Though its culmination is still a few days away, I can already say that the 2012 iteration of the NCAA Division I Mens Basketball Tournament is the most memorable in my years of watching the Madness that comes with March. This year's tournament hasn't had quite the same level of exciting moments and cinderella stories as many of those in the distant or recent past, but I personally have never had such an immediate connection to college basketball's championship tournament or the kind of of vivid experiences and encounters with the action that will no doubt make this year's Big Dance stick in my memory like no other before it. For me, this year's road to the Final Four was indeed the one less traveled by.

Before the tournament field was even decided upon, I had already been given a glimpse into what was to come, starting with a trip to New Orleans and the hoopla surrounding this year's SEC conference tournament. I hitched a free ride with two friends to the Crescent City, where we met up with another pal and set down temporary residence in a quaint apartment in the city's Marigny district. It provided a home base from which we experienced the tournament's exciting and surprisingly Blue atmosphere. Two of the three friends I spent my weekend in New Orleans with are dyed-in-the-wool Kentucky fans, and they made the pilgrimage to Nola without tickets for any of the games, but just to be present in the city where their team was making its run through the conference tournament. They were not alone.

If this picture doesn't do justice to the number of Kentucky fans that infiltrated the city for the weekend, let me try to add to the 1,000 words that the photo hopefully imparts. As depicted, Bourbon Street was filled to the gills with the Kentucky faithful for the entire weekend. I was absolutely floored by the sheer number of fans that came down to watch and support their team. One reason being is that the trip from Kentucky to New Orleans is not exactly a short one (I believe we made our trip in just over ten hours by car, and that was with an extra hour shaved off of our time thanks to a shift in time zones). The other is that the UK fans were there for a conference tournament. With Kentucky already in control of a number one seed in the national tournament, it amazed me that so many fans turned out just to cheer their team on during their conference's tourney. Also, as a die-hard Ohio State fan, I thought my team traveled well. No affront to any of my fellow Buckeye faithful, but Wildcat fans can do more than give us a run for our money when it comes to traveling in support of their school. They flooded that city (ouch, still too soon?) and made me think that some sort of famine had induced a Lexington diaspora to New Orleans, which is still reeling from a storm-induced exodus of its own.

To add to the excitement that was clearly evident among my comrades and the rest of the Kentucky fans that were crawling all over the city, the French Quarter bar we selected to view the Wildcats' first game at was filled with Kentucky fans of a truly select breed: the extended family of the team's star center Anthony Davis. Grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt, twin sister--just about everyone except the dynamic freshman's mother and father, who were attending the game at the New Orleans Arena--were right there alongside of us, cheering on their relative with the ungodly wingspan and the rest of his talented teammates towards a conference championship. My Kentucky-fan friends were over the moon, and I was similarly excited to be around the Davis clan, who were warm and energetic throughout the game (and the following day's game as well). They came from Davis' hometown of Chicago and also Mobile, Alabama, where some of them have put down stakes, and called their shot-swatting kinsman "Fat Man", a nickname he apparently earned as a particularly hefty infant.

It was amazing to see the games through their eyes (which were not, before you ask, framed by unibrows) and be surrounded by Kentucky fans that were both long-time supporters and genealogically invested in the outcome of the games. In the end, Kentucky came up short in the conference championship game to Vanderbilt, but that did little to detract from what for me was a memorable (though somewhat hazy) weekend in New Orleans. I was allowed a second trip to a city that I am truly falling more and more in love with the more I get to experience it, and a unique window into a side of basketball fandom that I hadn't really appreciated up until this point. But my four days in New Orleans were only a warm-up to my tournament experience, which truly got going a few days later back home in Louisville.

That's because unlike the New Orleans trip, a friend and I had already secured tickets to the games being played at the KFC Yum! Center on both Thursday and Saturday. That gave us four games from the round of 64 on Thursday and two more in the second round for Saturday. I was in high spirits on my bus ride downtown to see the games, and was happier still when I got to my seat, which though high up in the unusually cool air of the Yum! Center, was still a fantastic viewpoint to see the games. And to be perfectly honest, like some of the bigger stars I've seen at large arenas in the world of music, I was thrilled just to be there, no matter how good the action on the court ended up being. Well, it ended up being great and the whole day, while exhausting to a certain degree (especially considering the lack of alcoholic libations available for sale), was sublime. I spent the day surrounded by the tournament atmosphere, which was again dominated by fans of the Kentucky Wildcats.

All of the teams represented showed up, but as in the case of New Orleans, none of them showed up like the UK faithful. They poured into the arena's lobby chanting and shouting and didn't stop when they reached their seats, as their boys in blue promptly mowed over instate competition Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers seemed for a brief window of time in the first half to have a chance at staying even with the best college basketball team in the country, but that soon gave way to a dominating performance from Terrence Jones and more Wildcat alley-oops than a week's worth of LA Clippers games. I was again astonished at the vivacity of the Kentucky crowd, which cheered their team's dismantling of a No. 16 seed like it was a game against their real instate rival and the host for the action, the Louisville Cardinals. Which brings us to why this year's version of March Madness just got borderline psychotic...

I told my friend Catherine, who I attended the games with, that as a UK fan she had to have seen the lower portion of the Wildcats' bracket, which if everything shook out right could mean a meeting with Louisville in the Final Four. Our discussion was more along the lines of "how about that", "wouldn't that be something", and "this city would go apeshit". Well how about the fact that it actually is something, and this city is going apeshit. It is not only the unlikely run that Louisville has made through the tournament so far that makes the Final Four match-up between the two teams fascinating, but clearly their storied rivalry, their coaches' not-so-under-the-radar feelings of animus toward one another, and the rabidity of each school's respective fan-bases. Jim Rome, a national sports radio host, television personality, and in this writer's mind the best interviewer in his field tweeted shortly after the match-up became a reality on Sunday:

"Kentucky fan and Louisville fan together on Bourbon St.?! Think that's very combustible? Head on a swivel."

JR was referring to the fact that like the SEC tourney, the Final Four will take place this weekend in New Orleans, but I have to say that I don't think even Bourbon Street will compare to what this city is going to be like come Saturday evening. Here in Louisville we definitely have our fair share of parties, with the Kentucky Derby being the shining example of the kind of debauchery the River City is capable of, but I don't think that any Derby weekend is going to be able to compare with what's coming when the Cards and Cats meet up with a chance to play in the championship game. I'm not alone in this opinion, and if you've been around any sort of public sphere here in Louisville since the match-up solidified last weekend, you know that I'm right. "The Game" is a topic of conversation everywhere from sports bars to coffee shops to supermarkets, and I'm as giddy as a school kid that I get to be here for what has to be one of the most contentious Final Four match-ups in the history of the NCAA tournament.

I always come back to a Rick Pitino quote that I'm not sure I read or heard during a radio interview when I think of the UK/U of L rivalry. I'm paraphrasing, but the basic idea coach imparted was that while he was with Kentucky, there wasn't a Louisville fan to be found in Lexington, but when he took the job at U of L, he realized that Louisville is split nearly 50/50 when it comes to fans of the Cards and Cats. That makes for an electric environment here in Louisville every time the two teams meet, but it has nothing on the atomic level of energy that is going to be pouring out of every nook and cranny of this town come Saturday afternoon.

Jesus, I'm getting so wrapped up in Blue and Red that I almost forgot that my team is playing in the Final Four's other game against the Kansas Jayhawks. How about I say good luck to both of the Kentucky teams involved in this Saturday's action, and hope that they get to play my Buckeyes on Monday night in Nola. I'm not really invested in the outcome of the instate battle that's about to go down in the Big Easy, but certainly can't wait to watch it all unfold and see how many of the buildings near the U of L campus remain standing if the Cards are able to gut out a victory. As Romey tweeted, keep your head on a swivel if you're on Bourbon St., and do the same if you happen to be shakily making your way down 3rd Street here in the Ville on Saturday.



Since its earliest days, baseball has been a sport where the credo is “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Now while this used to be a good-natured game of let’s see what I can get away with on the field, where pitchers tried to do whatever they could to the ball to make it dive away from a bat and hitters themselves had their own unique ploys for reaching base that may have escaped the watchful eye of the umpire, all of that changed with the steroid era. As pitchers and hitters alike tried to gain a competitive edge through the use of performance enhancing drugs, the record books were forever tainted by numbers that were not only ill-gotten, but downright impossible without the help of everything from anabolic steroids to human growth hormone to synthetic testosterone. Baseball has finally tried to clean up its act over the last few years, and some of its most prominent stars will forever be linked to the use of PEDs. This includes its all-time home run king, Barry Bonds, one of its greatest pitchers, Roger Clemens, and a host of other stars including Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Raphael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez, just to name a few.

With the findings of the Mitchell Report and baseball’s new steroid testing apparatus, the game has finally made an earnest, though not nearly earnest enough, attempt to track down PED abusers. Long suspensions await anyone who is caught using PEDs and random drug screenings have become a part of every player’s life, whether it is during the season or in their months each year away from the game. For me, baseball’s steroid era has been tough. That’s because it incriminated so many of the stars that I watched as a young man and because it means that no matter what, the guys that I grew up watching in amazement will never be given the same level of adulation and praise that players from the past receive. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson et al. will always be lionized in ways that modern players will never see and it pains me that many of the players of what I consider my generation that actually were clean (Ken Griffey Jr. being the prime example) will always be lumped in with the guys who cheated. For every Junior Griffey, there are tens if not twenties if not hundreds of Jose Cansecoes, and because of that fact, I am unabashedly disappointed. 

It is why I think that long suspensions and random testing are necessary for baseball’s future, and why no matter who they might catch in the act of cheating, the public must know about it, plain and simple. It is with this notion in mind that I have been poring over the details swirling around the positive drug test of reigning National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun. Braun is a lean, athletic slugger for the Milwaukee Brewers, who doesn’t seem to have the physique or the personality to be involved with performance enhancers. However, a few months back, after he narrowly beat out the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp for the MVP award, ESPN reported that Braun’s urine was found to contain absurdly high levels of synthetic testosterone after a sample was collected from him following a playoff game on October 1. Under baseball’s drug-testing policy, that means a 50-game suspension. When the results of Braun’s urine analysis were leaked to ESPN (see what I did there?), he had just been given his league’s MVP award and as a result gave the sport as a whole a black eye that it doesn’t need now or ever again. It’s the kind of revelation that makes me sick to my stomach, but it’s got nothing on what happened next...

Immediately after Braun tested positive and the suspension was levied, rumors started to swirl about what was really going on. There was talk that there was a logical, albeit embarrassing reason that Braun's urine contained such high levels of testosterone and he appealed the suspension with the help of baseball’s players’ association. For many fans, especially those that call Milwaukee home, Braun was given the benefit of the doubt. This is America after all, right? You’re innocent until proven guilty in the good ol’ U.S. of A, right?

Wrong. Braun wasn’t found guilty in a court of law, he was drug-tested by his employer and he failed that test. He was suspended from work under their drug policy and while he is allowed an appeal, for other fans, myself included, whether or not he won that appeal was not going to change a goddamn thing. No player in any major sport has ever won an appeal when it comes to a positive drug test and for me, even if Braun were able to somehow prove mitigating circumstances were behind it all, it wouldn’t matter. He tested positive, plain and simple. Any subsequent tests or the profession of his innocence or support from former or current players in any sport wasn’t going to change my mind. Braun is a PED user as far as I’m concerned. He’s on my list of cheaters, and there is no getting off of that list, no matter what some arbitration panel decides months after the fact.

Well as it turns out, Braun did win his appeal last week. Because the urine sample that he gave wasn’t shipped directly to the testing laboratory but instead sat in a collector’s home for two days, he was exonerated via arbitration by a 2-1 vote. His suspension was lifted, and he claimed that the truth won out. Well I ain’t buying it, not for one second. The lifting of his suspension was carried out due to a technicality that means nothing to me, and should have meant nothing to the panel that decided to uphold his appeal. Just because that little cup of urine sat in some guy’s house instead of a FedEx facility for two days doesn’t mean that the test wasn’t accurate, positive, and proved that Braun is a cheater. I’m not sure how exactly he thinks that he really won here, because I will never look at his ability on the field or his numbers the same way, and I know I’m not alone. Yeah, you get to play those 50 games that the league tried to take away from you Ryan, but you’ll play them and the rest of the games in your career under a cloud of suspicion and with a trepidation attached to your achievements that you will never, ever escape.

The craziest part of Braun’s reversal of fortune for me is that he never said that the test was inaccurate or tampered with. All he and his lawyers argued is that the collector who took his sample passed two FedEx facilities, both of which were closed for business on the Saturday night in question, and took Braun’s sample home with him. The only difference in outcome that occurred because Braun’s sample didn’t get dropped off at a FedEx office was that instead of sitting in a box on a loading dock until Monday morning, it sat in some guy’s basement. This did nothing concerning the sample’s viability and amounts to the sort of technicality that makes prosecuting attorneys toss and turn for months on end in criminal court. But again, this isn’t a court of law we’re talking about. We’re talking about a company’s drug-testing policy, and when it comes to that, the collector acted in accordance with the letter of the rules. So not only did the collector act properly and his actions have nothing to do with the high level of testosterone found in Braun’s urine, but Braun never questioned the validity of the test in the first place. He was granted his athletic freedom on a technicality that I’m still not convinced was valid, but it was a technicality nonetheless. 

What that means for me, as I said before, is that Ryan Braun is a cheater. Not only that, but he is a cheater who gamed the system and will face no punishment after he obviously broke the rules and had something pumping through his veins other than tobacco juice and Wheaties when he put up the numbers that led the Brewers to a playoff birth and himself to an MVP award. There are players who have tested positive and admitted to their crimes, like Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez, those who are clearly guilty and maintain their innocence like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (don’t get me started on the Rocket), and now a new category of cheaters like Ryan Braun, who are guilty but get off on a technicality that maintains their eligibility to play. In that three-tier cheaters’ gallery, I’m not sure who I like least. Clemens has been so adamant in his innocence in the face of guilt that he was called before a grand jury for lying to congress, but I might actually have to give his hard-headed and asinine insistence more respect than that of Braun, who basically said, “yep, I tested positive, but I’m going to play anyways.” The fact that he has the gall to say that the truth set him free is a whole ‘nother level of “you gotta be kidding me” and I am simply appalled that folks in the media and fellow athletes have stood by this guy considering the facts and innuendo that continue to slowly leak out of this story.

The Braun saga reached nauseating levels last Friday, when after his suspension was lifted, he held a press conference at the Brewers' spring training facility. Framed in sunlight and showing off his all-American good looks, Braun shakily started to explain himself at first, then with growing confidence, proceeded to blame others for his plight and maintain a blustery confidence in his innocence. I have had metaphorical and literal fingers wagged in my face (ahem, Raphael Palmeiro) as a television viewer by players in similar situations, who I not only didn’t believe, but were later found to be guilty of using PEDs. Braun levied attacks at the collector of his sample, Dino Lauenzi Jr., and said "I honestly don't know what happened to it [his sample] for that 44-hour period. There are a lot of different things that could have possibly happened. There are a lot of things that we heard about the collection process, the collector and some other people involved in the process that have been concerning to us. But as I've dealt with the situation, I know what it's like to be wrongly accused of something, so for me to wrongly accuse somebody wouldn't help."

Well how about you wrongly accusing the collector of mishandling your sample, and accusing Major League Baseball of not doing their due diligence during the process of its testing? Sounds to me like the pot is calling the kettle a dark, ebon shade of black here, but Mr. Braun was not finished. He continued, "This is my livelihood. This is my integrity. This is my character. This is everything I have ever worked for in my life being called into question. We need to make sure we get it right. If you're going to be in a position where you're 100 percent guilty until innocent, you can't mess up." Well guess what Ryan? The collector didn’t make you have three times the normal level of testosterone in your urine, and he certainly didn’t make it the synthetic variety. While Braun was well spoken and seemed to aver his innocence with aplomb, I don’t buy it for one second. As the Associated Press reported during the follow-up to Braun’s statements, Major League Baseball isn’t buying it either. MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred told the AP, "Our program is not 'fatally flawed’. Changes will be made promptly to clarify the instructions provided to collectors regarding when samples should be delivered to FedEx based on the arbitrator's decision. Neither Mr. Braun nor the MLBPA contended in the grievance that his sample had been tampered with or produced any evidence of tampering."

And that last sentence of Mr. Manfred’s quote is really what all of this is about at the end of the day. Braun is not contending that the sample was tampered with, and if you read collector Dino Laurenzi Jr.’s statement in response to the attacks that Braun threw at him, there is no reason to believe that is the case anyway. Laurenzi did exactly what he was supposed to do, and along with Major League Baseball, is now being vilified by Braun and his attorneys for doing everything that they were supposed to do. For all of the theatricality of Braun’s statement to the press and his maintenance of his innocence, the question that still remains (and the one that should be put to Braun post haste) is this: “Why was synthetic testosterone found in your urine?” That’s all that this huge media blowout and constant game of back and forth between Braun, the League, and Laurenzi Jr. boils down to. If you’re so sure that the truth has set you free Ryan, why was this substance in your body? Until that question is answered by Braun, I will never look on him as anything but yet another in the long line of cheaters that professional sports continues to add to. The problem is, Braun knows the answer to that question, we know the answer to that question, and baseball knows the answer to that question. I just want to hear it from Braun, plain and simple.