With Cleveland State putting on some green March Madness slippers for the first time in my fandom life, I have a horse in the NCAA tournament. No, the school I attended did not make the 64-team-cut, nor are they even eligible to, because I graduated from Case.
Case Western Reserve's men's basketball team plays in the University Athletic Association in Division III. The Spartans go against such fellow hard-court powerhouses as Emory, Carnegie Mellon, NYU and the University of Rochester. Back when the conference had nine teams, it was appropriately and affectionately nicknamed the "Nerdy Nine," which tells you all you need to know about how well they shoot a basketball.
During my senior year at Case, the team went an astoundingly bad 4-21. This year, they were 8-17, while those renowned cagers at Washington University won the conference at 26-2 and will square off against St. Thomas on March 20 for the right to be among the final four in Division III.
The point is this: I never had a real collegiate fan experience. Not to cast any aspersions against the great athletic tradition at CWRU, especially with the school's recent success in football, but there's a strong correlation between athletic success, fan interest in those games and the number of students who can be seen doing homework on any Friday or Saturday night on campus. You don't need to be enrolled at Case to understand how that equation plays out for the Spartans. And that's not even an entirely fair attack. Athletics is not what Case does. Kids go to Case for sports like they go to Utah for monogamy.
When it comes to Division I basketball, I am a completely unfettered free agent, and as such, I'm probably square in the demographic that Cleveland State hopes to draw down to the Wolstein Center on a regular basis. I love sports, and even though college basketball ranks behind the big three, I'm as likely as anyone to turn on a good game. I went to a Division III school, live in the area where I grew up, root for all the local teams and, as you may guess by my employment at Scene, have very little expendable income. So bargain sporting experiences should be right up my broke-ass alley.
That doesn't mean I go. The last time I went was five or six years ago, when St. Bonaventure stopped by the old Convocation Center, and a buddy and I walked up and bought courtside seats about five minutes before tip-off for about $15. I couldn't tell you much about the game, besides the fact that CSU lost. Hell, they might have even won. I don't know. I do, however, remember a fan who wore a jersey emblazoned with "The Intimidator" and stalked around the court waving a toy sword. If CSU could clone that guy 5,000 times, they'd be set, as would anyone who manufactures plastic toy swords.
Instead, they get me. I'm a fan who recently started paying real attention but who still isn't paying real dollars. But I did watch the few times that CSU games were broadcast this year. Two showings on ESPNU and five airings on SportsTimeOhio don't exactly make the team accessible to anyone sitting at home. And it still befuddles me that I'm more likely to see a Lake Erie Monsters game on local TV than a CSU Vikings game.
I was watching on March 10 when the final buzzer sounded in the Horizon League championship game, and Gary Waters cried and J'Nathan Bullock and Cedric Jackson ran around the floor at the Hinkle Fieldhouse amid a small but frenzied throng of Vikings fans, finally living out a moment they've played out in their heads countless times. Watching that scene, one identical to literally hundreds of other moments in college basketball I've caught over the years, it felt different. That pit in the stomach was there, a giddy ache similar to the ones I got watching the Tribe clinch the playoffs and the Cavs claim a spot in the finals - those rare moments when one of our beloved teams gets a momentary chance to halt the ululating customary to Cleveland sports.
It didn't make me cry, and if I had to gauge the stomach-churning on one of those smiley-face charts doctors use for pain, CSU's win would be a 6, while all the others I mentioned would register a 10. But it was definitely there, which is something I can't say about watching Akron snag its second NCAA berth this year or watching Kent State's five trips to the dance in the past 10 years or watching OSU's many post-season excursions. Yeah, I root for those teams to win (when it doesn't screw up my brackets), but it doesn't kill me when they lose. I can't say the same for Buckeye football, the Tribe, Cavs or Browns. And, increasingly, Cleveland State.
I don't own a single piece of apparel with Case's name on it. But before tip-off on Friday, I'll buy my third CSU T-shirt to solidify my spot on that happy March bandwagon. It will also mark the first time in a long while that my support will come with actual dollars attached. I'll go down to Becky's Friday night to be among the students and fans and to pursue, in admittedly a manufactured sense, the college fan experience I never had.
There's an open spot on my dance card, Cleveland State. Whaddya say?