This is my favorite sports week of the year.
Don't get it twisted. Opening Day is the glorious 24-hour span when spring returns to the earth, hope is renewed, and peace and love reign supreme.
But this is the best Sunday-to-Sunday span, starting with little Division I schools across the country - some of which I used to devote my working life to covering - fighting for their one and only chance to make the Big Dance and ending with a panel of suits and ties announcing what dreams remain.
It's a time to post silly polls on Facebook - "Name the top 5 NCAA tournament players ever" - which spark 90 comments. It's a time to watch the Northeastern and Missouri Valley and Horizon and MEAC conference tournaments, to see shots fall or come up short as face-painted fans live or die in the sardine-packed bleachers of bandbox gyms. It's a time to fill out my first bracket in my head and watch the "Survive and Advance" 30 for 30 for the eighth time (and cry, again) and curse having a day job.
It's the anticipation before the Madness, the halcyon week when anybody can be this year's VCU or Butler or George Mason. It all culminates, of course, in the Thursday-Friday High Holy Days of the First Round, but this week is just for us hard-core hoops heads.
It's when I miss my girls the most.
My mama, who bleeds Tar Heel blue and taught me, through example and sometimes shouted word, why the ACC is the greatest basketball conference in the country - a status that cannot change no matter how many schools without an actual Atlantic Coast crash the party. My mama, with whom I watched Terry Holland stump for Food Lion and Danny Ferry's hairline recede and Fred Brown throw the ball to James Worthy. My mama, who played basketball at Jonesville (N.C.) High and was my first proof that sports are for girls, too.
My friends, my Carolina Alliance chicks, my companions on bar stools up and down the Grand Strand and in the Midlands. Mary-Kathryn, Dawn, Tonya, Janet, Elaine, Mary. Women with wide smiles and good hair and a detailed knowledge of when to switch to zone. Further up the coast, Norma, brash and bold, my basketball and Blue Moon buddy. Women who consoled each other with equal aplomb after losses in love or the Sweet 16, who did not go to bars to pretend to know basketball as a ruse to meet men, who had no patience for the misguided fools who dared block our view. Women who took turns getting rounds and invented toasts to our favorite players and had no compunction about bellowing at a sycophantic coach or official (miss you, Karl Hess, don't mean it).
I miss these women probably at least once a day, for various reasons, at different times. The second week of March, I miss them almost every minute.
I don't actually curse my day job (out loud). I'm quite grateful to have it. It's odd, though. For 18 years, there was no distinction between my job and sports and life. Now, no one in my office pays much attention to sports. They're all lovely people, despite this glaring deficiency. One dude and I discuss the NBA, and there's a soccer fanatic who works my nerves during the World Cup. But that's about it. I'll see something remarkable on ESPN or Twitter and start to remark on it - "The Eagles traded for Sam Bradford? Do they get a discount because he has no ACLs?" - and realize no one will understand or care.
That's OK. That's reality, I guess. It's a good one when I walk out the door at 5 p.m. and don't think about work until I walk back in the next morning. I'm adjusting. Some days better than others.
This week, it's difficult. I glance at the ACC tournament on ESPN GameCast while editing, text my mother, write on people's Facebook walls. It's a connection. It makes me smile.
It's my favorite sports week of the year. But I miss my girls.