Photo Courtesy Of NDSU Athletics/Ty Carlson
There’s an old gym on the corner of Northern Pacific and Second Avenue in Esmond, North Dakota. Locals call the place the Esmond Hall, or, simply, “The Hall.” Inside the Hall, two aging basketball hoops pay silent tribute to days gone by when Esmond was a North Dakota hoops hotbed. The Esmond-Maddock girls made seven appearances at the state Class B tournament in the 1980s. One of the greatest Class B teams in North Dakota history was the 1987 Esmond-Maddock squad that finished 25–0. That banner proudly hangs in the Maddock High School gym. Like that team, there are scores of small towns across the upper Midwest landscape that have similar stories, aging basketball hoops with frayed nets, and farm kids casting baskets into the wind, in places like the Hall, or make-shift courts in quonsets, dreaming of sinking that March buzzer-beater.
That one shining moment as the iconic CBS anthem following the men’s Final Four goes. “The ball is tipped, and there you are, you’re running for your life, you’re a shooting star…”
I was never very good at basketball. I love the game, though, and have loved it ever since I was a kid. Pa Swany would drive a carload of Maddock boys to Esmond for pickup games with the Hoffners, Leiers, and others at the Hall. One night 20 years ago, back in March 1999, stands out. The Hall didn’t have heaters, or windows, for that matter. We played in hooded sweats. It was so cold that you could see your breath. It didn’t matter the temperature was below freezing, outside and inside. We had a place to play full court hoops out of the snow. After a couple of hours of pickup ball, we drove the 20 miles back to Maddock and our house sitting in the shadow of the grain elevator at 109 Dakota Avenue.
That same night, some 1,618 miles to the southwest, in much warmer weather, a largely unheard of college basketball upstart called Gonzaga was playing the Florida Gators at American West Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. You’d think American West Arena was as far removed from the Hall as you could get. Here’s the thing. It wasn’t. Not really. To borrow from Gene Hackman and the basketball gospel, Hoosiers, “Strap, put Ollie on your shoulders. Measure this from the rim. Buddy, how far? Ten feet. I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory.” The magic of March. Kids from snow-covered farmland running in the shadows of winter playing the same game in a freezing building as the NCAA Tournament in a modern-day basketball cathedral being beamed into millions of homes and captivating a nation. The familiar thud-thud-thud of an orange ball echoing on a wooden floor common to both.
In our old kitchen back in Maddock, there was a small 13-inch television sitting on the countertop by the bread drawer. That’s where a group of teenage boys flocked to watch the ‘Zags and Gators in that Sweet 16. Gonzaga was a Cinderella, a true David fighting Goliath. Of course, we pulled for the underdog. The teams traded baskets in the closing minutes. “Cinderella still alive in Phoenix!” proclaimed Gus Johnson with 15.4 seconds left and Gonzaga down by a point. With 4.4 seconds, Johnson, like the ‘Zags, leapt into our college basketball consciousness with his euphoric call when a tip-in from a missed runner gave the underdog the lead and the win. “Hall, the runner … loose ball … it’s good! … Shannon, from the corner, and it’s over! Gonzaga, the slipper still fits!”
That next Christmas, my parents got me a Gonzaga t-shirt that I’d wear in pickup games for years before it was lost in a series of moves between North Dakota State and Creighton, where I went to law school. I was getting older, but March Madness never did. Creighton had a really good team my first year there in 2007, featuring Anthony Tolliver and Nate Funk. As a college hoops nut, I went to most Bluejays home games. The ‘Jays made the NCAA Tournament and faced a tough Nevada team in the first round, ultimately losing in overtime.
Along with most of my classmates, we skipped Professor Fenner’s Constitutional Law class to watch Creighton’s game at DJ’s Dugout Sports Bar in west Omaha. The excitement of my school’s team in the NCAA Tournament was surreal for someone growing up playing pickup ball at the Hall. Things would get more surreal my last year at Creighton. In 2009, North Dakota State’s legendary team of Ben Woodside, Brett Winkelman, Mike Nelson, Lucas Moormann and Mike Tveidt became the first in NCAA history to qualify for March Madness in their first year of tournament eligibility.
A few days before my birthday, I covered NDSU playing in the NCAA Tournament at the Metrodome, packed with tens of thousands screaming Bison fans, for this magazine. The day before the game, I’ll never forget an arrogant Bill Self scoffing when a Fargo reporter asked him whether he was concerned that NDSU would have more fans in the Metrodome than Kansas. The reporter was right. Bison fans outnumbered Jayhawks fans at least 3-to-1. Woodside had one of the best games of anyone in that year’s tournament, putting up 37 points as NDSU came within a few possessions of a giant upset.
That giant upset would come a few years later, and NDSU was America’s Cinderella, if only for a few hours. The arena was buzzing. Earlier in the day, in Spokane, Wash., a No. 12 had already beaten a No. 5, and the Bison were on the doorstep of repeating the scene against No. 5 Oklahoma. My heart was pounding out of my chest sitting at the media table courtside at Veterans Memorial Arena. I was so excited as my fingers flew nervously across the keyboard, miss-hitting keys trying to comprehend what was going on. My brother, then an assistant athletic director for NDSU, was nervously pacing in the corner area where the team runs out. We exchanged can you #$%^(&* believe this looks.
It was March 2014 and the Bison were on the brink of the biggest win in program history with the entire nation watching. Our Bison. NDSU. On the biggest stage. With the blue bloods. The biggest sporting event in the world. The Bison scraped and clawed, and clawed and scraped, with a puncher’s chance, only down three points, 66–63, in the waning seconds. 18.2 seconds. Taylor Braun drives hard to the lane. 14.8 seconds left. He’s cut-off by a defender, sees Lawrence Alexander on the right wing. I’ll let the late Scott Miller fill in the rest with his unforgettable call.
“Braun, spins to the paint, looking for a short jumper, kicks it right side to Alexander for three. It’s in! It’s in! We’re tied! Timeout Oklahoma. It’s 66 all. Can you believe it? My, oh my!” Braun to Alexander. Buckets. My. Oh. My, indeed.
The Bison toppled the Sooners 80–75. The headline in the New York Times said it all – “North Dakota State Thinks Big, Has Fun, Earns Attention” – with a full-on arm pump by Alexander in the nation’s paper of record punctuating the point. New York Times reporter John Branch wrote, “No one, at least this side of Mercer, is having more fun than North Dakota State. And no collegiate athletic department is riding a bigger crest of momentum.” From the shadows of elevators and wind-worn nets dotting the landscape to March Madness. The article tells the story of a scene at a bar in Washington, D.C., “erupt[ing] in excitement when guard Lawrence Alexander made a 3-pointer to force overtime, and patrons cheered the Bison to victory, 3,000 miles from Spokane and a world away from the college’s campus in Fargo.”
“And all the years, no one knows, just how hard you worked, but now it shows …. in One Shining Moment, it’s all on the line, One Shining Moment, there frozen in time.”
I get chills thinking about it, sitting there with my brother after the game, in disbelief, thinking back to where NDSU came from when we were kids playing pickup ball in the Hall and rushing home to watch March Madness and some upstart called Gonzaga. To sitting there, at the NCAA Tournament, taking in the scene, Saul Phillips with an ear-to-ear smile triumphantly walking to the NDSU section and thrusting the Bison horns into the air.
Mark my words. It will happen again. Why? Because the magic of March.