Birmingham's hoops legacy is back, baby!
First, Auburn shattered the state's inexplicable Final Four barrier. Now, Birmingham is reviving the city's rich NCAA Basketball Tournament legacy. What's next - Andy Kennedy winning a national title at UAB?
OK, long shot, but it's easy to traffic in hyperbole for those of us who believe roundball is the best ball because our baskets runneth over.
Today's a day to celebrate the news that the NCAA has selected Birmingham to play host to the first and second rounds of the 2023 Men's Tournament and to a regional in the 2025 Women's Tournament with the SEC as host institution in each case. We last welcomed the Men's Tournament in 2008, the Women's Tournament in 2001.
That 12-year March Madness hiatus has felt like an eternity when you consider that, from 1982 through 2008, Birmingham was a stop on the road to the Final Four 11 times, 10 for the men, once for the women, an average of once every 2-3 years.
The return has been made possible by the renovation of Legacy Arena, the construction work visible from the new interstate, solid evidence that when people work together around here, Birmingham can. As Mayor Randall Woodfin tweeted, "It's a perfect example of what public and private partnerships can accomplish."
As part of the collective effort to bring March Madness back, I put together a trip down memory lane for Knight Eady to remind the NCAA committee members choosing the sites for the next rotation that our basketball legacy stands taller than Mamadou N'Diaye standing on Alan Ogg's shoulders and speaks louder than any of Wimp Sanderson's plaid jackets.
Sharing it today as a tribute to another victory for the Magic City.
Birmingham is a basketball city. I've been saying that for the three decades and change that I've lived and worked here in the sports media because I've seen it, lived it and breathed it.
I've seen a bead of sweat trickle from the eye of an official as he came to the scorer's table TV monitor to sort out a regional final dust-up between North Carolina and Kentucky. I've been wowed by everyone from Allen Iverson to God Shammgod. I've been blessed as the greatest show on earth, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, came to visit again and again and again.
Basketball and Birmingham go together like Birmingham and sweet tea. That's more fact than opinion, but don't just take the word of a hoops junkie who's covered 16 Final Fours.
Ask the Alabama High School Athletics Association. When the AHSAA made Alabama the first state to host a high school Final Four for girls and boys in every classification in the same city at the same time, which city did it choose? Birmingham. Which city has been the only host of that grassroots basketball celebration since its inception in 1994? Birmingham.
Ask the Southeastern Conference. When the SEC renewed its conference basketball tournament in 1979 after a 26-year hiatus, which city did it choose for the return, the first three years and five years in the first seven? Birmingham. When the conference expanded to 12 teams by adding Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992, which city did it choose to handle the first expanded basketball tournament? Birmingham.
Ask the Sun Belt Conference, the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Conference USA. Each of those leagues has brought its conference tournament to Birmingham, the Sun Belt and the SWAC on multiple occasions.
Better yet, ask the members of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee through the years. Which city in the Deep South has played host to the NCAA Tournament more often than anyone not named Atlanta, Lexington, Louisville and New Orleans? Birmingham.
Which city in the SEC's current 11-state footprint that hasn't hosted a Final Four has welcomed the NCAA Tournament more than any other location? Birmingham.
Which city in the entire country that wasn't located across the river from New York City played host to the most NCAA Tournament regionals between 1982 and 1997? Birmingham with five mini-Final Fours, which we treated and feted as if they were actual Final Fours.
From 1982 through 2008, from first- and second-round games to regionals, Birmingham welcomed, witnessed and embraced 43 NCAA Tournament games. That's not a happy accident. It's a well-deserved compliment, an indication that past performance sometimes is a guarantee of future results. The NCAA continued to bring its tournament here because the tournament works here because no city works harder to make the tournament special, from the yeoman volunteer efforts led by the Birmingham Tip-off Club to the unwavering support of local government and business leaders to the passion of the true hoops junkies in the seats.
The basketball itself hasn't been bad, either.
In the very first NCAA Tournament to grace us with its presence, the 1982 Mideast Regional, UAB's hometown heroes, a mere four years after starting a program under the legendary Gene Bartow, cut national player of the year Ralph Sampson and Virginia down to size in the Sweet 16.
In the 1985 regional, Rollie Massimino and Villanova took two giant steps toward their historic national championship upset of Patrick Ewing and Georgetown by taking down Len Bias and Maryland and Dean Smith and North Carolina.
In a jaw-dropping first-round upset in 1987, Austin Peay, a No. 14 seed, shocked No. 3 seed Illinois and forced Dick Vitale to make good on a bet to stand on his head. Let's go Peay!
In a historic summit meeting in the 1995 regional, North Carolina and Kentucky came together for just the second time in their storied histories in the NCAA Tournament. Dean Smith took Rick Pitino to school, and the bluest of bluebloods inspired the largest crowd in the arena's history, 17,721 fans witnessing the kind of beautiful madness only basketball in March can bring.
Of all 10 visits the NCAA Men's Tournament has made to the Magic City, that may have been the most magical. In the words of SEC executive associate commissioner Mark Womack at the time: "This event dispels the notion that we're only about football. This shows the country that Birmingham can host a big-time basketball event."
No less an authority than Dean Smith himself gave Birmingham his blessing before leaving town that year for the Final Four.
"Birmingham has been an excellent host," he said. "I think basketball is here to stay. There's plenty of room here for football and basketball."
Who could argue with the Dean?
Birmingham's long run of proven tournament success, with the event returning an average of once every 2-3 years for almost three decades, ended only because Legacy Arena grew too old and too small. Now that the proud building is receiving a total home makeover, our facility will live up to its legacy. Our city will be as ready as it's always been to make visitors from across the country feel welcome with our unique flavor of Southern hospitality.
Our reputation for making basketball special precedes us. Everyone here who cares about the game can't wait to do it again and again and again.