Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Mardi Gras of basketball

This time, right now, for nearly as long as I can remember, has been one of my favorite times of the year.

It's ACC Tournament time.

Please excuse the ruminations of an old retired sports writer, but apparently, I just can't help myself. So here goes:

In 30 years of writing for The Dispatch, I'm guessing that I was fortunate enough to attend at least 20 ACC Tournaments. Most of those were in Greensboro and a handful of others were in Charlotte.

I always thought Greensboro to be the best venue for the tourney. The coliseum is relatively easy to get to, the arena is intimate enough — at least in the lower level — for fans to make an impact, and Greensboro itself — the historic headquarters city of the ACC — is also pretty much the geographic epicenter of the league.

What I most remember about covering the tournament is the palpable sense of electricity that snapped its way through everything. In the old days, before the conference expanded to 12 teams, the tourney was a three-day affair, and Fridays before the initial opening tip-off were pregnant with possibility. It was always fun making your way through the fans in the parking lot before game time, to drink in (usually by osmosis) their passion, their absurdity, their expectations. Would the actual workplace be so imbued.

The Dispatch always had a two-man sports staff, so covering the tournament meant everything else locally came to a standstill. Guess what? Nobody seemed to mind.

But because we were a small newspaper, we never had two courtside seats. One seat was on press row, the other was where you could find one within the bowels of the coliseum, usually in front of a television monitor. So whichever writer was actually staffing a game then gave up the preferred press row seat to his colleague for the ensuing game. It was a perfect arrangement.

Fridays (and now Thursdays, too) could be endless. Usually, it means at least nine hours of actual real-time basketball with perhaps a three-hour break for dinner. That's not much of a gap between sessions, especially if you are cranking out a story in the meantime. The fourth game of the day usually starts after 9 p.m. and, for some reason, almost always seems to go into overtime. A long day gets longer and the deadline gets shorter.

Sports writers are known for enjoying their perks and two of the best were the pre-tournament lunch buffet and the between session barbecue dinner. For the rest of the day we could snack on all the ice cream, party mix, pretzels, crackers and soft drinks we could consume, without charge. Whoever said there's no such thing as a free lunch was never a sports writer.

Other freebies sometimes included media gifts (say what???) like T-shirts, pens, writing pads and in very good years, something worthwhile like a leather laptop carry-all bag. I still use mine from the 2003 tournament. That was also the year of the 50th anniversary of the ACC.

People used to tell me how lucky I was that I got to go the tournament, and I guess I was. But if the truth be told, as I got older, I found more joy in watching the games on TV. I mean, I can leave my sofa whenever I want, there's baseline-to-baseline vision of the court, there's instant replay, there's commentary.

Through it all, it's still the ACC Tournament. It's a Mardi Gras of basketball. It's still one of my favorite times of the year.

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