Vermont-Syracuse and Jensen's memories remind us how much we miss sports
It was 15 years ago Wednesday. The indelible madness of March. A reminder of how much we miss sports already. A reminder of how they lift us and carry us, especially all the Davids whose slingshots leave us renewed, regenerated and, well, breathless.
It was 15 years ago Wednesday in whimsical Worcester when a bunch of basketball players from Vermont became the most treasured men in the state this side of Ben or Jerry. The 15th-seeded Catamounts took down No. 2 Syracuse at what sounded like a UVM annex inside the delirious DCU Center.
In the middle of it all stood the Stonington Whiz Kid, Alex Jensen, a Vermont player. In the middle of it all stood Vermont's departing coach, the Burlington Quote Factory, otherwise known as the great Tom Brennan. And they piled on each other underneath the scoreboard that read Vermont 60, Syracuse 57.
"Wow," Jensen was saying Wednesday, recalling the night he'll never forget. "I remember the celebration the most. As the underdog, you start to make a run and the whole place roots for you. We got our place (Patrick Gymnasium) pretty loud at times. But that was 4,000 people. This was like 13,000. Crazy."
Jensen was speaking from his office in Charlotte, N.C. He works for Bank of America now. He's a husband and a dad. You might have even detected a hint of a southern twang in his delivery.
"People down here still can tell I'm from the north, or so they say," Jensen said. "But I do hear myself saying 'y'all' every now and then."
Every year at this time — March Madness or not in 2020 — the texts and e-mails start flowing again from the boys once awash in pixie dust at midcourt. They find themselves back in Worcester, the night they became bigger in Vermont than Okemo.
After that game, Jensen said, "Unbelievable. A kid from Stonington out on the court against the Big East champion, beating them in the NCAA Tournament. It's what you dream about. And it just happened."
Syracuse had just come off a four-day run at Madison Square Garden, improbably winning the Big East Tournament. They probably didn't know much about Vermont, not with the echoes of Gerry McNamara's marksmanship still ringing from the big, bad city.
They probably didn't know Jensen, the kid with a jump shot from Stonington. Or Germain Mopa Njila from Cameroon and Martin Klimes from Prague and David Hehn from Ontario. Or Taylor Coppenrath of West Barnet, Vt., a town with a 150-year-old general store and no stoplights. It is, as Brennan says, "a ma and pa school. And it turns out I'm pa."
As Brennan once said of a game in cozy-but-rowdy Patrick Gym: "Some nights I look up and go, "hell, I know everyone in here!"
And did they travel to Worcester, too. So much for the standard sea of orange for a Syracuse game. Lots of green and gold, reminiscent of a game earlier in the year when 1,200 Vermonters traveled to a game at Binghamton. It prompted Brennan to say, "we travel like Nebraska football."
Brennan was the star of the news conferences that weekend. Sort of like when George Carlin meets George Karl. His impending retirement from coaching that season was as if your favorite uncle was moving away: The man who entertained you beyond imagination, the man who taught you about, you know, things.
It was a one-point game late against Syracuse when a saucy guard from Pawtucket, R.I. named T.J. Sorrentine made a 25-footer with roughly a minute left. Brennan flailed his arms and beamed, even though there was plenty of game left.
"Coach was saying 'run red, run red' and I said, 'no, relax,'" Sorrentine said after that game. "I knew I had one more in me and I knew it was going down."
Sorrentine and Jensen have become the best of friends.
"We were in each other's weddings," Jensen said. "He's coaching at Brown now. Every year, I try to get back one of his games. Germain lives in Atlanta. We all have kids now. We were all there last year when they named the court after coach Brennan."
Fifteen years. Turns out this anniversary is as timely as the night history was made. A happy reminder of how much we're going to embrace sports when they return.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro