Something's Bruin in the Cooler
By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

The Cooler, of course, is empty.

It always is on March 18, the day after the Holiest Drinking Day of the Year.

Matt Barnes
Matt Barnes and the Bruins didn't back down from a slugfest with mighty Cincinnati.
But this time, I mean empty. Like, emp-tay.

I tried to tell the boys in Bristol this shouldn't happen. I tried to tell them that the one day of 365 that The Cooler rests is this very Holiest of Drinking Days.

They weren't having it.

See, I guess there was this NCAA tourney game played in Pittsburgh on Sunday, and I guess there was this plucky little 8 seed from the Pac-10 playing this national title contender filled with big, mean-looking grown men and ... well, the story went like this:

The boys in Bristol placed a call to the Arizona desert, where I was part of an 11-man posse bent on doing four things:

  1. Honoring that Holiest of Days.

  2. Avoiding any semblance of responsibility.

  3. Destroying my vocal cords to the point where someone pointed out that I morphed into Frankie Five Angels from "The Godfather II."

  4. Cramming carcasses into a hotel room at spring training in an attempt to recreate fumes as noxious as those last produced in the trenches at the Battle of Verdun.

My boy Roberts fielded the cell phone call from Bristol. They were looking for a Cooler. He was asked my whereabouts. Roberts broke it down. "He's alive," my boy said. "But after that whole UCLA thing, you might have to break out a spatula to get him off the wall."

Dan Gadzuric
Dan Gadzuric did his best Wilt imitation in the paint.
To think, it all started so innocently Sunday morning. Bodies strewn about the floor. Lies told about the previous evening. The click of a remote control. And tipoff in Pittsburgh.

It all happened so fast in that furious and perfect second half. Down 10 to Cincinnati, the Spirit of the Bruin, dormant all year, stirred. The 11-man posse in the hotel room, seven strong of UCLA grads, took keen interest. Plans to attack the lobby buffet? Delayed. Movements to Scottsdale Stadium for the Cactus League ballgame? Put on hold. Attempts to uncover who had apparently smuggled in a crate of year-old bananas and stuffed them under a bed? Attended to immediately.

Here's how fast things turned: Jason Kapono missed a shot, and followed it for the strong putback with an aggression heretofore unseen. Cedric Bozeman, the freshman who failed to flower all year scored what scientists believe was his first bucket of the year.

Dan Gadzuric went Wilt underneath.

And when the comeback produced a Bruin lead, when we were done screaming and not believing and losing our hungover minds, someone in the room broke out the Big East clap-cheer: "Lav-in Ext-en-sion! (Clap/Clap/Clap-Clap-Clap). Lav-in Ext-en-sion!"

That's how fast things turned.

Steve Lavin
The chant rang out in the Arizona desert: "Lav-in Ext-en-sion! (Clap/Clap/Clap-Clap-Clap). Lav-in Ext-en-sion!"
That's how fast we were sold. That's how fast we set aside a year of heartache and heartbreak. A shot of Bob Huggins looking irate produced the now-confident riff: "Who wears a three-piece suit? He looks like Louie DePalma!"

Two overtimes, 206 points, and one UCLA blast from the glorified past later, the seven-man posse became a seven-man doggie pile, until we realized that:

1) This was a real bad look for seven guys in their 30s; and 2) Somebody in the pile, immune system devastated by a weekend of toxin ingestion, had a 50-50 shot at dying in it.

Nobody wanted a UCLA victory over Cincy to produce an unwanted death, so we broke it up.

And laughed and scratched and felt real, real good about life.

Now on our horizon: A buffet featuring breakfast meats. A Cactus League ballgame, with the unconfirmed rumor that cold beer would be sold there.

And a pretty damn satisfying conviction that -- hey, sometimes we do play some ball on the West Coast.

Isn't it funny how it turns out sometimes?

Straight to the List of Five, which is truncated today to a List of Four, because the medics are coming to take me away:

1. Pondering first-round losses

On the way to Scottsdale Stadium, our guy Coz riffed on the concept of the first-round loss. How much it sucks. How there's no sugar-coating it. How empty it makes you feel as an alum who is trying to funnel money illegally into the program.

Stewart Hare
USC's first-round loss to UNCW added to the delight of the Bruin Nation.
He said this, of course, aware that the Pac-10 had gone 5-1 in the first round of the tourney.

And hugely aware that the only team to lose in the first round was ... good ol' 'SC.

To UNC-Wilmington, no less -- a bunch of guys 'SC never thought it would lose to, and a bunch of guys who threw down on the Trojans.

"How bad is the first-round loss? It's so bad!" he laughed. "Losing to a bunch of clowns! To a bunch of white guys coming down the lane and dunking on you!"

Sometimes, the simplest stuff is the best.

2. Why life works: meeting Dick from Minnesota at a ballgame

Imbued by our newfound -- and only hours-old -- belief that life was good again, we received confirmation:

Dick from Minnesota.

A retired high school teacher in his 70s, a man with the friendliest mug you've ever seen, a man enjoying himself alone at a ballgame, he made our day. Mostly, because he put up with us.

So, he was down in the desert with his wife. For how long, we asked?

"Two or three weeks," he said.

Perfect. The freedom of the golden years, being lived fully by our new, most patient ballpark neighbor.

So, where's the wife?

He smiled: "Shopping."

Perfect again.

We talked Minnesota Twins (Dick's worried about the loss of Tom Kelly); we talked Minnesota Vikings (Dick worries Daunte Culpepper will get hurt by throwing his body in the fray too much); we talked Minnesota Gophers. That last topic was the briefest.

We talked Giants, and Barry Bonds and 73. Dick told us that in 1961, he made a bet with his barber that Roger Maris wouldn't hit 50, and he'd give/get a dollar for every homer over/under 50.

"Roger Maris cost me 11 dollars," Dick said.

How was the haircut, we asked?

"Ah," Dick laughed, "wasn't worth a damn, either."

All the while, the sounds of Cactus League ball served as our soothing backdrop.

You meet a guy like Dick from Minnesota, you call that a pretty good day.

3. Brackets: What's the point?

When the cobwebs cleared late Sunday night, I pulled out a cocktail napkin from my wallet and counted up my Sweet 16.

I picked nine correctly.

Nine of 16. And that included my epic picks of Kent State and Southern Illinois.

Still, that sucks. Nine.

What's the point? Nobody can ever predict this stuff, you wind up thinking you know that Wyoming can't beat Gonzaga and the next thing that happens, Raquel from Receiving, who doesn't know a basketball from a fax machine, wins the 650 bucks in the office pool, because "My boyfriend's Dad went to Maryland, and that was the only school I recognized!"


4. Friendship: distilled to its essence

My guy H.B. showed me what it was all about yesterday with two cell phone messages.

A continent away working the Grapefruit League, H.B. dropped a call and left the following message: "Three thirty-five left. Up one point. You hang in there. You hang in there."

End of message.

H.B.'s not a Bruin. He went to Temple, has no interest in the Bruins, is bummed his Owls aren't dancing, and yet he understood.

The second message came later in the day. It only said:

"Now that's what I'm talking about."

End of message.

Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes the "Weekend Water Cooler" every Monday for Page 2.



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