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Thursday, March 17, 2005
Drinking in the orange

By Jim Caple
Page 2

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. – When people ask me where I'm going during the second week of my March Madness tour, I tell them the destination is Tobacco Road in North Carolina.

A more accurate destination is the Betty Ford Clinic.

When I woke Wednesday morning from another fitful and brutally short night of sleep, I gave myself about as much chance of surviving through the Final Four as the Oakland Golden Grizzlies have. My head felt as if Dee Brown had dribbled it all night long, and my tongue needed a shave. And that was after just two nights at the University of Illinois. With the first day of the tournament coinciding with St. Patrick's Day – what campus police no doubt refer to as a Perfect Storm – I knew I had to take a break to recover.

It was either that, or take the advice offered by one reader:

"You mentioned that you are having trouble sleeping due to the number of roommates you have at the Sig Ep house. You clearly aren't drinking enough. You should be passing out every night and waking up fresh as a daisy."

Interview
Jim is interviewed on local TV as the Blaisdell dorm residents look on.

Well, that's one approach. But since I'll need to be on my best behavior when I spend tonight in the apartment of the fabled four chicks (I wonder – should I bring flowers, a nice bottle of wine or just wear the Tigger costume?), I figured a day of sobriety might be in order.

Well, relative sobriety.

This worked out well. I moved into the Blaisdell dormitory, where alcohol in all forms is strictly (wink, wink) prohibited.

This is my first night in a college dorm since REO Speedwagon had a career. Little has changed. The rooms are still cramped, cinder blocks remain the bookshelves of choice and students still proudly stack beer cans in triumphant pyramids. (My wife always makes me take mine down right away.) In fact, so little has changed since I was a student that REO Speedwagon is actually playing at Assembly Hall tonight, along with Styx. REO Speedwagon and Styx? What, did Pat Benatar and Flock of Seagulls have scheduling conflicts?

BACK TO SCHOOL
Jim Caple is turning back the clock and living the college life for the NCAA Tournament:

Day 1: The fountain of youth
Day 2: Hanging with Sigma Phi Epsilon

I don't think attendance will be too good at the concert. For one thing, it's REO Speedwagon and Styx. More importantly, the concert goes head to head with Illinois' opening-round game against Fairleigh-Dickinson. Heck, U2, Green Day, Dave Matthews and Ludacris could be playing tonight and Assembly Hall would be as empty as the classrooms figure to be this afternoon when the tournament tips off.

The tournament is the main topic on campus. Everyone is filling out brackets, wearing orange and planning to cut classes today so they can paint their faces, watch basketball and drink heavily.

And that's just the faculty.

Writing on wall
Jim fills out his bracket and, shockingly, goes with his own alma mater, Washington, to win it all.

"Even my teachers today were saying, 'I'd like to teach today, but who else has spring fever and March Madness?'" freshman Julian Scharman said. "I never liked that teacher. She's just such a rigid lady. But I enjoyed her class just that little bit more today. I was like, 'Today I'm going to listen to what you have to say.' ...

"When chicks are filling out brackets, you know it's March Madness."

Scharman told me that at around 4:30 in the morning (I really must stop pulling these all-nighters) on the second floor of Blaisdell Hall. There are 60 students on this floor, and they come from as far away as India, Korea, Wales and Oman. Their backgrounds range from the rich Chicago suburbs to the crowded neighborhoods of Hong Kong, yet the Illini basketball team unites them all.

Team posters hang in their rooms. Newspaper clippings are posted on their doors. They spend the afternoon and evening arguing over their tournament brackets. The windows are papered with "Go Illinois" slogans.

Group shot
It's a block of ice shaped like an "I" and colored with Kool-Aid!

Scharman is from New Jersey; but thanks to basketball, he now feels so much a part of Illinois that he should be paying in-state tuition.

"We're part of history," he said. "How long has Illinois been playing? A hundred years? And I happened to come here the year we had the best season in school history? I had a 1-in-100 chance when you think about it.

"I mean, when ever are we this close to people who are famous? I turned off the power on the TV after one win and went to the bar, and there was Dee Brown. I couldn't turn off the Bulls game and run to the bar and hang out with Michael Jordan."

"Dee Brown asked to use my notes in my philosophy class," says John Janowiak, the floor R.A. "He actually asked to use MY notes."

I remember that feeling. I remember what it was like when the Washington Huskies went to the Rose Bowl my first two years in school, and the night I painted banners for the big game against Washington State with the girls from down the hall. I remember feeling a much stronger sense that I belonged to the school when I was in the football stadium than when I was in the library.

I remember that feeling and I miss it – although I'm still not going to paint my face today, as Scharman will. I mean, I might wear a Tigger suit to a bar, but there are certain things I just won't do.

Reading
Every good dorm has some quality reading material on hand.

"I'm not painting my face so other people can see it. I'm doing it so I can see it," Scharman said. "When you put something on your body that isn't cloth to represent your team, that takes you to elite status."

Is all this a little much? Should an institution of higher learning devote such an inordinate passion to a basketball team? Should students attach their sense of identity to the shooting percentage of a dozen players they don't know? Should students who study and pull all-nighters feel vindicated by a basketball player asking to copy off their notes?

I guess it depends on how far Illinois goes in the tournament.

Actually, how far Illinois advances is unimportant. This is an enormous campus with about 40,000 students; and if the team brings them closer together for a semester, isn't that a good thing? As Emily Dickinson wrote: "A little madness in the spring is wholesome even for the king."

Daylight is about to break, and it's time to clear the beer cans from the bed and get some sleep. A big day awaits.

"The world stops turning tomorrow," Scharman said. "Or starts."

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is being published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.