march madness 88.
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A narrow aisle, no more than a foot wide, divides the cluster of red sweatshirts from the cluster of blue ones. The fans on the right, the ones in red, are a visibly older bunch who know that one more victory brings their Bradley University Braves to a Land that is far from Promised to a Mid-Major school. The Sweet 16.
Segregated to the left, the fans in blue expect their University of Pittsburgh Panthers, a power team from a power conference, to take care of business. A victory is a victory, but the Final Four is the Final Four.
Although the driver has no choice but to sit on the left side, he has made a point to dress in a neutral white polo. His only loyalties are to his job, which consists of shuttling fans from the Big Bucks Brewery to The Palace at Auburn Hills for the NCAA Tournament's second round matchups.
"Driver," a Panthers fan shouts. "You sure you don't want a Pitt sticker?"
The driver laughs off the offer.
"You know that after the game, you'll have to drive us both home," says a Bradley fan. "And only one of us is going to be happy."
The woman has revealed a truth that leaves the men and women on the bus - both blue and red - silent and uneasy.
The shuttle ride is short and the fans keep it light with each other. They may root for different teams and they may be from different generations, but they all share a passion for the NCAA Tournament and the hope and disappointment that accompanies it.
For some, like Roberta Ringer, the Tournament is hardly about basketball. Ringer, who may be Pittsburgh's oldest fan at 91 years young, was more than willing to make the five-hour drive from Mercer, Pennsylvania to Detroit with her son, Hugh, 57, a weekly NFL Steelers radio show host. Roberta says that she's been a Panthers fan since the 1940s. "My husband started [the University of Pittsburgh tradition] many years ago, but he died too early," she says. "But I'm having fun with my son... He takes me whenever he can." Nearby, 70 years Ringer's junior, University of Pittsburgh seniors Adam Flager and David Goldstein didn't think twice about making the 530-kilometer trip from campus. "For me and Dave, this is our last year, so it's our last chance to see our boys in the Tournament," Flager says. Goldstein is less sentimental. "I'm lonely," he says. "All of my friends graduated last year. What the hell else was I going to do this weekend?" Across the way, a group of Bradley fans from Peoria, Illinois reminisce about one of their school's greatest players, Anthony Parker. "AP did have a little fade-away, didn't he?" Brian Rowell says. "Everyone loves AP, unfortunately he didn't have supporting players." In 1996, Parker, now of Maccabi Tel Aviv fame, scored 34 points, including 8-of-10 threes, in an opening round loss to the Stanford Cardinal. "We're just happy to be here," says Rowell.
Once at the stadium, the atmosphere is electric, with the Bradley contingency sitting across the way from Pitt's. The game is close throughout, but the Bradley fans seem louder in no small part because their underdog team is controlling the game.
When the final horn sounds, the fans in red erupt in elation at the site of the scoreboard: BRADLEY 72 PITT 66.
Bradley's players decide on a most appropriate way to celebrate by running into the stands to be with their fans. It's a visible testament to the fact that March Madness is as much about the players as it is about the fans.
The Bradley supporters didn't have much to cheer for in the next round, as their beloved squad went out in the Sweet 16 to top-seeded Memphis, but they'll always have the memories of the madness in March to cherish.