In 1987, Keith Smart hit a game winning jumper to help Indiana win the Final Four against Syracuse University.
In 1988, Kansas, led by Danny Manning, upset Oklahoma in a Championship game that rivaled the excitement of the year before.
In 1989, Illinois was the best team in the country, but Michigan won the Final Four in an overtime thriller against Seton Hall.
It was the golden era of college basketball, at least as far as I was concerned. Basketball was life for me back then and the excitement of the college game drew me in. I watched a lot of games, mostly Big Ten games. The Big Ten was popular, had many top programs, and was on TV all the time. Plus, I lived in the MidWest. I knew these teams like the back of my hand. I knew all the players, all the coaches. I knew the stats and I knew the schedules.
Basketball was a winter sport and while all the play was happening inside the famous gyms of the Big Ten, it was cold and snowy outside. Winter was long, cold, and dark, especially in my small Wisconsin hometown.
Being such a fan of college basketball meant also being aware of the other great teams around the country. Many of them were East Coast teams like North Carolina, Duke, Georgetown, St John’s, and the aforementioned Syracuse.
But sometimes, late at night, I’d get a glimpse of the games happening out west in the earlier time zones. These games took on a whole different feeling. Things seemed brighter, more open. Places like Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Las Vegas. Who knew you could have basketball without the cold and snow outside? Sign me up!
In 1988 I was in sixth grade and the best team in the country was the University of Arizona, led by Steve Kerr and Sean Elliot. Because Arizona was so good (they had beaten Michigan, Syracuse, Iowa, and Duke, all top ten teams, early in the season) they started getting some TV time. I distinctly remember the unique wood basketball floor at Arizona. It had a giant University of Arizona logo depicting mountains and a cactus. The great desert west! Basketball and year-round warm sunny weather!
I remember Steve Kerr specifically, a blonde hair blue eyed shooting point guard in a high scoring running offense. This was different. I was immediately a fan.
The years went by and I occasionally would catch a glimpse of that Arizona court for some late night west coast telecasts. That cactus, those mountains, that Arizona logo.
As I started my senior year of high school I had to make a college choice. I had watched my older brother go to the University of Minnesota, one of those Big Ten schools. Not only was it confirmed that the winters were really cold, but it also affirmed to me that students had to walk to classes on really big campuses in really cold Midwest college towns. So when my time came, I remembered back to that hardwood floor with the cactus. I would go to Arizona.
It wasn’t until many many years later that I would realize my decision to attend the University of Arizona was most likely because of Steve Kerr. As I would contemplate my college choice, I would have never even considered Arizona had it not been for the image of that hardwood floor embedded in my brain.
Oh, and on my first day on campus as a freshman student, I just happened to wander into an open door on the floor level of the McKale Center and strolled within feet of that same floor to watch a handful of NBA players get in a late summer workout, that logo imprinted in all its glory.
The lesson? Brand matters, and however subliminal it may be, the messages we get are influential. Sometimes those messages can shape the direction of your life. I’m not saying my decision to go to the University of Arizona was a bad thing for me, but I am saying it took almost 30 years to figure out what made me make that decision. Hardwood floors matter.