Every once in a while I’ll joke with people and say I need a break from column-writing and to please write one (or more) for me — I’ll give full credit and everything. And once in a while someone will literally take me up on it, like my friend, fellow Beatles enthusiast and proud Duke grad Rob Robertson, who wrote an essay extolling the madness of March and the warmth of father-son relationships.
Rob, who also happens to be a Charleston lawyer, calls his essay, which ran in the Mercury several years ago, “March Gladness.” Given the confines of space, here’s a revised, edited version:
My father and I were always close, but like many fathers and sons, we had our distances as well. He had played varsity basketball at West Point, and my wife and I both went to Duke, so we were all interested in basketball. After Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) moved to Duke from Army, both of my parents became rabid Duke fans, and perhaps for the first time my father and I were in absolute agreement about something. Duke’s later successes were no means assured in the early 1980s, when regrettably my father developed Parkinson’s disease, and this once vibrant and proud man was visibly diminishing almost daily.
In part due to a sadly accurate premonition that this might be the last opportunity of its kind, I was determined to take Dad to the 1987 ACC Basketball Tournament, to be held in Landover, Md., not far from my parents’ home in northern Virginia.
For reasons I don’t entirely recall, my flight to Washington was canceled, meaning that Dad and I would have to miss the evening session of the first-round games, which included a surprising and unexpected Duke loss to NCSU in overtime, 71-64. I am always miserable when Duke loses, but this one was particularly bad for obvious reasons. Not to mind, Dad reassured me, it was the experience and not the final score that he was looking forward to, and that we’d make up for it in short order.
My flight was on time Saturday, and after loading up the car with Dad’s wheelchair we headed to Landover, happily dreaming of a UVA (our second-favorite team) upset over top-ranked UNC. We were rewarded with a splendid performance by Virginia against a typical Carolina powerhouse, and I recovered from my Duke hangover — only to be crushed by a double-overtime loss after a series of heartbreaking stumbles.
After this excruciating cruelty and concluding that that this ACC concept of mine just wasn’t meant to be, I was ready to call it a day, but Dad knew he would not have this opportunity again, and rejected my suggestions that we go home and watch the second game on TV, which ended up being another astonishing double-overtime thriller, completing what was thought to be the best and longest Saturday session in tournament history. But I was exhausted and left with the grim prospect of watching another net-cutting ceremony by UNC on Sunday.
I laid the groundwork on the drive home for passing on the final game and catching an earlier flight back to Charleston. But my father would have none of it. It was close enough to “over” for me, but Dad didn’t want it to end until it was truly “over.” He was right and I was wrong.
So we headed back to Landover that Sunday, a venue that had nothing but bad vibrations for me and my now-departed teams. The parking lot was awash in Carolina Blue and I’m thinking I’d rather have a root canal than watch another UNC love-fest, but Dad saw possibilities of this day in a way that I’m ashamed to say I did not.
Although NC State was hardly our favorite (and as a No. 6 seed given virtually no chance of beating the mighty Tar Heels), we lustily joined the “Anybody-But-Carolina” fans and rejoiced in every Wolfpack success and the regrettably few Carolina failures. Despite our urgings it seemed inevitable that UNC would win. Everything seemed to be going their way — every call, every bounce, every break — yet somehow State’s Vinny Del Negro ended up with the ball and a 1-point deficit as time was expiring. Some heroic official, to whom I shall ever be indebted, called a foul at the buzzer, sending Vinny to the line. My father and I were beyond nervous, shaking so that we held hands and prayed. I try not to ask for Divine Intervention in matters like sporting events, but this time made an exception.
History records that Vinny made both free throws and State won 68-67 in what I still remember as the greatest ACC Tournament game I have ever seen, but I would not be writing this story decades later if that weekend were about basketball. When that second free throw swished through the net and the crowd erupted, my Dad and I hugged each other in a way that happened all too infrequently, with unrestrained affection and sheer joy — something we wouldn’t experience again as the darkness of illness took over his life.
I thought then, as I do now, of what I would have missed had I “left early” for convenience and comfort and at the expense of the precious time I would spend with my father. He’s long gone now, and I would give everything I own for another minute of his company. Now the father of three grown children, I know that it’s never a good idea to leave early when spending time with family — that leaving will come soon enough, and then you will regret every missed moment and wish you could have them back.
The basketball fervor that grips our country every spring provides an annual reminder of my surpassing love for and gratitude to my father, and I cannot repress a wistful and misty smile ... at one devoted son’s memory of “March Gladness.”