(Author’s note: This is self-indulgent, over-the-top, quite a bit egotistical and likely of little interest to you. Also, it’s possible that I’ve published some, or all, of this before. If anyone else wrote it, I would be filled with rage and bile. But it’s a snow day, and I couldn’t sleep last night, so I wrote this in my head. Whatever. Please don’t read it if it will make you hate me.)
The first time I saw an NCAA bracket, I was in sixth-grade science class. The memory is drawn into my brain, with a ruler and a No. 2 pencil. The person who showed it to me was Michael Heary, who would later become an NCAA tournament star with Navy. He was sitting in the row in front of me, but he turned around so we could stare at the photocopied mess of names and numbers together. His dad was our principal. Mike was allowed to enter the faculty pool. Sixth-grade me immediately understood that this was all brilliance.
Within a few years, my friend Thomas Morrissey — who went on to work for ESPN — and I were running a pool for our entire high school. We would draw the bracket Sunday night on graph paper — yes, using a ruler — and get it to our other friend Mike, whose father was a local lawyer and had after-hours access to a copy machine. Our school had about 600 kids, and — at least in my memory — we would get more than 100 entries into our pool. We graded them by hand, using different colored highlighters.
My senior year in high school, I did the ruler-and-graph-paper bit from my grandparents’ house in Baltimore, after a college visit to the University of Delaware. I never would have applied or attended that school without Spencer Dunkley, who led the Blue Hens to the tournament my sophomore and junior years of high school. The NCAA tournament kind of drew the outlines of my adult life. Which is weird.
Anyhow, after grading hundreds of brackets by hand for years, I knew what a strong bracket performance looked like. And in a three-year span from 1996-1998, I did well. Really well. I’m sure my memory is playing tricks on me, but I know I had fifth-seeded Mississippi State in the ’96 Final Four, and I know I had Kentucky beating fourth-seeded Syracuse in the title game, and I know I clinched two different pools that year before the final game was even played. That’s a good feeling.
Regardless, around that time I decided “sportswriter” was a dumb career choice, so in 1998 I moved to Washington and started working for a non-profit in politics. I hated it. I was miserable, and lost, and had no idea what to do with myself. But I was in love with the Washington Post sports section. This is completely true. I had never seen a sports section like that. Reading it was one of the highlights of my working day. Maybe the highlight.
And I was in awe of Kornheiser and Wilbon. Look, you can say whatever you want about their ESPN careers — and I’m sure I’ve said plenty — but they were putting on a show back then. They were in such control of themselves and their writing, so breezily conversant in the world of sports, had such a fantastic daily back-and-forth in print, and were so much better than anything I had read. Reading them made me happy. I don’t know what better compliment there is.
So the 1999 tournament arrived, and — in my memory at least — I was again on fire. In my memory, at least, all four of my Final Four teams — Duke, U-Conn., Kentucky and Ohio State — were still alive in the Elite Eight. And I decided that if I got the entire Final Four correct, I would compose handwritten notes to Kornheiser and Wilbon, explaining how good I was at picking brackets and asking them if they could help me get in the door at The Post.
Again, I’m sure this is icky to read and doesn’t sound super believable, but this is 100 percent true. I remember lying in bed in my ridiculously cheap Barracks Row apartment (I paid about $375 a month), composing the letter I was going to send to these guys, trying to decide if famous sports columnists actually read their own mail.
Kentucky, as it turned out, lost to Michigan State and didn’t make the Final Four. Even if that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have written the letter, although I did win an NCAA pool that year. I’m great at coming up with plans late at night; I’m less great at executing them.
I soon left politics and went to work for Whole Foods, and also soon endured a horrid decade-long losing streak where all my tournament picks failed. It got so bad that I refused to make picks at all one year. Doing poorly was a blow to my self-esteem; it wasn’t fun anymore.
Also, I somehow managed to get a part-time job at The Post, and eventually that became a full-time job, and now I’ve spent almost all of my adult life writing a sports blog, and complaining about it.
Back when I was a part-time newsaide, Kornheiser once had me prepare a three-page document with all sorts of research and data points for use in his NCAA tournament column. Some of my stuff made the column. (This was 2003: ” The Atlantic Sun has schools that don’t sound like schools: Gardner-Webb, Belmont, Mercer, Stetson. They sound like a law firm.” I wrote that joke. I know, I know.) Later, Tony would pick the entire NCAA bracket for our special section. Maybe I was oatmeal-brained, but I thought it was great. It was probably the first thing I read when I opened up the section.
Kornheiser, of course, is long gone. His bracket replacement, Tracee Hamilton, was unable to do the job this year. So they asked me to do it.
My picks were too cliched — everyone has Michigan State and Louisville, ugh. My jokes were not particularly inspired. I was kind of trembling a bit when I started filling it out.
But — and I’m being as serious as I can be — this was the professional highlight of my life. The flipping Washington Post re-printed my entire NCAA tournament bracket. Like, in the newspaper. The 1998 version of me would have disintegrated into a shimmering pool of tears and nervous sweat. The 1988 version of me would have run squealing through the halls of Fredonia Middle School. If a TV reporter had asked me for a comment Sunday night, I probably would have said ‘Dreams do come true’ and hugged the nearest copy editor. I told my boss that I should really retire this week, because it’s never going to get better than this.
Ok, got that all out. Now I promise to go back to transcribing sports-radio interviews and complaining about everything.
(Oh, and I won two different pools last year. I had Louisville beating Michigan in the final. I have proof.)