It started just over three decades ago when a friend and fellow sports nut asked me who I thought would win the NCAA basketball tournament. I told him. He replied something along the lines of: "You gotta be kidding, they don't stand a chance."
His retort got under my skin so I asked him whom he'd picked to win the tournament. This led to some back and forth and a bet on the entire tournament. You do your bracket and I'll do mine, and may the best man win.
The way we structured it, points were awarded for every team that advanced. One point for every team that made it past round one, three points for those who advanced to the next round, etc. That way you might pick the overall winner but still not win the bet because the other person had racked up more points with his more of his picks advancing through the rounds.
The tournament was then a 48-team affair and my friend and I started small with a $1 bet on our prognostications. That, and the promise to watch the championship game at either his house or mine.
And so ensued years of good games, last second buzzer beaters, Bird and Magic, West Texas State, Jimmy Valvano and NC State, you name it, and always accompanied with beer and eats.
Twice over the decades, I was out of town for the championship game but on the phone to my friend before and after the game. In both instances I was on assignment in British Columbia. The first time I watched Indiana win the 1987 title over Syracuse at the buzzer following a day of heli-skiing . The second time I watched Michigan win the 1989 title over Seton Hall in a motel in Revelstoke, BC the night before flying into the mountains for a week hut-to-hut ski tour.
As our bracket battle wore on, now with 64 (65 with the play-in game winner) teams, the bet changed. The loser would buy the winner dinner at a place where we could view the championship game. That led to dinners Cheerleaders, the Pine Tavern, Bend Brewing, assorted sports bars and other bars. One year we took a break from eating out and I ordered in a pizza and made martinis to celebrate my wretched bracket picks and the loss of the bet.
This year may be the worst year ever in the history of our bracket picking rivalry. I'm using an orange highlighter to mark off my losing picks. Currently, my bracket looks like a pumpkin field just before the harvest-a field of orange.
My friend is on vacation in Hawaii and has yet to send me his bracket sheet. From what he's told just before leaving, I think he's taken as many losing hits.
But like all bracketology fans, losing the annual bet is just a sidebar to rooting for the small schools, the underdogs and the where-did-they-come-froms. That's the joy of the tournament.
So as the Sweet Sixteen is played out tomorrow and Friday, I for one am rooting for an Elite Eight that has Cornell playing Washington, Purdue playing St. Marys, Michigan State playing Ohio State, and Butler playing Xavier.
Of course, it won't work out that way but it's fun to dream of an Elite Eight without any top seeds.
Come April 5 at 6:20, my friend and I will sit down at some restaurant to watch the game and to celebrate our thirty-first straight bracket battle. It's a tradition we both look forward to every year-win or lose.