Last Saturday my alma mater dropped a squeaker for the ages. The previously undefeated University of Memphis Tigers men’s basketball team lost to our cross-state rivals, the Tennessee Volunteers, by four points. It cost Memphis more than bragging rights. The Tigers blemished a previously perfect season, pooching a 47-game home winning streak (the nation’s longest), and falling from atop the college basketball polls. Who replaced the Tigers at number one? The previously second-ranked Volunteers, whose resulting number-one ranking is the school’s first.
Yes, the loss was devastating. A crushing defeat, made more ignominious by the fact that the Tigers would have prevailed had they hit their free throws (Memphis went a pitiful 8-17 from the line). And what could make an already crushing and ignominious loss even worse? How about the fact that nobody else in Maine cares?
With March nearly upon us, and with it, the incredible, gut-churning excitement of college basketball’s conference tournaments, followed closely by the Big Dance, I want to offer some solace to other college hoop fans like me in Maine. We are the Lonely Alumni. Our stories usually go like this: we’re from Vacationland, but after high school we needed out. Maybe we landed at Indiana, Villanova, Duke, or Florida; perhaps we were educated way out West at Arizona, Gonzaga, or maybe UCLA, and even though we all grew up sharpening skates and thinking that UMaine’s hockey coach, the late Shawn Walsh, was the shit (which he was), we adapted to our collegiate environments, eventually giving our hearts to the round ball and the hardwood. Now, after graduating and finding our way back East, among us is the only person in Brunswick wearing a Patrick Ewing Georgetown jersey. Among us is the lone Southern Illinois University alumnus in Biddeford, the only person in town who can both spell saluki and also explain what one is (an ancient breed of dog, salukis are kind of like long-haired greyhounds). It’s a lonely condition. No man is an island, but when you live and die for a far-away college team, and reside in a state that started obsessing over Curt Schilling’s injuries as soon as pitchers and catchers reported to Winter Haven, "like an island" is a pretty succinct description of how you might feel.
Sure, plenty of people fill out brackets and pay close attention come tourney time, but that’s more about gambling and workplace distractions. The people who suddenly worship college hoops come March usually just align themselves with big-name schools, hoping to utter an astounding prediction, or display a new loyalty that will make them seem informed and prescient by the time the nets are cut down. As such, any Lonely Alumnus trying to be true to their school should hold these people in contempt. They don’t really bleed Tarheel blue, or truly care about the Wildcats, the Buckeyes, or the Jayhawks. They don’t make haranguing phone calls to network headquarters when ESPN doesn’t broadcast that all-important Mountain West Conference showdown between Utah and New Mexico. And by all-important, I do mean all-important to you, and only you, lonely alumnus. Yes, I feel your pain. I can’t say that you’re not alone, because by definition you are, but you’re not alone in being alone, if that’s any comfort.
And what about my Memphis Tigers? They need to practice their free throws, of course, but one loss is OK with me. Losing will just sharpen their blades for the Big Dance. After all, how did that “undefeated” thing work for the Pats?
Rick Wormwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.