When you’re from Cincinnati and you’re around my age – I’m 27 – you’ve lived through a pretty fair amount of sports heartache. Most of it was the kind of bad stuff that was just bad heaped on top of bad, so you never really felt the difference between any of the losing. So when it comes to picking a moment of the decade, I don’t have a lot of winning to choose from. Sure, I’m an Ohio University grad, and maybe I could pick our absolutely incredible tip-in win in the MAC Championship to make the NCAA Tournament in 2005. I could go the sad route and pick Carson Palmer’s knee injury that put a cap on the first year of football dignity in my cognitive life, but no, unfortunately, the biggest sports memory from this decade came just a few months into it for me.
I was a junior in high school in Cincinnati. I had season tickets to the University of Cincinnati Bearcats hoops team that just so happened to be No. 1 in the country for a good lot of 1999-2000 season. (Granted, we sat so high up, they barely qualified as seats in the Shoemaker Center.) It was a hell of a team to watch with DerMarr Johnson, Kenny Satterfield, Steve Logan, and on and on. But of course, the crown jewel was eventual consensus National Player of the Year Kenyon Martin. He was such a monster blocking shots and had blossomed into an offensive force, too. A No. 1 seed wasn’t even a question. It was an absolute certainty, even if they didn’t win the Conference USA Tournament. That was until this happened.
As conference tournaments often go, this particular game was being played during the afternoon. We must’ve been toward the end of the quarter in school, because I remember some friends even getting to watch this game in class. As we were getting ready to leave school, I remember hearing that Martin might have rolled his ankle. No biggie! This team was stacked with future NBA talent. Let him rest the remainder of this week and the first two rounds of the tourney. Return for the Sweet 16 and we’re good to go. And then it was maybe a little more serious. And when I finally made it to my car after school around 2:30, the news on the radio was that his season was finished. The player of the year wouldn’t be part of the NCAA Tournament.
Selection Sunday came and, inexplicably, the Bearcats slid to a No. 2 seed – a move the committee couldn’t really come up with a sane defense for on national TV. Wind totally sucked out of their sails, the Bearcats were bounced in the second round. I remember throwing some chairs and being generally unhappy.
Not long after the NCAA Tournament concluded, UC held its banquet for the season and Martin’s No. 4 was retired at UC. The banquet was more like a wake. All these player of the year trophies were around, and highlight reels played of an incredible season, but it was like everything after that second week of March never happened. A banner with autographs from everyone on that team is still on the wall in my parents’ basement to this day. I actually had my picture taken with Martin’s POY trophies, which is every bit as depressing as it sounds.
The reason why this one still resonates with me is that it was so unexpected. In my lifetime, the city of Cincinnati hasn’t been prolific in sports. I barely remember the 1990 World Series, and remember even less about the Bengals’ Super Bowl appearance against the 49ers. So this one was finally mine. I’d been along for every step of the thing, and I’d be able to fully enjoy it. I wasn’t just there for the big games. I sat through the crappy exhibition games no one really wants to pay for, and did so gleefully from the second-to-last row in Clifton. But it was snatched away in a manner that was completely unprecedented.
It’s still a little bit depressing to think about today. I haven’t followed the program in as avid a manner since Bob Huggins left, either. My college hoops fandom, through work, has kind of morphed into a more general appreciation than anything, which is nice in its own way, but probably not anywhere near as fun as it would’ve been to have that team win a championship when I was in high school.
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.