When you think back on your life as a sports fan and try and remember the moment that you became more than a casual fan, it can be difficult. Growing up in Wisconsin, it’s tough for me to pinpoint when I became a Packers fan. My dad is a lifelong fan, so all I can remember is the Packers on TV at a very young age, and going to my first game during the 1987 strike season. Thankfully, because of the strike, none of his clients wanted to go. According to the magic of the internet, the game I attended at Lambeau with replacement players was either the 10-11-1987 game against the Lions, or the 10-18-1987 game vs. the Eagles. I am one of the few fans to say that their 1st NFL game in person was with replacement players, which makes the memory more unique and memorable. The Brewers were decent in the late 1980’s, but I didn’t get hardcore into baseball until the mid 1990’s, when I was able to watch more than a handful of games a year locally broadcast. Pretty much the same story when it came to the Milwaukee Bucks at the time, limited exposure. The Badgers were going through the dark days of the football and basketball programs at the time. It was often impossible to watch them, unlike today in the age of all games televised. I didn’t become a diehard Bucky fan until Barry Alvarez revitalized the program starting in 1990. Up until that point, Badger football hadn’t had a winning season since 1984, and the basketball team was in equally rough shape. My lifelong love of college basketball and March Madness didn’t come from anything Badgers related, but from some help from my childhood best friend and his family.
I met Josh Carney when I was in 1st grade in the 1988-89 school year. Although we were in different classes, we hit it off over a shared love of sports, WWF wrestling, Tecmo Bowl, frozen pizza, and Coca-Cola. Unlike my family, where I was the oldest of three siblings, Josh was the baby of a family of four kids. He has two older sisters, one college aged at the time and out of the house, and his older brother Jim was a good athlete at our small rural WI high school. At that point of my life, I had already started playing hockey in 1988, and my family had no history or interest in basketball. Josh and I were at the age when kids are old enough to have sleepovers and stay at friend’s houses over the weekend. I recall the chance of being able to hang out and stay up late, playing pickup basketball and baseball, and watching sports and wrestling as some of the best times of my childhood. Jimbo and Josh were big college basketball fans, and in 2nd grade I got to experience my first taste of the brackets in 1990. A famous year here in Las Vegas, UNLV went on to win it all against Duke in the National Championship. Ironically, I would go on to attend graduate school at UNLV in 2008, and have a Master’s degree from the school. Also ironic for a future Badger Alum and fan, the Carney family was Duke fans. This was the height of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and a young Grant Hill. Even though it’s a little painful to admit it now, I became a fan of that Duke squad and rooted them on in the early 90’s. Even though they got destroyed in the 1990 National Championship game, my sports interest was piqued. The following year in 1991, I was ready to fill out brackets and follow along with all the tourney games. At this point, Josh started being homeschooled, but this just solidified our friendship, as I was one of the close friends that stayed in contact with Josh outside of school. A big thanks to my parents along with his for the car rides and effort it took to keep Josh and I connected after he started being homeschooled. Karen and Pastor Terry Carney were always great to me and welcomed me in their home so Josh and I could hang out. Pastor Terry passed away last year after a long battle with cancer. He was truly one of the kindest men I have had the pleasure of knowing. He was always supportive of Josh and I loving sports. I wish I could have told him how appreciative I was of his kindness and my relationship with his family and Josh before he passed. He is missed by his family, friends, and church community in Tomahawk.
I can tell you the exact day and moment I was hooked on college basketball for life. March 14th, 1991….1st round of the NCAA tournament. After my introduction to the brackets in 1990, I was ready for the 1991 year, watching the games with Josh and his family at their house. We filled out our brackets by hand as the teams were announced on the Selection Sunday Show, pre internet printouts. (A few years later I would cut out the brackets out the newspaper and make photo copies, still might as well have been the Stone Age!) Syracuse was a number 2 seed in the East, facing number 15 seed Richmond. Jimmy Boeheim had a killer squad, led by player of the year candidate Billy Owens, Adrian Autry, Dave Johnson and others. No one gave Richmond a shot. In fact, no number 15 seed had ever upset a 2 seed up to that point. I remember watching and cheering for the Spiders to upset the Orange, not aware of how unlikely of an upset I was watching. Richmond prevailed that day 73-69. This game set the stage for the upset that everyone remembers in 1991, Duke beating UNLV in the National Championship game. This ended the Runnin’ Rebels undefeated streak and dreams of back to back championships. Although the National Championship game is the one everyone remembers as the upset of the 1991 tournament, for me it was the Richmond Spiders doing the impossible first. Ever since that spring of 1991, I immerse myself in college basketball brackets and matchups around this time of year. I tried to alter my school and work schedule over the years to make sure I get to watch as many March Madness games as possible, especially the first week of action.
This year will be no different. Although I no longer need to have paper and pencil ready to write the brackets by hand on Selection Sunday, I still get the same feeling of joy and anticipation as the teams and matchups are announced. It’s all thanks to my friendship with Josh Carney more than 25 years ago, along with the magic that is March Madness. Enjoy the ride!