March is here, and if you are a basketball fan it is one of the best times of the year. March Madness, The Big Dance, is upon us and everyone is frantically filling out their brackets and joining pools for bragging rights and maybe more. For many this massive sporting event is another break from reality and a chance to pound their chest as their alma mater or favorite team advances to the final four. However, in some cases the madness is more than that, sometimes life has a way of taking something simple and making it into so much more. March Madness is real to me, has had a real impact on my life and I will never be able to look at it again as simply a sporting event or a break from reality.
The journey begins for me in March of 1992. My dad is a huge Kentucky Wildcats fan and so as a 7 going on 8-year-old boy, I was already a part of Big Blue Nation. I always remember the night when Christian Laettner hit that shot for Duke to beat Kentucky as the first time I felt hate. It was my first experience as a fan watching a last second defeat and that crushing feeling made me anti-Duke in every way possible.
Twenty years later as a 27 going on 28-year-old man, things would come full circle as I was now living and working in Durham, N.C., a few miles from the dreaded Duke campus. My experience with the tournament was about to change forever. On my 27th birthday, when I found out that we were finally having a boy, that excitement was met with some dreaded news that he would be born with only half a functioning heart. Five months later on November 14, 2011, Aaron was born and immediately taken to surgery. Over the next six months, he would endure six surgeries with three being on his heart.
During that college basketball season I watched every Kentucky game with my son except two and those were the two games they lost. Most of this happened while at the hospital as he spent all but three weeks of those six months living in the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Duke University Hospital. By the time March Madness came around, everyone in the unit was used to us sporting our Kentucky gear and had finally stopped trying to slip Duke clothing on Aaron.
I spent that tournament watching every game with Aaron. He was under sedation most of that tournament, but would always wake up when Kentucky’s game came on. The only game he did not wake up and watch was the National Championship game, and as I wrote in my book he must have known that Big Blue Nation would be celebrating that night and sure enough we did!
A little over a month after that championship game on May 14, at exactly six months of age, Aaron passed away. I held him as his heart beat for the last time reflecting on the memories of the last six months. One of them was watching Kentucky win their eighth national championship with Aaron while wearing a yellow suit and gloves because he was on contact isolation and could not have skin to skin contact at that time. I watched as I rubbed his head full of curly hair, while he had two drainage tubes coming from his chest after his most recent surgery and being hooked to a breathing machine on top of the countless other gadgets and machines he was connected to.
That night is one of my fondest memories of my time with my son, and is what brought me full circle with Duke. While I still hate their basketball team my anti-Duke sentiments stop there, even to the point where I raise money for the hospital through proceeds from my book. My 2012 experience will never allow me to look at the tournament the same again. Even this year as Big Blue Nation must suffer through the NIT, watching the Big Dance will bring up memories of my son. March Madness is now real to me, has had a real impact on my life and my perspective on watching the tournament has been changed forever.