March Madness can make heroes out of everybody from Michael Jordan to nonagenarian nuns to band members to injury-ridden coaches to presidents to, again, Michael Jordan, and everybody in between. As we get set for the 2018 national championship, For The Win looks back at some of our favorite characters, memes and criers from NCAA tournament history.
1. Crying piccolo girl (2015)
Villanova senior and ace piccolo player Roxanne Chalifoux was caught crying during the end of her team’s 2015 upset loss to N.C. State. Thanks to the dark magic of social media, her tears of unfathomable sadness turned an ephemeral television moment into an everlasting NCAA tournament memory.
Chalifoux was a good sport about it and got her 15 minutes of fame, sitting in with The Roots on The Tonight Show and getting her own bobblehead, which is apparently this decade’s barometer of fame.
Then Villanova went on to win the national championship the next year and is heavily favored to do so again on Monday, giving Crying Piccolo Girl the last laugh and raising the very important question: Do the tears of the woodwind section of a private, Catholic university in Philadelphia have healing powers? It was a rhetorical question. Of course they do.
2. Matt Haarms’ hair (2018)
Purdue didn’t make it out of the Sweet 16 this year, which was devastating for Haarms and anybody who’s appreciate fine NCAA tournament coifs, from Jerry West to Dr. J to Dan Dickau to Nerlens Noel to these two dudes.
The 7-foot-3 center had a habit of running his fingers through his hair like a tall, Dutch version of Michael J. Fox and this received well-earned attention from the more useless corners of the internet. (I own a time-share there.)
His locks had their own Twitter account and a compilation of some Haarms hair caresses made for the best tourney video this side of One Shining Moment.
3. UMBC Twitter (2018)
Normally, organizational Twitter accounts that speak like sentient beings are one of the more annoying things about social media. Yeah, we get it Arby’s, you’re hip because you hired some wiseacre to get in verbal beefs with Wendy’s. How is this digital self-awareness supposed to make us forget your roast beef sandwiches taste like Matt Haarms’ hair product dipped in au jus.
But last month, during and after UMBC’s historic No. 16 over No. 1 upset of Virginia, the tweets coming from UMBC accounts were enough to win over even the most jaded social-media follower feel good.
S waggy and playfully confrontational, the school was doing mic drops masquerading as 140-character messages (280 if they got saucy). It worked because UMBC was the scrappy underdog making history. Imagine the same tweets coming from @DukeMBB and you’d feel a little queasy, like after going to Arby’s.
4. Crying Jordan (2016)
Memes might spread like wildfire but they burn out far quicker. Star Wars Kid, Grumpy Cat, Good Guy Greg, Roll Safe and, soon, Guy Checking Out Girl – they all fade away, existing forever online but falling out of the public consciousness until you randomly stumble across one years later and fondly recall that time you laughed at it once.
Crying Jordan transcends the usual rules of memes – fitting for the basketball G.O.A.T. to have a second life as internet G.O.A.T.. If you’re unfamiliar, Crying Jordan is a picture of a, duh, crying Michael Jordan (taken from his tearful Hall of Fame speech) that’s Photoshopped onto the body of someone recently photographed in distress.
(When Crying Piccolo Girl was given the Crying Jordan face you weren’t wrong to wonder if civilization had just peaked.)
Crying Jordan has been used far beyond the sports world, but in 2016, when UNC (Jordan’s alma mater) lost to Villanova in the title game on a buzzer-beating three pointer as Jordan watched from the stands, the meme had its most fertile target yet. A quick internet search will reveal a goldmine of material, but I’m partial to this one:
5. Gus Johnson (1996-2011)
Gus Johnson called every play of every game like it was a buzzer beater in the NCAA final. His attempts to verbally personify the madness of March made him a hit with audiences and there’s no better example than the final seconds of regulation in the Ohio State-Xavier second-round game in 2007.
With the top-seeded Buckeyes holding the ball down three, here’s how the final four seconds played out, according to Gus (exclamation points are a conservative estimate):
“[Shouting] Lewis has been awesome. Lets it go …. (unintelligible yelling)!!!! He ties it at 62! Two seconds to go! Lavender, three-quarter court… [Quieter, with attitude]… and we’re going to overtime. [Rising] In Lexington! Ha ha! College basketball!! CBS Sports!!!!! This … is March Madness!!!!!”
Johnson started leaning into his Gus-ness a little too much and it got hard to listen to at times, kind of like those years when Seinfeld characters would go back-and-forth, rapid fire, repeating the same words in escalating tones of disbelief, because that’s what had made the show famous in the first place.
But then Johnson left CBS and the last near-decade of Gus-less tournaments have left a void in our hearts, if at least stopping the ringing in our ears.
6. Josh Harrelson (2012)
Boldly ignoring trends and his reflection in the mirror, Kentucky senior Josh Harrellson gained some measure of fame during the Wildcats’ 2012 title run thanks to his denim-heavy sartorial choices. On a recruiting visit to Kentucky years before, Harrellson donned jean shorts at a spring football game. A photo was snapped and a local legend was born. The nickname “Jorts” was an inside joke among Big Blue Nation, but when Harrellson played a surprising role in Kentucky’s unlikely Final Four run in 2011, “jorts” went national.
7. Crying Northwestern kid (2017)
Noticing a pattern? A child in a Northwestern jersey was crying during the team’s first-ever NCAA tournament loss (2017 was the team’s first and only trip to the Dance) and CBS cameras cut back to him just often enough to make people uncomfortable.
But one man’s discomfort is a Reddit user’s happiness, so the whole thing went viral and CWK turned into this whole thing, rekindling the debate about whether television networks should show kids crying during sporting events.
I don’t know the answer to that question but can say with some certainty that if you raise your child to be a Northwestern men’s basketball fan, you have nobody to blame but yourself for your little one becoming famous for the heartaches of fandom.
That kid could have been cheering on a winner at a women’s lacrosse game instead of having to watch Chris Collins kill his team’s chances because he didn’t understand he can’t get away with the sideline antics that his mentor Coach K can. (Note: Crying Northwestern Kid was the son of the school’s athletic director, FWIW.)
8. Barack Obama (2009-2016)
What’s the only thing worse than hearing about someone’s NCAA tournament bracket? Watching that person fill out said NCAA tournament bracket. This didn’t stop ESPN from making an annual pilgrimage to the White House to film an unbearably long segment that featured Barack Obama picking every game on the bracket and explaining himself with the same sort of hackneyed confidence everybody has when picking between two teams they’ve never watched before. “Tennessee is tough but, I don’t know, Tom Izzo’s teams are always tough in the tournament.”
The segments were forgettable, mainly because the president’s bracket was almost straight chalk, which I always figured was mainly so he’d have plausible deniability when he picked against big universities in swing states.
“I love Florida and all 29 of its electoral votes, but I don’t think the No. 3 Gators will be able to hang in the Sweet 16 since Tom Izzo’s teams are always tough in the tournament.”
An annual highlight was watching the president finish in the middle of the pack and reading the shocked disappointment of media outlets that had planned of him winning a Nobel Prize in Bracketology ( Rolling Stone had one story entitled ” President Obama Is Surprisingly Bad at Picking March Madness Brackets”), as if playing high-school basketball and being the leader of the free world somehow should give him insight into the most unpredictable sporting event on the planet.
9. Ron Hunter (2015)
After tearing his Achilles celebrating Georgia State’s NCAA berth, coach Ron Hunter was confined to a rolling stool for his team’s 2015 first-round game against No. 3 seed Baylor – for the first 39 minutes, 57 seconds, anyway.
When Hunter’s son R.J. hit a game-winning three with just under three seconds left on the clock, Hunter celebrated the upset and, as predicted by Newton’s third law of motion, the upward thrust of his arms caused an opposite reaction that caused the stool to roll out from under him.
He fell to the ground face first.
Not that he minded: Georgia State held on for the win and the awesome and entertaining Hunter became a tournament hero.
10. Christian Laettner’s mom (1992)
The mother of the Duke star was in a neck brace during the 1992 NCAA tournament. She looked super-uncomfortable during cutaway shots, which was no surprise given that had a triple-whammy of pain: the neck brace, sitting in those tiny, hard eats at the old Spectrum and having to root for Duke.
But the cameras love mom so Mrs. Laettner was a frequent presence on TV, including during CBS’s brilliant coverage of the frenzy after Laettner’s buzzer beater against Kentucky.
(Go watch it and appreciate the commentary – and lack thereof – from Verne Lundquist and Len Elmore, as well as the perfect direction from the truck.)
The problem for CBS was that Mrs. Laettner wasn’t as demonstrably happy as one might have figured. When the person next to her started to celebrate, Laettner’s mother practically shoved her aside, presumably because, you know, she wasn’t feeling all that well with her neck in a brace. Could it have been something else?
Mom cried when Christian chose to attend Duke because she wanted him to play for Dean Smith, which wounds like picking between a paper cut and a bee sting, but whatever, maybe all those memories came flooding back.
11. Dunk City (2014)
The frenzy of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament (48 games!) can have its downside. Because most Cinderellas lose their next games, America only gets 48 hours to fall in love with them before they turn back into a college basketball pumpkin. That’s not nearly enough time to forge any lasting bonds with the public.
We’ll always remember and celebrate UMBC, but without a buzzer beater to replay endlessly or a second-round win that would have given us four more days with the Retrievers, there was only so much we could learn about the team until it was onto Sister Jean. Florida Gulf Coast solved that problem by backing up its No. 15 over No. 2 upset with another victory, the first time that’d happened in tournament history.
That 2013 Sweet 16 berth turned FGCU – an up-tempo team that played a thrilling, above-the-rim style – from a one-hit wonder into Dunk City. We learned all about Andy Enfield (the coach who parlayed two wins into a job at USC), his wife Amanda (a former model who was described as such with so much regularity you’d have thought it was a rule from the AP Stylebook) and a picturesque campus where the dorms had oceanfront views.
12. The backward hug celebration (2001)
Hampton had survived a last-second effort by Iowa State to pull the fourth-ever No. 15 over No. 2 upset and coach Steve Merfeld was sprinting around the court looking for someone to celebrate with, like Jim Valvano 18 years earlier. But the celebration found Merfeld when one of his players, David Johnson, picked him up from behind and lifted his coach into the air. Merfeld kicked out his arms and legs, wiggling them in uncontrollable celebration. The whole scene looked like a parents picking up a child having a temper tantrum, except, in this case, it was the happiest tantrum ever.
13. Marshall Henderson (2013)
The jersey-popping, gator-chomping, land-shark flashing guard catapulted to national fame during Mississippi’s SEC tournament title run in 2013. Pegged as a college basketball version of Johnny Manziel, Henderson had a perpetual green light to shoot (or just ran a lot of reds) and his late-threes against Wisconsin in the opening round of the NCAAs helped Ole Miss pull the upset.
A few hours later, Henderson was celebrating the win at a bar and sending out tweets that blended the confidence of Kanye West with the pugnaciousness of Donald Trump, or vice-versa. He was a hit.
After Mississippi lost in the next round, Henderson took the lyrics to One Shining Moment literally and reached for the sky – giving the crowd the rare double middle finger while he was walking off the court.
14. Dancing coaches (evermore)
What has two thumbs, can’t dance and might know a few people under FBI investigation? College basketball coaches! And when coaches lead teams to victory in March, the universal locker-room celebration is being pressured by their players into doing an of-the-moment dance that looks exactly like your dad dancing at a wedding after the booze has kicked in:
15. Sister Jean (2018)
Maybe you heard about her the last two weeks? The 98-year-old nun became the unlikely face of Loyola’s unlikely Final Four run and turned into the biggest
national international star of an event that didn’t exist until she was 19 years old. How popular was Sister Jean? She got so much attention, love and publicity that internet contrarians started a backlash . A backlash! Against a nun! Who is 98! And whose greatest sin, apparently, was having more reporters show up to her press conference than any of the players on her team. Exaggerated eyeroll.
The sight of Loyola players hugging Sister Jean after each win, combined with her 1,000-watt smile will leave an unforgettable mark on the tournament, one that’ll be remembered as long as they keep playing college basketball. (So maybe three or four years?)
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