The excitement was growing with each passing day earlier this month for Terry Lewis and Bob Corstange, just as it had been for them the past few decades when the NCAA Tournament was quickly approaching.
Lewis, 67, and the 61-year-old Corstange struck up a friendship nearly 40 years ago while working at the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo.
Lewis attended his first NCAA Tournament in South Bend in 1987 with friends and co-workers and the group grew with each passing year. Corstange joined the crew for their road trip to Indianapolis in 1993.
Lewis and Corstange, both retired, were in Tampa a couple of weeks ago planning additional trips while looking forward to watching the games both in person and on television at area sports bars with a group of 14 people, some coming from as far as California and Texas as well as Kalamazoo.
The group swelled to two dozen people when Lewis and Corstange traveled to watch the NCAAs in Nashville in 2000.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Lewis' 33-year run of attending the NCAA Tournament to a screeching halt. Corstange and the rest of the entourage were stopped in their tracks, too.
“Everything was locked and loaded and then this happened and people started to slowly bail out depending on where they were flying from, which we totally understood, and then they started canceling like crazy,” Lewis said.
“I’m down here (Florida) for the winter now, so this one was in my backyard. Usually, I’m the guy flying out like everyone else. This one would have been my 34th straight, I was 33 when I went to my first one. Back then there was four of us and we went to South Bend.
“It would have been our third year here in Tampa, and the lack of basketball just knocks the air out of everybody. Not only can you not go to the games, they canceled the Grapefruit League. We had tickets for the Tigers, and now they canceled all of the bars, too. We were at least going to go to the bars downtown Tampa and watch the games since they were going to have the games without fans, then they canceled the games completely. Now, it’s gone well beyond sports.”
Corstange has since jumped in his car and made the journey back to his home in Paw Paw.
“I’ve gone 20 times, Lou has been the only person who has gone to all of them,” said Corstange of the NCAA trips. “We’ve had a high of 24 back at Nashville in 2000, but we usually have 10 to 14 come now, some of our kids come too now. It’s great to have our children go with us.”
So, that makes the disappointment that much tougher.
“When we first started, we used to watch the draw together at Lou’s house, but now people are more spread out,” Corstange said. “We were having 14 come this year, one guy, Wesley Roth from Austin, Texas; and Barry Rutgers from California, he once worked with us and then got another job in California but continued to keep coming.
“We were still planning on going into town and having the experience and everything by watching the games on TV, then when they canceled it, the hotels allowed us to cancel the rooms at the late notice. It was disappointing, so I can imagine how the players are disappointed, the fans, the workers who are depending on the money.
“We came back from the beach (the day prior to when pairings were scheduled to be released) and every single bar we drove by was packed. People were outside having fun with their daily lives.”
A week later and Corstange was driving back after Florida was locking up the bars, restaurants and even the beach.
Still, the memories live on from past tournaments.
Lewis has been to 19 different cities or sites, including Indianapolis four times and New Orleans on three occasions.
“We’ve had about four or five years when we wore T-shirts with the sites we’ve been," said Lewis, "which is always a cool thing because you run into other groups that have done the same thing, been going for 30 years, get a good laugh out of it, talk about the places you were all at.”
Wally Szczerbiak's tenure with Miami (Ohio) in 1999 remains Lewis' highlight of the tourney runs. The RedHawks received an at-large bid and were a No. 10 seed.
“They were good, but not great and the other teams didn’t think he could shoot that well and he smoked them," he said.
Szczerbiak scored 43 (5-of-12 3-pointers) with 12 rebounds in an opening-round 59-58 win over No. 7 seed Washington at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans in the 1999 tournament. He had 24 points in an upset victory over No. 2 seed Utah to advance to the Sweet 16.
“Pound for pound the most fun spots were New Orleans early on, so New Orleans was fun," Lewis said. "We started out going out to mostly cold spots like South Bend, Milwaukee and Dayton, and as we got older and had a couple of extra quarters in our pocket, we started to migrate to New Orleans, places like that.”
Corstange recalled the trip to Nashville in 2003, a year his group watched defending national champion Maryland escape with a narrow 75-73 victory over UNC Wilmington despite a 26-point performance (8-for-8 3s) by freshman guard John Goldsberry, who had averaged less than five points.
Corstange and several others had to miss the second-round Sunday games to make their flights as the games were pushed back to accommodate television coverage of the Iraq War.
While Lewis never had the chance to see Michigan or Michigan State play in the NCAA Tournament, he's watched blue bloods like Kentucky and Duke on multiple occasions.
Corstange recalls watching Western Michigan play Vanderbilt in the tournament at Orlando in 2004, holding a 34-31 halftime lead behind Mike Williams’ strong play before eventually falling, 71-58.
And if missing the NCAA Tournament wasn’t enough, Lewis, Corstange and the rest of the group were also cheated by not getting the chance to vote on where they were going to meet up next year. First-round sites include Providence, R.I.; Boise, Idaho, Dallas, Wichita, Kan., Lexington, Ky., Raleigh, N.C., San Jose, Calif., and Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena.
“We decided while we were at the games, all present, we’d talk about it and take a vote," Lewis said. "Now we’ll have to do it by remote.”