MARCH 24, 2012 1:11PM

Why I always Love March Madness: Grandfather's Bracket

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For Butch Rich. Rest in peace. And for Peggy Hammond, "Aunt Peggy," his sister-in-law who passed away last August.

Ever time this year when March Madness starts, it brings back a really fond memory of my grandfather Butch's bracket in the NCAA tournament.

Butch grew up like his wife's younger sister Peggy did in a town called Baxley, Georgia; Population 3,000.

Just a little place on US 1, where high school stopped back in the thirties in the eleventh grade, and people could entertain themselves sitting like we did on my great grandmother's porch sipping Coke on a sultry summer evening watching the cars and trucks go by. 

Butch played basketball in high school, although he wasn't as good as his son Don, my namesake Uncle.

Don was a real gunner type, who played on the JV team at the Univeristy of Alabama his freshman year, before guitars and girls and Woodstock had their more in the end natural appeal for him, now out all the way in Santa Cruz, California, where the sixties never ended.

My Dad Barry Rich said that Butch and Don used to shoot baskets for hours and hours on end at the old house in Homewood, Alabama.

Butch always loved to talk about basketball, his favorite sport, even if Aunt Peggy wasn't too far from the truth when she said:

"If Butch can stay in that house, and work in the yard, and watch anything with a damn ball in it, he's as happy as a pig in mud."

March Madness was his favorite of all, and he always had a bracket.

Now Butch wasn't a gambling type, so it wasn't that type of bracket, although he watched every single game that was on the entire tournament when it was remotely possible, happy as a pig in mud.

He just cut out the bracket from the paper, and so gently and accurately as was his engineering way wrote down each and every score, all the way to the end.

When he passed away in 2008, his brackets were one of the things that I went through that brought back the fondest memories, because it brought back to life the beautiful character of the NCAA Men and Women's Basketball tournament, like three of the games I happened to catch last night.

If you know the history of basketball, that with UCLA and North Carolina, and now thanks to Coach K Duke, Kentucky and Indianna have the best traditions, and so if you see that Kentucky is playing Indiana, you watch: period.

I remember watching the last undefeated team in Indiana just get by the best Alabama team in 1976 in Butch's living room, which was still there in his set of brackets after he passed away. 

I sat there for about three hours, and went through those tournaments as they unfolded then, full of surprises and near surprises, like last night, in what is shaping up to be a great tournament, which is nice, as it feels to me like Butch is watching in his living room in the sky in some sort of sense. 

Now last night's game Kentucky-Indiana game was a 1-4 match in the Sweet Sixteen, like a natural progression of narrower and narrower slices of skill, until there is one that unquestionably on that floor in that time and place was the best amateur basketball team in not just the United States but the entire world, and it was a great one, with 100 points scored telling you that is a very special Kentucky team.

But the other games were just as fun to watch that I saw, Baylor and North Carolina managing to escape, just like in the old brackets of Butch.

I thought Baylor was going to blow Xavier off the court, in those curiously reflective yellow uniforms that if I didn't like at first, I have now come to see as one of the stories of March Madness 2011.

That was what was so cool about being able to go through Butch's brackets, to remember what the different stories were about that years Cinderalla and Pumpkins, like that Loyola-Marymount team led by Bo Kimble and playing in memory of Hank Gathers that took out the second best Alabama team in 1991, or Marquette beating North Carolina in the semis, and of course, Jim Valvano and North Carolina's defeat of hugely favored Houston.

Baylor was up 22-4 last night at one point. 22-4. Most people assume that game is over, for good reason.

And yet by the end of it, Xavier gave Baylor a run for their life that was a lot of fun to watch, at least if you weren't a Baylor fan before, although now those outlandish yellow uniforms have earned a place in my heart as part of this years elimination process.

That North Carolina-Ohio game was another classic.

Ohio was a 13 seed, North Carolina 1. You really aren't supposed to lose to a 13 when you are a 1, and I seriously doubt many people had Ohio winning that game in their bracket, and yet, that almost happened, the game going to overtime.

That was a classic game, especially in the second half, as every time Ohio looked like they were going to be put away, this Ohio kid named Offut kept hitting threes.

He missed a free throw at the end of regulation that would have given Ohio the lead, with 25 seconds left, but it wouldn't have been close in the first place if he hadn't played at a level that almost overcame Carolina's All ACC  Zeller's 20-20 performance, 20 points and 20 rebounds not something anyone has done since Tim Duncan, rare territory indeed.

That's a cool story right there with Zeller, about how someone from Carolina hasn't been a senior all ACC since Phil Ford, since so many have left a little early. 

Carolina's in trouble a little bit, because their star guard is out, although this kid named White did pretty well last night.

And that's always been the beauty of March Madness, the individual stories, the funny little schools like Xavier and Ohio that get a chance to stand on the national stage with the Usual Suspects like Carolina and Kentucky and Duke, whoops with the latter this year.

And what a weird end of the season for Syracuse, and yet, there they are, on the verge of a Final Four. That's a program with a lot of tradition now too. 

And that making all the teams line up and play, although you couldn't do that the same way in football, formally at least, is what makes the Men and Women's NCAA Tournament so enjoyable to watch, even if this year it was sad to see 'Bama go out so early, if their future looks very bright too, with a certain irony of course in their former coach making the Sweet 16.

That's why Butch liked to watch every single game that he could of the Tournament, and always made sure to write down exactly how it happened, and which was why it was a very nice memory to go throughhis brackets his way one dreary winter day, and just think back to sitting in the living room, sometimes with Uncle Don and my Dad, and seeing which team was going to be the story of the year.

 

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