Northwestern And The Bond It Helped Forge, Even During The Dark Years


I witnessed college basketball in person for the first time at Welsh-Ryan Arena and grew up cheering for Northwestern. When the Wildcats celebrated their first NCAA Tournament berth, I celebrated with them.


The popcorn. Oh, the popcorn.

The smell permeated Welsh-Ryan Arena like an invisible fog. It drew this 7-year-old toward the overly salted, overpriced snack that forced my father to dig through his wallet in search of the few extra dollars he’d need for the sugary soda to quench my inevitable thirst.

Mighty Duke visited the old barn on Dec. 2, 1989. A skinny freshman point guard named Bobby Hurley veered through Northwestern’s press with ease to help erase the Wildcats’ early 14-8 lead. A cocky sophomore named Christian Laettner finished with 23 points and 18 rebounds as the Blue Devils ran away with a 103-77 victory, one of many before they reached the national championship game that season.

My dad scored tickets as an early birthday present for me. He used the money he made bouncing in Chicago bars to buy them. It was the first college basketball game I ever saw live. I’d witness many more with my dad in Evanston through the continuous dark years of the Northwestern program.

Northwestern Wildcats players celebrate after the team was selected as the No. 8 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament. Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

On Jan. 4, 1997, I offered my hot dog to the late Robert “Tractor” Traylor, Michigan’s rotund forward, before loudly begging Northwestern guards Nate Pomeday and Jevon Johnson to put a hand in the face of Louis Bullock, who hit 7 of 10 from 3-point range while scoring 25 points in the No. 8 Wolverines’ 18-point victory. My dad smiled.

I celebrated over the pro-Minnesota crowd Feb. 1 of that same year as Evan Eschmeyer’s layup at the buzzer put Northwestern ahead 31-29 at the half over the No. 6 team in the nation. The Golden Gophers would outscore the Wildcats by 21 points in the final 20 minutes on their way to the Final Four. My dad smiled then, too.

Those memories shot through my head as I watched Northwestern pop on the screen Sunday evening as the No. 8 seed in the West Region, officially marking the Wildcats’ first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Scottie Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and coach Chris Collins sprang from their seats and leapt into each other’s arms in celebration.

I smiled. I did so not only because my college basketball fandom essentially began watching previous Northwestern teams fall harmlessly to opponent after opponent while sitting on those rotting wooden bench seats as a kid, but also because I knew my father was home watching the same thing. We traded celebratory texts.

We weren’t rich when I grew up. We weren’t poor either, but strict budgets demand reasonable spending. My dad’s child support payments came first, and the rest he’d spend trying to make his young son happy by supporting his need for sports. Northwestern games were affordable. The price to watch Big Ten basketball was minimal. I’m not ashamed to admit the main reason Welsh-Ryan Arena became the main venue for my college basketball viewing was because we didn’t have much money.

We went to football games in Evanston for the same reason. I was at the basketball game when, at halftime, then-coach Gary Barnett told the sparse crowd in attendance that he would “take the Purple to Pasadena” before making good on that promise. My dad and I shared that moment, too.

It might seem dramatic, but my eyes welled a bit when I saw Northwestern’s jubilation on television Sunday. I couldn’t stop thinking about the times I spent with my dad watching mediocre basketball just so we could be together. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but he never cared whether the Wildcats won or lost. He cared because I cared. We bonded over something I enjoyed, and he didn’t have to break the bank making that possible.

I never attended Northwestern, mainly because of the cost. My fandom wavered as I went to Michigan State, but even on those rare occasions over the years when the Wildcats upset the Spartans, I can’t help but smile a bit. Because when I was younger, I probably would’ve been with my dad in attendance clad in purple cheering for Northwestern.

I understand plenty of Wildcats fans have stories like this. I get why non-Northwestern fans are becoming annoyed when hearing them. But I’m going to continue sharing my memories because they’ve meant so much to me, even before Sunday.

And you better believe that if Northwestern makes a run in the NCAA Tournament, my dad and I will be smiling together then, too.

MORE: Cuonzo Martin Would Be The Safest Hire For Illinois, But Not The Best