We had just finished discussing how basketball had played a significant role in his life when top aides Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod informed then Senator Barack Obama that Gen. Colin Powell had endorsed him over Senator John McCain during a just concluded, live appearance on Meet the Press, 10 days before the 2008 Presidential election.
Gibbs and Axelrod huddled with Obama for a few minutes in the Hampton Inn conference room in Dunn, N.C., signaling they would have to tweak his speech he would soon give at nearby Fort Bragg.
My producer, Ken Field, and I were told to sit tight. Secret Service didn’t want us leaving the room. So we had time to talk. Within minutes, after Obama had asked if I wanted to play in a pickup game on Election Day in Chicago (of course I did and then did again four years later), I stood up and had an epiphany.
“Senator, if you win next week, how about I come to the White House in March and fill out the NCAA tournament bracket with you?’’
“Sure,’’ he said without hesitating.
I turned to Gibbs and Axelrod and made sure they heard it. They did. They were onboard with the idea.
Seven years later, the Smithsonian was at ESPN, accepting two brackets to be placed in a rotating exhibit.
We did 8-straight NCAA tournament brackets, the Tuesday after Selection Sunday, usually hours before the First Four.
Questioned by a few on the GOP side early, cooler heads prevailed as the years passed with both political parties seeing how filling out the NCAA tournament bracket was a non partisan issue. Now, it’s hard to find a national candidate who won’t post a bracket.
The love of the NCAA tournament is something that everyone can relate to, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, ethnicity or profession.
I knew in that split second when I stood up over the Senator that the NCAA tournament would be a connecting point for us, and for him with the rest of the country.
The NCAA tournament is the destination for every college basketball team and is the point when college basketball is at its height of being mainstream.
No one is ignoring that the sport has problems — from recruiting to agents to apparel companies and a quest to cut corners. College basketball is going through a self reflection like never before. But beneath the headlines that have dominated it the past few months exists a sport that still can and will produce drama — on the court — on a nightly basis.
And it’s enough to build a strong enough narrative throughout the regular season, depositing every interested fan on the doorstep of selection Sunday before the most frenetic, condensed three-week playoff that no other sport can match.
The connectivity that the NCAA tournament bracket delivers across all political parties in March and early April can translate during the regular season and beyond.
The atmosphere at Kansas, Duke, Wichita State, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Kentucky and many more are what make this sport stand out.
College basketball at its core is about a chance, an opportunity for a player, a team, a coach, an institution, to change their direction forever.
Schools have been magnified on the map by a single shot, a run to the Final Four, national championships and an iconic coach.
The onus is on the players, coaches and administrators to control their brand and narrative now. The stories are there to tell. The personalities readily available.
So, stick with us throughout the season, on the road to San Antonio on what is sure to be a wild ride filled with plenty of intrigue and unknown in what still remains the greatest three-week championship quest in American sports.