at Plymouth Congregational Church. What an amazing place, and for many reasons. Its music and its inclusive message always strike me forcefully. On Palm Sunday, we listened to the Plymouth choir sing “Thy Will Be Done,” which I recall singing with Dad growing up. I withstood the temptation to really belt out the bass line, with true Prufrockian restraint, and chose to simply enjoy the moment, reflecting. Behind us sat former KCCI anchor Kevin Cooney, the face and voice of a news-soaked boyhood. On most nights, Dad and I watched the 10 o’clock news before bed, learning what happened to whom, where, and why, giving order and structure to an otherwise chaotic day. Home can be found in these melodies and pews, as much as the sections at Carver-Hawkeye, no doubt.

Driving home a week ago, after both Iowa victories and the many choruses, embraces, and high-fives, I wondered about this tradition, March Madness. It crept back into my life these last two years, reinvigorating something dormant, youthful. I witnessed two moments deemed historic, according to sports columnists. The triumphs of the players will be immortalized in books and in stock footage for future tournaments, for years to come. Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes will fare well in history, much like Tobin Anderson’s former team at Fairleigh Dickinson. Who knows what he is yet to accomplish at Iona?

But I’m left with the thought of those referees, usually adorned in black and white, charged with ordering this world of madness. There are no whistles and explanations of, “It’s complicated.” There’s no stoppage of time to explain the context or perspective of the participants. Basketball, like all sports, is thrilling precisely for its rules and infractions. I drove home safely, east from Iowa City to Oxford, Ohio, guided through the countryside by GPS, road-lines, and speed limits.

Now, a week later and having vanquished Colorado and LSU, Iowa is heading for Cleveland. Family texts are flying back and forth across the Midwest. I’ll be happy with any result, truly. March Madness has given us all so much this past year.

But a Hawkeye national championship sure sounds nice.

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There’s no place like Carver-Hawkeye Arena during basketball seasons like the last two. Mary Riche and Chuck Offenburger, of Des Moines and Jefferson, and Chuck’s sister Chris Werner and Karl Werner of Marion, have been spending a whole lot of time there.

Andrew Offenburger is Associate Professor of History at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio), where he teaches classes on the American West. He grew up in Johnston IA, stocked shelves at Hy-Vee in the summers, and pitched as a left-handed knuckleballer for the Johnston High School Dragons. Offenburger earned a BA in English at Buena Vista University, and later an MA and PhD in American history at Yale University. He recently authored “Frontiers in the Gilded Age” (Yale Press, 2019), and is currently writing a history of the American road trip genre. He’s also the proud son of an Iowa legend. Readers can write to him at offenba@miamioh.edu.

3 thoughts on “Finding real meaning in all this March Madness: Basketball experiences like this author has had the past two years stir fun memories & deep gratitude.

  1. Great article! It took me 45 minutes to get through it, because I had to click on the links and then more links of highlights of the last several games. Those logo 3 pointers…. amazing. I don’t follow sports at all, but this year, for some reason, I have taken a new found interest in womens college basketball!

    • City - Jamaica
    • State - IA
  2. Wow, Andrew, this is such an entrancing multi-narrative! If there were a sport of writing, you would be its star pitcher.

    • City - Essex
    • State - IA

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