A swell of elation traversed the landscape at midday yesterday with the acutely soothing realization that the NCAA tournament would indeed include actual basketball.
Up to that point, it appeared we were doomed to an increasingly maudlin, exclusively rhetorical existence that had started with Selection Sunday.
Toward full disclosure, Selection Sunday is not exactly my favorite square on the whole calendar, but it usually beats the plasma out of Rejection Monday, Dejection Tuesday, and Reflection Wednesday, all of which, this time around, had approached a level of tedium rarely seen outside the Grapefruit League and certain Larry King interviews.
By the time Manhattan set about the business of unnerving Florida so badly some of the Gators' assistant coaches were sent hunting for Katherine Harris' phone number, I'd actually begun to long for another installment of the Billy Packer-Phil Martelli bitch slap, by far the highlight of the regularly scheduled four-day bracket racket.
Asked some innocuous question about seedings by sidekick Jim Nance at the start of the selection show, Packer exploded out of his corner like nothing I'd seen since Marvin Hagler ran across the ring and smacked Thomas Hearns right on the coconut to start the first of their encounters 19 years ago. The prominent head Packer battered belonged to Martelli, who was innocently soaking up the adulation in a raucous field house filled with St. Joe's fans and students in West Philadelphia.
I thought we'd tuned in to learn the identities of the 65 teams in the bracket, but Packer started instead with a list of 65 teams that could beat top-seeded St. Joe's. It seemed like Nance stopped him right before he got to Duquesne.
Martelli, stunned into silence only momentarily and not even sure he'd heard everything Packer said, recovered pretty nicely. Not yet two weeks from being inducted into the city's CYO Hall of Fame in part because the Hawks' coach "reflects the values of Jesus in his life and good works," Martelli told the crowd, "Billy Packer can kiss my ass."
There's nothing inconsistent about that. At that moment, Martelli was pretty convinced not even Jesus could stand Billy Packer. In fact, Phil stopped just short of claiming that in the director's cut of the Mel Gibson film, Billy Packer is seen lecturing Jesus on the stunning weakness of the Atlantic 10 compared to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Instead, Martelli suggested on live TV that Packer suit up to see just how hard it is to beat St. Joe's, to which Packer reminded America that when he played for Wake Forest (Lincoln was president), his team actually eliminated St. Joe's from the Then Much Smaller Dance, and further suggested that Martelli ought to learn more about this history of his own school. There's no doubt this discussion should have been allowed to continue, because I no longer had any interest in the tournament. I just wanted to see how infantile this could get. With a few days to mull it over, I imagine it would have gone something like this:
PHIL: I was 8 when you managed to make a few shots against the Hawks that you're still talking about 42 years later, you bulbous twit. Sorry you're offended with the inclusion of St. Joe's in Billy Packer's tournament.
BILLY: You're just so jealous that your own pathetic TV gig is on HawkTV in Philly instead of on the network. Are you still doing that ridiculous Carnac The Great ripoff? What is is, Martelli the Magnificent?
PHIL: That's right, Billy. I am Martelli the Magnificent, and I can divine the answers to questions that I have not yet seen. Here's one right now, the answer -- quiet please, I must concentrate -- Dick Cheney, Grand Cherokee and Billy Packer.
BILLY: And the question?
PHIL: Name a veep, a Jeep, and a creep.
The Hawks sprinted to a 38-18 lead on their way to an easy first-round victory against Liberty yesterday, looking very much like a team in a fine rage. Packer's intemperance, although no one's noted it, could have implications for your Pitt Panthers, another club in a bad mood. Should Pitt advance to the East Rutherford Final, it could encounter a St. Joe's team carrying more emotional momentum than can be handled.
Sorry, I slipped back to Reflection Wednesday there for a second.
Let's just watch some ball, shall we?
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1283.