Thursday, March 16

The Big Dance may start today, but The Tournament started yesterday.

The Tournament is the NAIA National Championship Tournament. Though most of the country will be watching the NCAA Tournament, there are a few of us who will always look on the NAIA with more affection.

What's the difference between the two? Here are a few things:

* The NCAA is the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NAIA is the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

* The NCAA Tournament involves 65 teams, lasts for three weeks, and has a major network TV contract. The NAIA Tournament involves 32 teams, lasts five days, and most people have never heard of it.

* The NCAA Tournament takes place at sites all around the country. The NAIA Tournament takes place in Kansas City. Originally it was at Municipal Auditorium. Then it moved to Kemper Arena. For a while, it went to Tulsa. But now it is back home - Municipal Auditorium.

* Most of the schools in the NCAA Tournament are large and at least fairly-well known. The schools in the NAIA are small, often religiously-affiliated, and even more often anonymous: Olivet Nazarene (IL), Vanguard (CA), Lee (TN), Campbellsville (KY), Spring Hill (AL), Voorhees (SC), Trevecca Nazarene (TN), Lambuth (TN), Lindsey Wilson (KY), Southern Polytechnic (GA).

* You have heard of the top four seeds in the NCAA: Duke, Connecticut, Villanova, Memphis. The top four seeds in the NAIA: Mountain State (WV), LSU-Shreveport, Robert Morris (IL), Carroll (MT).

So why the attachment to the NAIA Tournament? Because it is a family tradition. From the time my brother and I were in grade school, Dad would take us out of school to head to KC for a day of the NAIA Tournament. And a day at the NAIA was a long day. Eight games in one day. The first one would tip-off at about 9:00 am and the last one at about 10:00 pm. There was maybe 15 minutes between games. We would pack lunches and settle in for a full day of small college basketball.

As we got older, we would always take friends along. I received two emails in the last two weeks from my two best friends in high school - both mentioning the NAIA and memories from there. Allen's peanut butter and bologna sandwiches. Stepping off the distance around the top of Kemper Arena. Sitting in the stands and speculating what you would do if you were stuck on top of the huge scoreboard that hung from the ceiling in the middle of the arena.

Though most players at the NAIA will never make the NBA, there were always some memorable ones. Hall-of-Famers such as Willis Reed, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, and Nate "Tiny" Archibald played there. I remember watching Dennis Rodman play when he was still high-scoring and non-tatooed or pierced. I talked with him after his game - a very polite young man. I also remember the guy who was 7'6" - and never played a minute.

It has probably been almost 20 years since I've been to the NAIA. But the memories of the time with Dad and Dave and our friends are still strong.

Maybe I'll go back again sometime.

No comments: