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It isn't easy spending the first day of the NCAA tournament in an Irish pub watching 13 consecutive hours of basketball, from noon tip-off to 1 a.m. sign-off, jump ball to last call. For starters, you need an artful explanation for your absence from the office. I told my bosses I'd be "looking into the NBA draft," by which I meant my Newcastle Brown Ale, drawn from a tap.
Next, you have to find a joint in which it's socially acceptable to hold down a bar stool for 13 consecutive hours. That bar is Vaughan's Public House, half a block from the Hartford Civic Center, home arena of the UConn Huskies, whose fans evidently put the AA in NCAA. "They're boozers," says Johnny Vaughan, Dublin-born proprietor of the pub that bears his name. "Our door swings open at five o'clock on game nights and doesn't swing shut again for 15 minutes."
On Thursday, five o'clock arrived at noon, as it always does on the first day of the tournament, the best day of the year for a sports fan to play hooky. TGIT.
As Greg Gumbel settled in at his anchor desk, I settled in at mine, a 25-foot mahogany bar imported from Ireland. Three overhead TVs lit the beer taps, which in turn lit the lunch patrons. At the bar, as on the bracket sheet, one round leads to another.
As the games ebbed and flowed, office workers alternately crowded and abandoned the bar all day, so that it seemed to swell and contract like the bellows of a bagpipe. Tom Steed fled his office at Prudential around 2:30 when he read on the Internet that Pacific had taken Boston College into overtime. The 42-year-old systems analyst ducked into Vaughan's with two coworkers. That's where I found him systematically analyzing a pint of Harp. "Two years ago," said Steed, "we went to get a quick beer and catch up on the scores. When we walked out, we ran into our boss on the street. She asked where we'd been, and one of my buddies said, 'We just gave blood at the Red Cross.'"
At Vaughan's, businessmen came for lunch and stayed for dinner. "If they're on the fence, we encourage them to stay," Vaughan explained. "If it's cold and rainy outside, that's a win for us." Thursday was frigid, so when Jody Poduje blew in at two for the second half of the BC game, he was persuaded to stay for Marquette vs. Alabama, Tennessee vs. Winthrop and UCLA vs. Belmont. He finally abandoned his post just before George Washington vs. UNC-Wilmington went into OT, ending an impressive lunchtime-to-crunchtime run on the stool next to mine.
A 39-year-old regional manager for a business-services company, Poduje arrived as a stranger, left as a friend. In parting he said, "This has been one of the most enjoyable afternoons of my life."
I didn't have the heart to tell him that it was now 9:15 in the "afternoon," but then a pub is as timeless as a church, which it resembles, with its stained glass and wooden pews and priestly pints of Guinness ringed by clerical collars of foam.
Over my shoulder stood Justin Tripp, a Lego executive who was born in South Africa, raised in England and moved to the U.S. 18 months ago. "This is the best day for drinking and watching sport in America?" he asked. There followed a litany of rugby anecdotes illustrating a central theme: American sports fans are, on the whole, a lily-livered lot.