Monday, May 18, 2009

Looking back at memories of a classic game...

Lake the Posts has had a series of really interesting posts recently discussing the most memorable individual moments in the history of Northwestern football. One of the earlier posts in the series briefly mentioned one of the most memorable moments in Northwestern basketball history—the Wildcats 97-93 win over #8 Michigan which propelled that Wildcat team into the NIT. I was only 11 years old at the time, but looking back it was probably that game as much as any other which cemented me as a life-long NU fan. The heart of my post today will focus on my memories of that game.

Before I get into that though a little background is necessary so you understand what you’re reading. Over the past two years, I have on occasionally procrastinated from school work by working on a manuscript I’ve tentatively titled It’s Easy to Cheer for Your Team. Right now the project is stalled at about 30,000 words because I’ve finished my post-grad program and I am furiously filling out applications for high school English teaching jobs (hey, if I fancy myself a writer as might as well teach it, right?). Anyhow, the title comes from an encounter my family and I had with several Wisconsin fans during a game at Welsh-Ryan in which those red-sweater wearers expressed extreme shock we where cheering so hard for the Wildcats. What’s more amazing, though, is that wasn’t the first time I’d encountered such sentiments. It is as if the fans of other Big Ten teams are shocked to find out we NU fans actually care if our team loses. I guess some of that comes from the natural desire to be aligned with a winner. I mean the two biggest Ohio State fans I know went to Bowling Green, but they support the Buckeyes more than the Falcons because Jim Tressel’s teams are winners. Personally, I can’t imagine cheering for a different team than the one I grew up with and the one which represents my school, but I understand others feel differently. It’s tough to cheer for a team which provides as more heartache as happiness, but for those of us who stick with the Wildcats through thick and thin the big upsets mean even more. One of those big upsets was the victory over Michigan on March 12, 1994. Below, is a brief excerpt which features my recollection of that great day.

In my life as a sports fan, I’ve been to the Rose Bowl, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, and a slew of postseason basketball contests. None of those experiences have matched the leave of intensity of watching the Wildcats and the Wolverines battle on March 12, 1994.
When the game started it didn’t take long for Michigan’s Juwan Howard to take advantage of his superior size and athletic skills. His teammates seemed to be on a mission to get him the ball in the post. It was a mission which more often than not they were successful in accomplishing. In fact, by the day’s end Howard would set the Welsh-Ryan Arena record for field goals made in a single contest. It’s a record which still stands.

Much to my surprise, and the surprise of almost everyone at Welsh-Ryan that day, despite Howard’s prolific scoring, the ‘Cats were able to stay with the Wolverines throughout the first half. Every time Howard scored, Wildcats forward Cedric Neloms seemed to answer with a basket of his own. For every rebound Jalen Rose pulled down, the ‘Cats Kevin Rankin pulled down two.

As first half buzzer sounded I turned to my father who’d earlier predicted a Wildcat win and said, “You might be right.”

He smiled just slightly.

The second half was as even a half of basketball as I’ve ever seen. The teams’ play reminded me of two great heavyweight fighters battling in a title bout. Michigan was like a famous champ trying to apply the knock out blow, but the Wildcats, playing the role of the scrappy challenger, kept meeting those powerful blows with equally powerful counterpunches. To nobody’s surprise, when the clock stuck triple zero, the score was tied.

In overtime the Wildcats were carried by a trio of seniors who it appeared had no desire to see their careers conclude. First, Patrick Baldwin hit a three point jump shot from the top of the key just as the shot clock buzzer sounded. The basket gave the Wildcats the lead and sent me jumping out of my seat in pure purple exaltation. Pumped up as Baldwin’s basket made me, it was clear Michigan wasn’t ready fold it up and head home to Ann Arbor. It took Wildcat baskets from Baldwin’s follow seniors Kip Kirkpatrick and Kevin Rankin before the Wolverines appeared ready concede defeat.

When the game clock finally struck zero with the scoreboard reading Northwestern 97 Michigan 93, Welsh-Ryan Arena let out a roar which hasn’t been equaled in the fifteen years since. To my left, the student section rushed the court so quickly you would have thought Northwestern was offering free tuition to the first person to reach the N-Cat logo at the arena’s center.

I wanted to rush the court as well, but my father was too busy lifting me up with a big bear hug for me to get loose and charge over the security ropes as the students did. “You were right,” I said to him. “You said we were gonna win.”

Again he just smiled at me. This time, though, it was with a grin so wide it would have made the Cheshire Cat look only mildly content in comparison.

As looked around, I noticed my father’s wide grin had identical twins all throughout Welsh-Ryan.
Since the game was supposed to be the senior class’s last at home, Coach Ricky Byrdsong had arranged for the team’s seniors to address the crowd at the game’s conclusion. The plan had been for the seniors to stand at center court and speak to the crowd who would have stayed seated in their chairs at the game’s conclusion. Now, the crowd arrangement was a little different. Center court, actually most all of the court, was obscured by a horde of celebrating Northwestern students—the players among them.

With so many people on the court, and the players mixed in with their adoring fans, I wasn’t sure how the senior day ceremony could be conducted. Thankfully, Coach Byrdsong seemed to know how to deal with new crowd arrangement. He calmly took the public address microphone and asked for the crowd’s attention. Even those of us who’d remained in our seats were still celebrating in manner unseen in Welsh-Ryan before or since. After a few minutes, though, we all gave our attention to the man who’d just orchestrated one of the greatest wins in program history.

Standing in the midst of the students, Byrdsong proceeded to conduct the senior day ceremony.
After a few introductory remarks, he passed the microphone to each of the team’s five senior allowing them the chance to thank their parents, friends, and the fans.

The last player to speak was Kirkpatrick the senior who’d scored six points in the overtime period to lead the ‘Cats to victory. As he concluded his remarks, a giant smile appeared on his face and in his best impression of ESPN personality Dick Vitale he declared, “We’re goin’ to the NIT, baby!” The crowd erupted with the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard. The building literally shook.

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