SWEET 16? DON’T LOOK IN OLD FAMILIAR PLACES

It’s that time of year again. My car knows the way. Every spring, one of the two big schools from Michigan advances to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament. And I am dispatched to cover the event.

“First we visit the campus,” I say, “then we check out the student spirit
–“

“I know, I know,” the car says, wearily, “just tell me which school.”

It never fails. The weather warms. The snow melts. Suddenly, you turn on your TV at 3 p.m. or 9 p.m. or 1 a.m., and there is another college basketball game, such-and-such U. against this-and-that College. And one of those teams is Michigan or Michigan State. Never fails.

“After we check out student spirit,” I say, “then we interview the players and coaches –“

“I know, I know,” the car says. “My engine is running. Just tell me which school.”

Isn’t this the pattern? Either the Wolverines or the Spartans win their first two tournament games. Then they travel to some faraway city to play some faraway team. Usually North Carolina. Right?

“After we interview the players and coaches, we drive to the airport –“

“I know!” the car says. “But you still haven’t told me which school.”

Which school? Yes, that is the only question, isn’t it? Is it Green or Blue this year? Spartan or Wolverine? Is it East Lansing or Ann Arbor?

Wait a minute.

“Oops,” I say, “I forgot to ask.”

“Great,” the car says. “We better get gas.” It’s either here or there, right?

OK. So, it was an oversight. Normally, I am here for the first round. This year I was away. Far away. In Alaska. The TV wasn’t working. Actually, I think the TV was frozen.

So I called the office when I got back. They said, “Cover the Sweet 16 game.” I hung up. What more do I need to know?

“We’ll try Michigan State first,” I say. “The Spartans had a strong team. Steve Smith, Mark Montgomery. They probably advanced. Let’s go to East Lansing. You take 96 west –“

“I know,” the car says.

We arrive at East Lansing. I must say, the campus seems pretty quiet, considering the basketball team is just two wins from the Final Four.

“Go Green? Go White?” I ask a passing co-ed.

“Get lost,” she says.

Hmmm. Must have a final exam. I spot a young man in a Spartans sweatshirt.

“MARCH MADNESS!” I say.

“Eat dirt,” he says.

I return to the car.

“I guess it’s not the Spartans. It must be Michigan. I’ll be darned. Last time I looked, they weren’t going to make the tournament. Well, OK. Let’s go to Ann Arbor. Take 94 west –“

“I know, I know,” the car says.

Off we go. And soon we arrive in Ann Arbor. Strange. This campus also seems quiet.

“GO BLUUUUUE!” I say to a student.

“Huh?” he says.

Hey. What is going on here? You would hardly know U-M had a big basketball game tonight. You would hardly know that, in a matter of hours, 12 young Wolverines would put it all on the line for the glory of their alma mater. . . .

“HAIL, TO THE VICTO–” I begin.

“Shut up!” someone yells. “We’re trying to study.”

I return to the car.

“Well,” I say, “no spirit here. And I can’t find any players. We might as well go to the airport. Take 94 east–“

“I know, I know,” the car says. Wrong: Try the road not taken

We take 94 east. We pass Ypsilanti. On the highway I see streamers. Dark green and white. Hmmm.

“Follow those,” I say. “Must be a charter.”

We follow. They lead to a road. That leads to a campus. And suddenly, we are in the middle of a pep rally. People are wearing school colors. There are signs that say, “BEAT CAROLINA!”

“GO NEELY!” someone yells.

“Neely?” I say.

“HOW ABOUT THAT KENNEDY!”

“Teddy?” I say.

“We got the Thomas Twins! We can beat the Tar Heels! HOOOOOOOO!”

I am confused. Either Michigan changed its location, Michigan State has changed its colors, or I took a wrong turn somewhere. Let’s see. We went north. We went west –.

“GO EASTERN!” someone yells.

Eastern? The team without a nickname? The team from the conference that sounds like a hamburger? Eastern? That Eastern?

Yes, I am told. That Eastern. They have made it to the Sweet 16. They will tangle with North Carolina. They will be the ones on national television, tonight, prime time.

Michigan and MSU are nowhere to be found.

“Amazing,” I say, getting back into the car. “Eastern Michigan. Well. We better get going. We want to make the game. Take me to the airport.”

“I can’t,” the car says. “I’m lost.”

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