The clock ticked down, the ball went flying, and suddenly we were airborne, too, collapsing into a barbarian pile under a beer-drenched table. We were a mass of coats and ties and cell phones and designer glasses, but in our hearts it was 15 years ago and we were freshmen on a rampage. Deep in the heart of March Madness, we gathered last Thursday night in a bar in downtown San Francisco and, against our better judgment, went bonkers as our alma mater, California, won the National Invitational Tournament by beating Clemson 61-60. � When Cal missed making the 64-team NCAA tournament field, Golden Bears backers weren't doing chest bumps over the consolation prize. Getting an NIT berth is like an actor's getting a prime table at Spago at 7 p.m.—on Oscar night. During the regular season Cal had been a most maddening team (beating North Carolina one night, looking clueless and dispirited the next), and we fans had half hoped we'd be put out of our misery.
Slowly, improbably, the NIT grew on us. As the Bears dug out of 12- and 17-point holes to beat Fresno State and DePaul, respectively, and then blew a 22-point lead before surviving against Colorado State, E-mail and phone calls flew between San Francisco and Hong Kong, West L.A. and Chapel Hill. Cal fans, some of the proudest and hardiest on earth, debated the issues: Would winning the NIT beat losing in the first round of the NCAAs? (Definitely.) How much would a title boost the program? (A tad.) How excited should we be? (Uncertain.)
In the semifinal Cal played its best game of the season, blowing out Oregon, which had killed the Bears' NCAA hopes in the final game of the regular season. That had hurt at the time but was just as well. The NIT gave Cal fans an opportunity rare in sports these days: to see a team work through its weaknesses, bond out of necessity and develop a championship spirit.
As the tight title game unfolded, it became clear how much winning mattered. With five minutes to go, my buddy Greg flashed a complex look, equal parts horror and black humor. "You realize," he said, "that Geno is going to have to win it for us." So it went: With 10 seconds left and the Bears down by two, the ball is in the hands of senior guard Geno Carlisle, Cal's best and worst player, who has hit just 3 of 16 attempts. He forces up a wild shot. Blocked. After a scramble, he gets the ball back. A double-pump floater in the lane...money, and one! Geno nails the free throw, Clemson misses, we detonate.
Call us crazy, but as we slithered across the sticky floor screaming our lungs out, we felt like champions.