Exactly 52 weekends ago, Mike Copeland looked up, inhaled and took in the din from 72,456 fans inside Detroit’s Ford Field watching him throw a basketball into the air in an act of pure ecstasy. Another 16 million Americans were tuned in on TV to see his North Carolina team win the NCAA college championship, the culmination of a month-long frenzy that captivates a nation, its President included.
Forget the images of university sport, British-style, ignored and unappreciated. ‘The Tourney’, an end-of-season scrap among the best 65 teams, builds its drama with every round until only the toughest quartet remain. The Final Four, which begins tonight in Indianapolis, is the second only to the Super Bowl in Uncle Sam’s sporting stakes. And to be at its epicentre is an experience that Copeland will not forget.
“It’s like a football game here,” explains the Glasgow Rocks forward. “Everywhere you went, at the hotel, outside, there were people waiting for you. It was crazy. It was hard to stay focused because there is so much hype around North Carolina. They have fans everywhere. But it was a lot, a lot, of fun.”
As the local boy made good, in his final game before turning professional, victory was the ultimate. “It was the best way to go out after working so hard for four years, all the blood, sweat and tears on the court every day. You’re hurt. You’re banged up. It was all worth it.”
This time around, the Tar Heels were left out of March Madness. Their young, struggling team was sent into the wilderness of the NIT, where they were beaten in the final by Dayton on Thursday. “Tough year,” says Copeland who regularly talks to his former coaches.
From his current staging post, he will be rooting for ABD: Anyone But Duke, NC’s traditional rivals. West Virginia may have a shot, he says. So too Baylor. But “… I think Michigan State will do it,” he predicts. Yet the contrast between then and now could not be wider. On Saturday night, the Rocks visit the BBL’s basement side London Capital, who often struggle to draw a three-figure crowd.
It must, you wonder, be hard to find the same motivation? “It was hard at first,” he admits. “It’s like being in high school where sometimes we played in front of 200. But you have to pump yourself up.
“You see, I could pick out a player from every team in our (college) conference who would like to be in my position. They just want to play basketball but they didn’t get jobs. I know I have a team and I’m a big part. The season’s had its ups and downs. But I’m getting to play.”
Having fulfilled one dream, there are others still to chase. Someone in Indy will stand where Copeland stood and end up having a ball.
ESPN America, 11pm