Last night when Notre Dame led No. 1 Syracuse at halftime 35-23, I roamed the concourse area of the Joyce Center and repeatedly overheard people from my generation utter the same words, or something akin to it, to each other with a knowing smile: “Just like old times.”
Young and old fans alike basked in the moment with Scott Martin in the victory against No. 1 Syracuse.
Naturally, that statement became even more prevalent after the 67-58 Irish conquest of the Orange. While I quietly and distantly surveyed the celebration scene on the court, the satisfaction I experienced was two-fold, one for the “old guard” and the other for the new generation.
The first was viewing the older audience in the stands somewhat more reservedly returning with contentment to the “happy place” in their lives 25 to 40 years ago. For some that happy place might be grandma’s kitchen and the aroma of a Sunday night homemade dinner, or the unbridled anticipation in December for Christmas morning. For others, it’s the backyard basketball court or football field with games against the neighborhood kids.
But for thousands, it was this type of Notre Dame victory on the basketball hardwood or football gridiron that re-launched a floodgate of special memories of their own “happy place” in time.
In a moment like this, I will often reference one of the greatest eulogies I ever read, the one given by esteemed broadcaster Bob Costas at Mickey Mantle’s funeral in 1995. Costas said it was for men like himself, “now in their 40s and 50s, otherwise perfectly sensible, who went dry in the mouth and stammered like schoolboys in the presence of Mickey Mantle.
“In a very different time than today, the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, said every boy builds a shrine to some baseball hero, and before that shrine, a candle always burns.
“For a huge portion of my generation, Mickey Mantle was that baseball hero … he was our symbol of baseball at a time when the game meant something to us that perhaps it no longer does.”
To anyone who grew up with Notre Dame athletics in the 1920s, the 1940s, or the 1960s through the 1980s, that shrine always had a candle blazing to the sky, and carried on from generation to the next, despite some share of mini-slumps in between.
However, a generation has grown up recently not truly experiencing that rapture — especially in football since the end of the 1993 season. They’ve heard or read about it, but never lived it. You feel like it’s a generation of kids who never experienced the joy of Christmas morning.
It had been 25 years since Notre Dame had one of those victories over No. 1 on the hardwood — after doing it eight times in a span of 17 years from 1971-87. That is how “our shrine” was built (along with multiple national titles in football).
Today, as older adults, maybe the cynicism that comes with reaching ones 40s, 50s or beyond does not hold the same type of joy in such a victory as it once did. But it can still warm the cockles of our heart when we remember it is “just like the old times.”
The second “quiet joy” I felt was for the younger members of the crowd. In the closing minute of the game, a few feet from me an older gentleman and his daughter (or maybe even granddaughter), who was about 10 years old, were chanting together loudly, excitedly and rhythmically over and over, “20 (clap, clap) — and 1(clap, clap),” pointing out Syracuse’s new record.
My thought was that I bet this gentlemen was in the Notre Dame student body or in the stands on March 5, 1977 when the Irish upset 29-0 and No. 1 San Francisco, with the chants of “29 (clap, clap) — and 1 (clap, clap)!” that was resonant throughout the building before, during and after the game.
More importantly, his daughter was experiencing a moment that she will forever cherish with her father and engrain in her memory bank, and it’s now her own personal “shrine” to Notre Dame. No it wasn’t a national title, and all it did was improve the Irish record to a modest 12-8 overall and 4-3 in the Big East. A letdown might even be in store later this week at Seton Hall (that’s the adult cynicism we speak about).
That’s not the point, though. On a January day in 1973, a young Notre Dame basketball team under second-year coach Digger Phelps made a 10-point comeback in the closing minutes for a two-point win at Marquette to end its 81-game winning streak at home. The Irish improved to only 4-6 with that victory — but to this 10-year-old, it was an indelible moment in his then young life that is carried to this day.
A moment like the one against Syracuse keeps the shrine burning for future generations while rekindling some fire to the ones from the past. It awakens echoes, it inspires, and it warms.
Now, if we can only experience something like that again in football …
* Four Irish baskets in the first half made you realize this was Notre Dame’s night. The first two were treys by freshman Pat Connaughton in his first Big East start — the first to open the game and the second to make it 11-2 on 4-of-4 shooting from the floor.
The third was when Jerian Grant hurriedly shot a three that somehow banked in to make it 28-14 Irish. Any three-pointer that banks in means it’s your night (ask Duke, which also lost at home last night to Florida State, when the Seminoles hit a desperate trey as the first-half buzzer sounded).
Finally, with one second on the shot clock, Alex Dragicevich also hurried a three-pointer up in desperation — and naturally it went in to provide the Irish their biggest cushion at 35-17. Shooting nights like these are inexplicable. You wish you could bottle it, but that’s not how it works.
* Head coach Mike Brey often talks about the law of averages, and even hinted prior to the Syracuse game that the Irish were overdue when it came to three-point shooting. During Notre Dame’s 3-3 start in the Big East, the trio of Scott Martin, Alex Dragicevich and Pat Connaughton were 10 of 62 (16.1 percent) beyond the arc. Against the vaunted 2-3 zone of the Orange, they were a combined 6 of 9 (66.7 percent), each drilling two treys apiece.
* Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim was calm and seemingly relieved in his post-game press conference. Sometimes acerbic or snappy in such sessions, he wore a kind smile for a good portion of the conference while answering almost every question in a pleasant tone. This was the first time Syracuse ever started 20-0 — and Boeheim almost seemed eased that the program no longer was burdened with expectations of going unbeaten. And therein lies the biggest difference between college football and college basketball. Every regular season game in football is a playoff for the unbeaten ones, whereas in basketball it’s mainly a preliminary event.
* With the victory, Notre Dame's Joyce Center/Purcell Pavilion now ties Maryland's old Cole Field House for most victories against a No. 1-ranked team in one building. The Irish conquests were UCLA in 1971 and 1974, San Francisco in 1977, Marquette in 1978, DePaul in 1980, North Carolina in 1987, and now Syracuse.
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