Sweet 16: Braves’ NCAA run
Red with envy
The March sun shining down on the San Francisco Bay Area was a warming sight for a caravan of more than 300 die-hard Bradley basketball fans, as two charter jets touched down at Oakland International Airport. At the pre-game party/pep rally, I met many alums eager to share their excitement about Bradley basketball. Jim Frey ’50 (lower left photo) of Felton, California, proudly proclaimed, “I’m wearing my Bradley sweatshirt that my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas 40 years ago. I haven’t done something like this with the Braves for years.”
Bradley Braves cheerleaders Andrea Willis ’07 and Natalie LaFranzo ’07 enjoy the pre-game party/pep rally with Jim Frey ’50 in Oakland before the Memphis game.
During the fanfare at Francesco’s restaurant, fans lined the street across from the team’s hotel in support of the Braves as they were escorted to the “Big Dance.” As several busloads of fans headed to the arena, Cal Coolidge ’74 of Alexandria, Virginia, said, “We’ve been watching the games in D.C. The network cut off the Kansas game with six seconds left. No score was announced for 41 minutes. Now, we’re here so that won’t happen again.” We were all there to see for ourselves Bradley’s Sweet 16 showdown against the top-seeded Memphis Tigers, winners of Conference USA’s regular season and conference titles, and owners of a 32-3 record. We were in Oakland to add another chapter to Bradley basketball history.
What a thrill it was to press through the crowd of fellow basketball fanatics in the corridors of the massive Oakland Arena. Standing amid shades of UCLA powder blue and the deep blues of Gonzaga and Memphis were exuberant fans decked in bright red T-shirts boldly emblazoned with “BRADLEY SWEET 16.” Former Bradley women’s basketball forward Courtney Spillers ’98 (pictured, top right, with David Printz ‘05) said being at the Sweet 16 reminded her of playing under Coach Donna Freitag. “I’m watching these games with a different perspective. My sophomore year we played in the NCAA. It was unbelievable. Today, here in Oakland, just the atmosphere and what it’s done for the program are unbelievable. I feel like I’m reliving the excitement of my own basketball days at BU. It’s the same feeling: it’s game day, and I’m at the game.”
Kevin Terwiliger ’81 of Concord, California, had just said goodbye to his son Josh Terwiliger ‘09 when he returned to campus after spring break. It was a short stay for Josh. When the Braves headed to Oakland, Josh’s parents flew him home to cheer on his team. Josh listened as his dad reminisced. “When I was a student, we watched the games at the Field House. I had Joe Stowell ’50 MA ’56 for my bowling and racquetball classes. I loved to say ‘Coach Stowell was my coach, too.’ I’m glad admissions sold Josh on the home feel of Bradley versus our California universities.”
Before the Memphis game, many UCLA fans, who had a considerably shorter trip from their Westwood campus, wished us luck. Tim Bender ’82 and his family (pictured at right bottom) of San Diego, enjoyed the support of their West Coast friends. “My wife, my kids, and my UCLA and Stanford friends are here cheering for the Braves. My oldest son missed pitching his baseball game to come with me. The Bradley coaches and the players are classy and have kept things in good perspective. Now people other than the old-timers have heard of Bradley. It’s a rally point for the University to celebrate and build spirit.”
The “red sea” section of 1,300 Bradley fans, who elected to stand from the opening tip to the final buzzer, spoke volumes not only to the Memphis fans but also to everyone else in the arena: we STAND for our Braves.
After the Braves bowed out to the Tigers, 80-64, in a hard-fought battle, fans smiled sympathetically and wished us a safe trip home. The fans of the Cinderella team enjoyed much unsolicited attention from not only the media, but from hundreds of basketball fans in attendance. Paul Remack ’71 of Alamo, California, summed it up: “The coverage on the West Coast has been amazingly tilted toward Bradley. Cinderella got all the press.”
Looking back, the Sweet 16 experience was larger than life. The robust chants of Bradley’s enthusiastic cheerleading squad mixed with the sounds of the band kicking into high gear, greeted our #13-seeded team as it ran out on the arena floor to face Memphis. Loyal fans cheered with all their hearts until many had merely a whisper of a voice left at the final horn. But the bold words etched in white on an expansive blue banner stretched across the front of the scorers’ table aptly described the magnitude of the NCAA experience: Bradley, Gonzaga, UCLA, Memphis.
Seeing our name alongside the NCAA logo and these perennial college basketball elites: priceless. Programs such as UCLA and Memphis are expected to be in a position to capture college basketball’s crown, and now you can add Bradley, a university that can make even the fans of the most storied programs “red” with envy.