It was March 2, 2004 and the alongside the rest of my Michigan State brethren, I was in the sixth row behind the north goal of the Jack Breslin Student Events Center in East Lansing, Mich. Our beloved Spartans were hosting Devin Harris, Bo Ryan and the hated Wisconsin Badgers. A win would clinch a regular-season Big Ten title for the Spartans.
We were excited. We were going to rush the floor after the game and celebrate as an unified student body. How sweet it would be to clinch against the team we disliked the most at the time.
My best friend Noel spotted it first. There, high above our heads in the rafters was a rolled up banner. It was alongside national championship banners and the numbers of Magic Johnson and Scott Skiles.
And it was the worst thing we'd ever seen.
"We're going to lose," Noel said.
About 150 minutes later when the normally automatic Chris Hill was missing free throws and Harris was making impossible shots to force overtime and eventually win, it was done.
Wisconsin 68, MSU 64. No title. The banner was an embarassing, tangible example of counting chickens before they hatched.
We sat with our heads in our hands for about an hour after the game as the post-game press conference played on the jumbotron. Ryan claimed he never saw the banner.
'Yeah, right,' we thought.
I would not consider myself a "fan." I try to enjoy sports for what they are, try to enjoy the game and hope something compelling interesting happens. But, Michigan State basketball is different. I find myself cheering out loud and getting caught up in the action. It's the one time I want the guys in green to destroy whoever the other guys are and disagree with any call that goes against them.
It reminds me how fun it is to be a partisan viewer, how unique and exhilarating a fan's passion can be. So, I'll admit that today was a big day.
With a 74-66 victory over Illinois, Michigan State clinched at least a share of the regular-season Big Ten title. It's a big deal because the so-called elite program hadn't won one since 2001. It's a long time to wait when preseason predictions always place you in contention and then potential and opportunities are wasted.
But, perhaps more importantly is the fact that it takes away a little of the bitterness of that Wisconsin game. All of us who were there are now out of school, spread across the nation doing our own things. It seems sometimes that MSU basketball is the only thing binding us together. Again, a welcome reminder of the power sports can have.
So, it felt unbelievably good to get a text from Noel the moment the buzzer sounded.
"Champs!" it said.
I didn't have to mention the Wisconsin game. He remembers it as well as I do. And although nothing can erase that night, today's win goes a long way.
We finally had a banner day. Just five years too late.