Florida! Atlantic!!

Back in the days when I had a little money and friends who would leave their homes, several of us would treck to Las Vegas for the first weekend of March Madness.  I was in the middle of my first divorce, and frankly, could have benefitted from bonding of any kind from any gender.  The core group that traveled together were onetime work colleagues, including my former boss, a well-heeled executive who had come up through the TV ranks in a network sports division where he spent many a weekend (weeks!) in the world I tiptoed into.  We’d watch 48 games in 96 hours, me holding the fort by securing the “ideal seats” in the sportsbook at ungodly hours, happily content to cordon off a block of seats for later risers such as my boss, who would usually be accompanied by his amazing family, who he’d insist he’d spend the morning with since he was going to devote the next thirteen hours or so with us boys, indulging his gambling instincts often by necessity, as his lovely wife had his Amex card and a penchant for finding irresistable deals at the overpriced hotel shops.

He had years of experience and would watch games at every possible free moment, which he didn’t have too many of.  So he’d tape games, on multiple VCRs long before the days of Tivo, let alone digital video, and would often be days or even weeks behind when a backload of games he was interested in took place.  But by the time we’d go to Vegas, he was at least caught up enough to be confident in his bets.   I’d listen intentely to his betting rationales, and often I’d follow his lead.  Turns out he was not an expert, but fortunately I wasn’t in a place to risk all that much.

But one year, for reasons that I typically snark at from office pool winners who use anything but data and rationale to make their pick, I went against him in a first round game between Alabama and an upstart school making their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, at the 15th-seeded conference champion of the emergent Atlantic Sun Conference.  But I couldn’t resist the siren’s song of betting on a school from Boca Raton, Florida. I had numerous relatives and friends who had relocated there, as many of them would explain when I’d visit (I did that more often, too), they would contend that on any given winter weekend more New York license plates could be seen in the parking lots of local delis than could be seen in the parking lots of the New York delis they essentially duplicated.  “It’s where old Jews go to die, to be buried by Cuban immigrants”, they’d explain.

So I HAD to bet Florida Atlantic.  And that day, while my friend dropped hundreds of dollars, including a doubling-down on a halftime prop bet to try and make up his loss, the Owls were somehow competitive, more than covering the double-digit spread with an 86-78 loss to the Crimson Tide.  My other friends, who would never miss a chance to taunt my gambling boss, seized upon my inexplicable giddiness, which had far smaller stakes, by joining me in overreacting to every shot and turnover down the stretch that guaranteed Alabama wouldn’t cover.  The hand-slapping (we did THAT then, too) and exuberance was punctuated by loud FLORIDA!  ATLANTIC!! cheers, of which few were actually being echoed except by hardcore gamblers that played my hunch for more intelligent reasons.

Last night, appropriately enough at the Madison Square Garden mecca that many Boca residents were weaned on basketball at, the FAU Owls had not only finally made it back to the NCAAs, they had already won their first two rounds as a #9 seed, and faced SEC powerhouse Tennessee in a Sweet Sixteen matchup.  It was the first time an NCAA regional was being played at the Garden, and it was a partisan FAU crowd.  For a school that has only had a basketball program for 35 years, and in Divison I for just 30, against a team in its second century of competition, it was a coming-of-age moment.

And they were even more impressive last night to the tens of thousands in attendance and the millions watching on TBS as they were to me in their first one-and-done, as Zach Weinberger of the hometown Palm Beach Daily News reported:

The Owls pulled off the biggest NCAA Tournament upset in program history on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, defeating the No. 4-seeded Tennessee Volunteers 62-55 in the Sweet 16. The ninth-seeded Owls will return to the national stage on Saturday to face the No. 3 seed Kansas State Wildcats in the Elite Eight with a place in the Final Four on the line. Tipoff at Madison Square Garden is scheduled for 6:09 p.m. and will be televised on TBS.

Head coach Dusty May said his team, after falling behind early on Thursday, found its usual standard, allowing the Owls to eventually rally from a halftime deficit.

“After the first seven minutes or so, we felt like we really settled in and played good basketball. Despite the score at the half, we felt like we were playing our type of game,” May said. “We got back to moving the ball. We were playing with great physicality.

The Owls worked their way back in the second half after senior Michael Forrest scored eight straight points off the bench to give momentum to his team. Forrest was held scoreless in the past two tournament games and had not hit a 3-pointer since the Owls’ regular-season finale on March 4.

Forrest, FAU’s all-time leader in 3-pointers, said that he couldn’t have done it without his teammates.

“Oh, man, I don’t even know how to explain it, just my teammates set me up perfectly just so I could make the open shots,” Forrest said. “I’ve been having a rough time lately, but my teammates kept the positivity with me, so I owe it all to them.”

The shots inspired a game-changing 20-4 run that would give the Owls a 10-point lead, the largest by any team.

Since FAU began play, the demography of Boca Raton has changed dramatically.  That generation of Jews has indeed largely either died off or migrated to different locales such as Deerfield Beach and Delray Beach.  It’s much more multicultural.  The FAU campus has expanded greatly.  And they’re the Conference USA champions now, and playing schools far larger and with deeper sports histories.

And they will also be playing for a rare chance for a lower-bracket team to reach a Final Four tomorrow.

I have no monetary bet on this game, and these days my well-heeled friend stays closer to home.  He’s still using outdated technology to watch games on his timetable, which means he may not know the result of last night’s game or tomorrow’s until, perhaps, Independence Day.  Hopefully of this year.

So, please, if you know who he is, don’t forward this to him.

But when he does finally get around to seeing this game, I hope he’ll remember that had he listened to me back then, he would have been better able to cover his wife’s shopping spree.  And I really, really hope we get another chance to do all that again some year.  Somewhere.

Whenever I think of Florida Atlantic, or my new special friends in Boca, I’ll always scream happily.  And now, so will many more fans.  Especially if they win tomorrow.


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