Friday, March 22, 2013

Gopher Dip

It's March 22, and the Gophers are playing UCLA in the NCAA tournament. The last time the Gophers played UCLA on March 22, it was 1997, a trip to the Final Four was on the line, and I spent the last half hour of the game hugging a jar of salsa and a package of cream cheese.

This is what the NCAA Tournament used to do to me.

The Gophers were one of the best teams in the country in 1997, reaching a ranking as high as No. 2. This was almost without question the most talented team in Gopher history[1], led by the sensational Bobby Jackson. They played in-your-face defense, they hit clutch three-pointers whenever they needed them, and they out-muscled the toughest teams in the Big Ten. In short, they were a joy to watch, and when they entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, Gopher fans held on for what we thought would be the ride of our lives.

The first weekend was a laugher. The Gophers were so much better than Southwest Texas State and Temple that it wasn't even a contest. The Gophers entered the Sweet 16 cruising, ready for anything.

And then Clemson showed up, and they gave the Gophers all they could handle in the Sweet 16. My nails never stood a chance as the game went to double overtime before Jackson exerted his will and pushed the Gophers to the Elite 8.

And that's where UCLA was waiting. Two years previously, the Bruins had won the national title, and they had several players on their roster who had both won a national championship and experienced the humiliation of a first-round loss. They were ready to avenge the Princeton fiasco of a year ago. I was excited, settling down in my basement to hopefully witness the Gophers' first trip to the Final Four. The game tipped off, I was pumped ... and then I realized that we didn't have our dip.

It's not a very complicated dip - cream cheese, shredded cheese, and salsa, mix and let sit in the fridge for a few hours, enjoy with delicious Triscuit crackers or Ritz. Straightforward. I had eaten that dip for each of the first three games, and somewhere along the line I decided it was lucky. These things happen when you're 15. I had quickly dubbed it "Gopher Dip," and it became just as much a part of that season as Jackson's high socks. Because it was "lucky," I was apprehensive about starting the UCLA game without it - and we couldn't quick make it, because it had to sit in the fridge for a while[2].

UCLA wouldn't go away. At all. But then, neither would the Gophers. And as the end of regulation neared and the score remained close, I couldn't handle it any more. At a commercial, I ran upstairs, grabbed all the ingredients for Gopher Dip, and brought them downstairs. I then watched the rest of the game standing, hugging the ingredients, hoping.

Of course, the Gophers won, in overtime, the greatest win in Gopher history, and of course I thought that I had helped by standing there hugging cream cheese. And after the game was over, they cut down the nets, and Miles Tarver danced with Al McGuire, and it all seemed like a dream.

And in a way, it was a dream. Because according to the NCAA, those games never happened. That Gopher season, plus the three before it, have been wiped from the record books because the players on that team were spending about as much time in college classrooms as I was, and when they did go, they were turning in assignments written by somebody else[3]. The academic fraud scandal destroyed the basketball program for almost a decade.

That game against UCLA, 16 years ago today, represents the pinnacle of Gopher basketball. When they cut down the nets in San Antonio, they had climbed higher than they ever had, and it was all downhill from there - losing to Kentucky in the Final Four that year and then, the next season, struggling to overcome graduations before becoming the first team to lose to Gonzaga in the tournament. And then the scandal that wiped everything away as if it had never happened.

The NCAA says that officially nobody won the Big Ten title that year, that nobody won the Midwest Regional in the NCAA tournament. But I remember standing there watching them overcome UCLA, winning despite the fact I ate no dip that day. I don't care if the NCAA says it was fraudulent. I have my memories, and I have my recipe for Gopher dip. Nobody can take those away.
[1] - The 1978 team that had Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson, and Flip Saunders might disagree with that.
[2] - It's very possible that my mom simply was sick of eating the same snack for every game and made up the "sit in the fridge for a few hours" excuse so she could have something else for change. I've never asked.
[3] - My favorite story from this is the claim that Courtney James locked himself in his hotel room the night before the Final Four game and wrote the best term paper his professor had ever seen. James was later arrested for hitting his girlfriend with a phonebook. So ... yah.

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