I was a little worried about my lifelong friend Brian Schatz, 27.
Never a prolific social media poster, his Facebook page had been blowing up all week. There were statements like “Is it Thursday afternoon yet????” and alarmingly emotional variations on “I never thought I’d see the day.” There was a suddenly new profile picture from his days as a college student.
And then his cover photo changed to show the bold slogan: “IT’S TIME TO DANCE.”
Brian, you see, is the ultimate winner in this season of March Madness. He is a Northwestern University basketball fan.
As he would be happy to explain to you, Northwestern is the only one of the country’s major basketball programs to have never made the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament — you know, that thing your coworkers have encouraged you to fill out a bracket for — until this year.
But this year they ended nearly 80 years of frustration and failure by earning a ticket to dance in the tournament, which for Northwestern starts at 4:30 on Thursday. Our little NYC snow-and-sleet storm meant that Brian was working from home on Tuesday so I hiked over to his Brooklyn apartment to make sure the madness wasn’t driving him insane with anticipation.
Brian’s roommate, our friend Daniel, was on hand to grumble about Brian’s newfound habit of pacing the floor, watching Northwestern-themed Facebook Live videos and fretting out loud about his lack of ownership of a team jersey.
Brian, a plumbing and fire protection engineer, let the grumbling wash over him, serenely designing infrastructure on his laptop.
He had some designing to get done — he needs to get his hours in so as to be able to leave early for gametime — but he took a few minutes to sketch out his history of Northwestern fandom.
As a junior, he was one of some two dozen individuals invited to a pizza party with the men’s team due to his record of attendance at home games. He reports that he really only missed one if he was “sick or something.”
His college viewing career included one time rushing the court, after a win over a Big Ten conference rival. But the team never really got close to the tournament. This year, that all changed.
Brian, a mathematical man never one for pointless descriptions, described in depth the game against Michigan that essentially guaranteed Northwestern’s place at the dance. He had been stuck at a plumbing society conference, checking the score when possible on his phone. He got to a fellow alumnus’ house for the last four minutes.
With under two seconds, it was tied and Northwestern’s ball on the far side of the court. Unbelievably, the inbounder attempted a full-court Hail Mary pass: “Which, as you know, is a dangerous play,” Brian said, evoking many years of shared parish league basketball history in which he and I developed a reputation for mediocre talent but decent risk assessment.
Even more unbelievably, I guess, the Northwestern player caught the ball and made the buzzer-beating layup. It was a relatively easy shot and a miss would have been embarrassing. But don’t tell that to Brian, who reports that he and the other Northwesterners began hugging and screaming, watching this mashup of “My Heart Will Go On” and the play on repeat, and generally getting amped up for their big chance.
How will things go on Thursday? Brian reports that the Vegas and FiveThirtyEight.com odds are against them.
Nevertheless, in one of his two brackets, Brian has Northwestern winning the entire thing.
He says that the other online videos in his new repertoire are yearly montages of recent tournament highlights and fan reactions. They are reminders of the rush of adrenaline and deep connection that he and many others feel for college teams even more than, perhaps, for professionals.
In March Madness, goes the argument, every game is win or go home. Every shot is big, every moment might be the biggest deal in an undercompensated player’s life. And the fans in the background are cheering for near-peers rather than Olympians — Brian remembers fondly the team coming to say thanks to students sitting behind the baskets.
Returning home out of the maddening sleet and slushy streets to my own apartment, my girlfriend — not a sports fan by any stretch — questioned the basic premise of this column.
“Northwestern fan says he loves Northwestern,” she said. “Scoop alert.”
She told me to ask her one of the questions I’d asked Brian. I asked what her experience had been watching college basketball when she was an undergraduate.
“Why would I spend time doing that?”
I’ll just have to let Brian convince her — though he’ll be busy for a few hours Thursday at Blondies Sports, a Northwestern bar on the Upper West Side, screaming and sharing purple shots along with the other fans.