Every sports fan has THAT team. It's the team that formed fandom, the one you clung to as a kid and have still refused to let go of as an adult. The one whose successes and failures mattered just a little bit too much. The one you can bring up randomly in conversation and recall in painstaking details their strengths and weaknesses, what made them good, and what made them memorable.
You find this team when you are young, and you still revere them when you're old.
Maybe that team won a championship. Maybe they just had likable players. Perhaps they're historically significant. Or it could be that you're the only person who remembers them.
We all have that team.
For me, it was the 1991-'92 UC Bearcats basketball team.
It's been 25 years, man. And damn, just typing that makes me feel old. This weekend, the University of Cincinnati will celebrate the silver anniversary of its last Final Four team. Reunions being difficult things to coordinate, not every '92 Bearcat will be there. Nick Van Exel will be coaching with the Memphis Grizzlies. Erik Martin and Bob Huggins will be doing their thing at West Virginia. The guys who will be at Fifth Third on Saturday will come out at halftime and wave to a crowd that'll be a mixed bunch of people who remember them as fondly as I do, folks who think they remember that team but don't, and people who never even saw them play.
I'll be there too. And for a few fleeting minutes, I'll be 14 again.
I'm often asked why and when I became a UC basketball fan. My immediate sports influence, like it was (and hopefully, is) for most young boys was my dad. He was a Bengals fan, so I was a Bengals fan. He liked the Reds, so I liked the Reds. (There's another blog I should write on what made me, as an adult, decide to become an unabashed, no split-loyalty, Reds fan) But he was a UK fan, and up until the moments after the Wildcats beat the Bearcats in the 2005 NCAA Tournament, a pretty damn obnoxious one (That's also, another blog worth writing.)
And at the time when I was developing sports allegiances, we were not living here. We were east coasters in the late 80s and early 90s, watching the teams we loved from afar during a time when doing so didn't come with the ease it does now. I was the only kid who did the Ickey Shuffle in the sixth grade. I was the only person who knew that "The Nasty Boys" didn't refer to a WWF tag team when I was in the eighth grade.
And when I was a freshman in high school, I was the only kid among a few thousand who could tell you that Herb Jones was an undersized forward who could still defend three positions, get around bigger defenders, and shoot above smaller guards.
Part of it was that I was (and to an extent, still am) a believer in love at first sight. The first college basketball game I ever attended was at the Cincinnati Gardens. UC vs. South Carolina State, won by the home team on New Year's Eve 1988, 108-84. My grandfather took me. His friend who smelled like moth balls brought his grandkid, who like me was in from out of town for a family visit. They smoked cigarettes, and refreshed their beers every three minutes. I sifted through a game program that had a terrifying picture of Tony Yates on the cover while eating popcorn that may have been leftover from the last-ever Royals home game. My grandmother had taken me to McAlpin's the day before and bought me an oversized sweatshirt that had "CINCINNATI" in huge block letters across the chest, and that I remember being hideous, even by late 80s standards. The game itself wasn't memorable, mainly because until I'd been told that were going to the game, I had no idea what the University of Cincinnati was, much less that it had a basketball team.
But from that point forward, in part because I had no idea where the only other college basketball team I'd ever rooted for - Temple - had actually called home, and in part because I'd actually seen a game in person and had the ugly sweatshirt to show, if I was asked which college basketball team was my favorite, I'd say Cincinnati.
In November of 1990, a Cincinnati team led by its second-year head coach hosted the Kentucky Wildcats, who were also coached by a guy in his second season, Rick Pitino. I had nothing against UK - I'd watched some games involving a good Rex Chapman and Winston Bennett-led Wildcats team with my dad a few years earlier - but Pitino had bolted my beloved New York Knicks a year and a half earlier, and I was crushed.
Rick Pitino took over the Knicks in 1987, a few months after leading Providence to an improbable Final Four run, and he instantly won me over. His first Knicks team was massively undermanned, yet found themselves in the playoffs for the first time in four years, with rookie point guard Mark Jackson being given free reign to run the offense, and a the early makings of a devastating press defense constantly wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. He squeezed out 38 wins - and managed to win a game against the defending conference champion Celtics - with the likes of Johnny Newman, Sidney Green, and Gerald Wilkins supporting Jackson and Patrick Ewing.
The following season, it looked as if Pitino was starting to mold a champion. With the addition of Charles Oakley, the Knicks finally had some muscle, and they continued to play a frenetic style of ball that was - and is - pretty uncommon in the NBA. The immensely fun '88-'89 Knicks won 52 games, swept Philly in the first round of the playoffs (breaking out brooms on the bench as the final seconds of the last game ticked away), before losing in in the conference semis six games to Michael Jordan (The Bulls weren't yet The Bulls, when they beat you, you lost to Jordan. He had little help in those days).
The future looked bright for the Knicks. They had a bona fide star in Ewing, they played a style that drove opponents nuts, and they were led by a young charismatic coaching genius who was surely going to turn the once-woeful Knicks into the team of the 90s.
(Remember, I was not an adult back then.)
And then Pitino bolted for Kentucky, to take over a program that was headed for probation, and outed for its transgressions on one memorable Sports Illustrated cover....
So when my dad and I sat down to watch Pitino's Wildcats take on my newly-adopted Bearcats - whom I hadn't actually seen play since that game at the Gardens - on what was at the time a rare ESPN appearance for both, my thinking was pretty cut and dry. Rick Pitino was an asshole, and I wasn't rooting for him, no matter who he was coaching against.
Also, whatever shreds of rebelliousness I had - and there weren't many - steered me toward being different from the old man, for just this once. I announced, rather emphatically, that given the fact that we originally hailed from just across the river from Cincinnati, and because I believed that if you root for two teams from a city, you root for them all, I'd be rooting against Benedict Rick and for Cincinnati.
And then I asked if Cincinnati had anyone any good.
I really don't remember his reaction. By then, it was probably apparent to him that I'd be giving him many, many years of disappointment as I grew older, so he probably just shrugged his shoulders and moved on. I do remember though, that watching that game with him was the first time I ever got to enjoy the sideline work of Bob Huggins.
When you watch Huggins during West Virginia games now, you see a massively toned-down man from what we watched in the early 90s. He has his outbursts, and he'll still turn purple and scream loudly in the faces of his players and officials the way he used to. Except now, he'll have to sit down on the stool in front of the WVU bench to catch his breath. He dresses for games like a guy who balances teaching gym class with being a driver's ed instructor, and he often looks like the tired teacher who's spend decades yelling at students and now simply wants to reach retirement.
In 1990, he was different. He dressed like a high school vice principal who wears too much cologne. He never, ever sat down. And he didn't just yell at players or forcefully make his point to the refs, he acted like a fucking maniac. He didn't just pace the sidelines, he stalked them. He didn't just encourage his players, he exhorted them. He was a ball of rage and fury in those days. You could watch him and not know if his team was winning by 30 or losing by a hundred. He was incredibly entertaining.
And that night against Kentucky, he was sweating through his suit.
I was hooked at that very night on Bob Huggins' UC basketball teams.
They lost the game, and as they did, it was explained to me that UC basketball had actually once been very, very good back in the day. Five straight Final Fours. Two consecutive national titles. Oscar Robertson. George Wilson. Jack Twyman. Paul Houge. Ed Jucker. I was told about them.
I was also told that the Bearcats had fallen on hard times. There were NCAA troubles. There was a three-win season. A stall-ball game. And very, very few fans who really gave a shit about them.
It stood to reason that a team that didn't have many fans could use a new one.
When I was in my early teen years, I was good at two things: Making the opposite sex avoid me and finding distant, out-of-town radio broadcasts on my mom's large AM receiver. One clearly had to do with the other. Very few attractive high school girls will give the time of day to someone who boasts of being able to cleanly pick up Ernie Harwell's call of a Detroit Tigers game on WJR or who spent a Saturday night fumbling around long enough to hear Jack Buck call a Cardinals game on KMOX.
From 700 miles away, I could listen to Marty and Joe call a Reds game at night by laying the antenna flat on top of the receiver and pointing it toward our back kitchen door. They'd sound as if they were in the next room.
And if I took the antenna and pointed it directly south at night, I could hear UC basketball broadcasts on 1530WCKY.
By the spring of 1991, if I wasn't dicking around with my mom's radio, I was embracing full-on basketball dorkdom. College. Pro. Didn't matter. If it was on, I watched. If it wasn't on, I was playing, or at least trying to. I continued to root for the Knicks, but developed an unhealthy obsession with Michael Jordan. The Bearcats were my team, but I fell in love with watching those great UNLV teams of Larry Johnson and Stacy Augmon. I helped a social studies teacher win an NCAA office pool, and if my suspicions ever get confirmed, I'll guess his winnings helped fuel a coke habit.
Somewhere in there, I decided to follow the UC basketball team relentlessly. On our trips back to Northern Kentucky, I'd coerce my mom or dad to buy me more ugly early-90s Cincinnati gear, and when we were visiting, I'd scour the Enquirer or Post for even the tiniest Bearcat tidbit.
By the time the season began, high school had started. And when you begin as a freshman, you make a choice: be like everyone else, or be different. Those who chose to be different usually broke from the norm by dressing weird or listening to music that no one else had heard of. I chose to constantly talk about a basketball team that no one even knew existed. To be a UC Bearcats fan in central New Jersey in the early 90s was to be part loner, part rebel. The only things that make being a lonely, rebellious fan cool is if you know your shit, and if your team wins.
Thankfully, the Bearcats were winning.
The great thing about being a sports fan when you're young is that you don't contextualize. Things are more black and white than they'll be when you grow up. As adults, we obsesses over things like strength of schedule, advance metrics, and the things that could ultimately doom our teams' chances of success.
As a kid, you care that your team wins, by how much, and how they look doing it.
UC won, and they won big. I listened intently from afar as the Bearcats won three of their first six games by more than 30 points. It sounded as if Cincinnati was absolutely suffocating opponents with their press, and then destroying them with a deep array of offensive options.
My first chance at watching my favorite team came in late December. The Bearcats played at nationally-ranked Michigan State, and for about 35 minutes, what my ears had heard was being confirmed by what my eyes were seeing. The Bearcats were hammering the Spartans, punishing their guards by trapping the ball, and devastating them with their offensive firepower in the backcourt. That night was the first time I'd seen Nick Van Exel, Anthony Buford, and AD Jackson do their things, and it was incredible to watch.
It was equally incredible to watch the Bearcats blow a huge second half lead that extended to 17 points (I had to look that up) and stood at seven with 1:25 to go (I didn't have to look that up). Michigan State won that game, almost inexplicably. And as his team stalked off the court, Bob Huggins was losing his mind.
He's lost his mind again a couple of weeks later, when a great Indiana team that'd eventually earn Bob Knight his last trip to the Final Four came into the Shoemaker Center and shellacked the Bearcats. We were here for this game, and the people I watched it with - relatives who were all UK fans - observed my interest in the Bearcats bemusement.
I was undeterred.
The season continued, and the Cats began play in something called the Great Midwest Conference. I listened. Occasionally, I watched. There weren't as many sports networks then as there are now, but the problems that plague them today were issues back then: the need for programming. It was not unusual to find random tape-delayed games airing late and night or in the middle of the afternoon from oddball parts of the country. I remember one Saturday morning flipping through the channels and there was Tarrice Gibson stalking Anfernee Hardaway from a few nights before, and on one random weekday afternoon, I came home from school to watch my now-nationally-ranked Bearcats swarm St. Louis.
God, they were fun to watch. As Huggins stomped on the sidelines, constantly yelling like a maniac, the Bearcats absolutely broke opponents apart. They had four guys in Van Exel, Buford, Gibson, and Jackson who could knock down threes. They had undersized post men in Corie Blount and Erik Martin who were crafty around the rim and willing to run the floor. In a day and age when college basketball teams played 94 feet, Cincinnati's press was devastating. Teams would get the ball over midcourt and breathe sighs of relief, and more than a few had their point guards simply throw the ball out of bounds rather than hand it over for an easy Bearcat bucket. They played nine guys, and everyone specialized in something. Terry Nelson took charges and found the camera. Buford put every one in the right spots in the halfcourt. Jeff Scott excelled at making you look at the box score and wonder how he got 18 minutes. Van Exel specialized in fearlessness.
They were not the most talented. They'd bear little physical resemblance to he bruising teams that Huggins would make his program's trademark. And sometimes, man, they'd play a little too fast. But damn, they'd play hard. Damn, they played selflessly. And even as their head coach breathed fire in their faces, they looked like they were having a blast.
So was I.
We visited here often. I spent summers in Taylor Mill, return home, then come back for Labor Day. We'd make periodic trips during the fall, and we'd usually come back again in either March or April. We were here in mid-March of 1992. UC was playing in the oddball Great Midwest Tournament, which, since there were only six teams, meant that the top seed only needed to win two games to take the title. Cincinnati easily disposed of Marquette in the semifinal in Chicago, then on a Saturday night, they pounded Hardaway and his Memphis State team to take the title.
But something was happening, no longer did I feel alone in caring about this basketball team. Our brief trip back revealed to me that people were buying into the Bearcats and that a genuine excitement was starting to build. I remember someone on TV in the hours leading up to the NCAA Tournament Selection Show mentioning them as a Final Four darkhorse. I remember my uncle buying me a UC shirt that actually looked like it'd not been made in a sweatshop.
Up until about ten years ago, I had a VHS tape of the 1992 NCAA Tournament Selection Show. I don't remember why I'd taped it, and I don't know why I no longer have it. I do remember the feeling of excitement that came with seeing "4 CINCINNATI" on the screen, followed up by the announcers actually talking about the Bearcats as if they knew something about them. I remember watching that tape religiously for the next three days. I remember buying something like 13 copies of The Trenton Times the next day to print out brackets, and spending the next few days furiously studying it and the capsules on every team.
The Blue Hens were UC's first NCAA Tournament opponent. 33 Delaware turnovers later, the Bearcats had their first NCAA Tournament win since the mid-70s.
Then in was Michigan State, the same Michigan State team that had stormed all the way back to beat the Bearcats a few months prior. Their crazy-looking head coach, Jud Heathcoat, made some noise about having to play the game in Dayton, but they could've played the game anywhere and it wouldn't have mattered. The Bearcats pounded the Spartans on the glass, and Burford played flawlessly. We were going to the Sweet 16.
By now, I was at the height of sports fan invulnerability. It's one thing when your team is winning. It's another when the random, totally out-of-the-blue team you've chosen to root for - that no one else gives a shit about - is crushing it. That I emerged from this stage of my life without getting my ass handed to me is a testament to the patience of the people around me.
My dad was more patient than anyone.
His Wildcats were also back in the NCAA Tournament, playing a similar type of ball that UC was winning with, only with a heightened emphasis on shooting threes. I broached to him the possibility of the two teams playing against each other for the title game, and he understandably told me to cool off, that a lot had to go right for that to happen.
But, he was happy for UC. And for me.
The Sweet 16 presented UTEP, a team that had knocked off the top-seeded Kansas team that everyone seemed to earmark for the Final Four when the bracket had been revealed. This felt like a big break for the Bearcats, until the Miners proved to be a frustratingly difficult matchup. Their junk defenses confused Cincinnati and Don Haskins' team was exceptionally well-prepared for UC's defensive pressure. Herb Jones was a savior, and late on a Friday night - when no one else in my circle of friends was watching a college basketball game between Cincinnati and UTEP - the Bearcats had punched their ticket to the Elite Eight.
The next night, Kentucky and Duke would play what most of us consider to be the greatest college basketball game of all-time. The Christian Laettner Game was played in Philadelphia with a Final Four bid at stake, 25 years later, the ending of that game is still hard for most UK fans I know to even discuss. Everyone who watched knows where they were and who they were with. I was with my mom, watching in my room, counting down the minutes to the next day's UC/Memphis State regional final, which every CBS analyst at the half of the UK game said the Bearcats could not win.
Cincinnati had beaten the Tigers three times already, each time by a greater margin than the previous game. The prevailing logic was lazy, that it's so hard to beat a team four times that the edge had to belong to Penny Hardaway and Memphis State. The game was early on a Sunday afternoon, and the CBS pregame show made it feel almost like an afterthought, given the events of the previous night. As I watched the replay of the Laettner shot and the shots of devastated UK fans, I remembered that I hadn't spoken to my dad about the game, and wondered what the etiquette was in a situation like ours.
Within seconds, he called. We talked briefly about the game from the night before and then - knowing the game I cared about was about to tip off - he offered two simple words:
UC's 31-point deconstruction of Memphis State was almost anticlimactic. Jones, Van Exel, and Blount combined to go 22 for 32. Hardaway couldn't get a clean shot off, and the Tiger couldn't run any kind of coherent offense. The Bearcats were going to the Final Four.
THE BEARCATS WERE GOING TO THE FUCKING FINAL FOUR!
People noticed. People in my life noticed. For a day or two, I felt at least marginally cool. I'd gotten in on the ground floor of something, and seen it hit big, like one of those people who likes a band before it's heard on the radio. Imagine how cool I'd be if the Bearcats could finish the job.
Of course, they could not. I remember the 1992 Final Four loss to Michigan for three things...
No one talking about the Bearcats in the days leading up to the game. That pissed me off.
The CBS pregame show being delayed for what felt like hours because the Women's Final Four game ran long (my feelings about this 25 years ago were decidedly less PC than they would be now)
Feeling like the better team didn't win.
For years, I had this game on VHS, and for years, I refused to watch it. It's a mainstay on YouTube now, and I've perused it here and there, but watching it from tip to horn is just something I can't bear to do.
I love that team too much to see them lose.
I do remember vividly the postgame show. There was an emotionally-spent Bob Huggins, looking equal parts relieved, proud, and devastated, talking to Lesley Visser, searching for the right words to express pride in his team's accomplishment while making it clear that he desperately wanted a shot at the title. More than anything, I remember him defiantly looking straight ahead and telling Visser's viewers that under no uncertain terms, the Bearcats would be back.
Damn straight, they would.
25 years later, and UC hasn't been back to the Final Four. The 1993 team - which in many ways was better than its immediate predecessor - came within a eyelash of making it two straight appearances (My dad took me to both the regional semi against Virginia and the agonizing final against North Carolina, when he probably couldn't have afforded it. Both of my parents - divorced from each other, went out of their way to indulge my sports and UC obsessions.). The 1996 - which might actually have been Huggins' best - pissed down its legs against Mississippi State in the Elite Eight. And the heartbreak of what happened with the 2000 team still lingers more than a decade and a half later.
We moved back to the area in 1994, and I was happy about this for a thousand different reasons, not the least of which was that being a Bearcat fan could be mainstream. I could see them play all the time, attend games on a regular basis, and, you know, maybe even attend UC and meet the coach I worshipped.
Of course, settling back in Northern Kentucky meant that I'd be surrounded by people who leaned more toward the team in Lexington, and I ended up attending the University of Dayton, but since then, I've maybe missed a dozen UC basketball games that I couldn't see, hear, or attend, and I've been lucky enough to watch hundreds of UC games up close while working on radio broadcasts, which I began doing in 2001.
I have a job that requires me at times to be critical of the program, and I've at times gone overboard with expressing how I feel when things aren't going the way I wish, but I'm always speaking from a place of having a deep, emotional connection to the program, a connection that was formed when I was a geeky high school freshman 25 years ago.
The 1992 Bearcats did not get their storybook ending, and what's happened with that team in the intervening quarter-century hasn't been a complete fair tale either. Two guys from that team served time in jail. Their coach was unceremoniously booted. And the school itself, for a while, seemed slow to embrace both its past and what should be one of its most cherished teams.
Fortunately, the UC basketball program is on firm footing, the Bearcats are headed to a seventh-straight NCAA Tournament, and a coach that I admire even more than the one I once idolized may have a team that - if things go right - could finally deliver on Bob Huggins' postgame promise after that Final Four loss 25 years ago.
But no team will ever be THAT team the way the 1992 Cincinnati Bearcats were, and remain, THAT team to me.