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A Heavenly Night in Anaheim

The LegendsCorner welcomes guest March Madness blogger, Arnie D. Fielkow, President & CEO of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA):

Do you remember those days during our youth when we were so excited about something you couldn't sleep the night before in anticipation of what the next day would bring? And at the end of the day you didn't want it to end so the memories could linger just a little longer? Well such a day and night existed for me this past Saturday March 29!

A little background: I was born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin where my family lived until they moved to Tucson, AZ when I entered college. My late Dad, Jack Fielkow, like me, attended the University of Wisconsin and was a pretty darn good basketball player. My sister attended the University of Arizona, and along with my parents have lived in Tucson for nearly 4 decades.

I loved and miss my Dad (who passed away 3 March's ago) so very much and particularly miss the days when we would dine after each high school basketball game, and discuss the night's game, our beloved Green Bay Packers, or his  favorite sport: college basketball. See my Dad truly had split loyalties: a Wisconsin Badger at heart but also someone who over 40 years had also fallen in love with his hometown Arizona Wildcats. Interestingly, when he began his love affair with the Wildcats, my former superior and Chairman of the NBRPA Board, Bob Elliott, was roaming the Arizona courts on his way to a great college and NBA career. Joining my parents and seeing my Dad's joy at the Wildcats 1988 Final Four was something I will always remember.

As for my own basketball fandom, I was, and for 50 years, have always been a Wisconsin Badger! When I was growing up in Appleton, I used to close my door on Badger basketball game nights, dream about someday playing for the Cardinal and White, throw a bundled sock against the wall trying to emulate an important game-winning free throw, and of course keeping every UW box score. Names of Badgers of the past like Claude "Stretch" Gregory, Kim and Kerry Hughes, and Wes Matthews Sr will always remain part of my memory. My sons Justin and Steven both attend(ed) UW and, like me, cheer hard for our beloved Badgers.

So a few weeks ago when the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced, I saw the real possibility of a Wisconsin-Arizona match-up in the Elite 8 round, with the winner going to the Final Four. Both teams had a tough road, but finally  the dream match-up was upon us this past Saturday in Anaheim.

So as I went to bed Friday night I truly couldn't wait until the next day. I was admittedly nervous Saturday until I happened upon a story on espn.com written by well known writer Rick Reilly. Rick wrote about Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan's own father who passed this summer and that Saturday would have been his 90th birthday. Like my own Dad Jack, Coach Ryan's father was always at his side, always encouraging him and always talking basketball.

Upon reading Reilly's article, I just had a feeling something special was about to happen. I knew my Tucson part of the family was dreaming of an Arizona win and Final Four; for me I so badly wanted my beloved Badgers to reward Coach Ryan (and his Dad) with his 1st-ever Final Four trip as a participating coach!

Saturday night's game was one for the ages. Being superstitious, I started sitting on one side of the couch, moved to the other side after the poor Badgers start, eventually had to stand most of the 2nd half and overtime due to nerves, and finally tightly held my wife's hands as we both watched the last second Arizona shot not beat the time clock, ensuring the Wisconsin Badgers magical trip to Dallas in search for its first national championship in 73 years! After the horn sounded, I must admit that some tears of happiness were shed in my household up north as we jumped up and down with excitement, and undoubtedly a few tears of sadness were shed in my family's Arizona homes.

And through it all, I could only wonder what my Dad might be thinking up above. I know this: he was most definitely watching, probably with his favorite popcorn in hand, and cheering on his 2 favorite teams. What I wouldn't have given to have my Dad with me last Saturday night just like old times! So at the end, was he cheering for the white-clad Wildcats or the Red-clad Badgers? I guess no one but him will ever know, but I have to admit that his son said a few prayers which someone above thankfully granted! Dad, this weekend was for you, and whether a Badger or a Wlldcat, we all miss you dearly!

IT'S A GREAT TIME OF YEAR: LET'S DANCE!

The LegendsCorner welcomes guest March Madness blogger, Arnie D. Fielkow, President & CEO of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA):

Heck, since many of the NBRPA members are writing blogs regarding the NCAA Tournament on the NBRPA's new partner site, Sportsblog.com, I figured why not take a crack as well. While I certainly don't possess the basketball pedigree of my more famous NBRPA Members (now numbering more than 650!), I love college basketball and nothing is better than the 3 weekends which tip off at 11:00am CST tomorrow. I will proudly be wearing Cardinal and White as my Wisconsin Badgers begin what I hope will be a championship run in Milwaukee, just down the road from their campus (some day I will also be rooting on my beloved Northwestern Wildcats – the only major Division I team never to make the NCAA Tournament. It is coming under new coach Chris Collins!) 

So, after much deep analysis, I am boldly predicting that the nets in Dallas will be cut down April 7 by the West Region winner: hopefully my UW Badgers or, if not, the powerful Wildcats from the University of Arizona. An Elite 8 match-up of my picks is very possible and, if it occurs, will be a beauty of a game with two great coaches (and assistants as U of A's lead assistant, Joe Pasternack, is a close friend and soon to be a hot commodity for future D-I head coaching vacancies). 

There are some great teams in the field of 64, but I believe both Wisconsin and Arizona have that special "it" factor. Arizona is a hugely talented squad, which plays outstanding defense and which can play effectively either fast or within a half-court system. The Cats feature future NBA lottery pick forward Aaron Gordon, and have two seasoned guards, Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell. McConnell, a Duquesne transfer, has brought the Wildcats an unselfish point guard who has been a great contributor this season. While the Wildcats may be a bit thin in the front court, 7 footer Kaleb Tarczewski and athletic freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson provide Arizona with toughness inside. Arizona played a very competitive non-conference schedule and their loss in the PAC-12 Tournament Finals to UCLA will make them even hungrier to reach Dallas.

And for my Wisconsin Badgers – a team I have followed since my youth as a native of the Badger state – the 2014 Tournament may present its best opportunity for Coach Bo Ryan and the "Grateful Red" fan base to celebrate with a national title. The Badgers cannot match the athleticism of Arizona or several others in the NCAA field, but they sure know how to play the game of team basketball and simply do not turn the ball over. The 2013-14 Badgers are the best offensive team Coach Bo has sported and have the ability to beat you with a final score either in the 50's or the 80's.  With a 3-guard system who can all hit 3's, an agile 7 foot center, and a 6th man freshman forward/center who has a 1st step which is nearly unguardable, the Badgers are tough to defend. Badger fans will watch 3 things closely: are they hitting their 3's (when they have lost they have gone into too many 5 minute droughts), is their man-man defense able to stop the "in the paint" short jumpers, and is All-Big 10 1st team center Frank Kaminsky able to provide the Badgers with some easy points down low. 

I have been greatly impressed with Virginia (you gotta love coach Tony Bennett), Michigan State and Florida – all teams the Badgers have defeated this year – but in the end I believe the West Region Champion will be celebrating with "One Shining Moment." Let's get ready for the best time of the year and here's hoping NBRPA Members – and Wisconsin greats – Cory Blackwell and Wes Matthews and are celebrating with me in April!