WORCESTER — If this season is anything like last season, there will be 16,538 NCAA men's basketball games played between now and April 4, when 28 million people nationwide will watch the championship game on TV.
This is the story of the first game. The Worcester State Lancers were to tip off against their crosstown rivals, the Clark University Cougars, at exactly 12:01 a.m. Thursday — the earliest teams can schedule a game, according to NCAA rules.
Usually a meeting between these Division 3 teams would mean a half-empty arena. Worcester State for the last three years hasn't even had a home court.
But the Kneller Athletic Center is packed with more than 2,000 fans. Clark's fans are decked out in black "Midnight Mayhem" T-shirts. Worcester State bussed in fans in droves. The bleachers are packed.
There is no live TV or Coach K or future NBA stars here, but there are 40 free pizzas, 240 bagels, 10 dozen donuts, 150 munchkins, and gallons of cider, hot chocolate, and coffee.
It may not have the buzz of Sinatra opening the Worcester Centrum in '82, but it is loud, hot, electric, and fun.
"Bring your own guts," is written on the Cougars' locker room board.
Coach Paul Phillips is a one-man band.
"There's no team manager [this semester]," says Phillips, in his 18th season at Clark. "I put out the ball rack, I turn on the lights, I put the hoops down, and I start the clock."
For the opener, he wears a black suit, black shirt, and black tie so he blends in with the sea of black.
"Everyone's busting my ass, all the other coaches, cause I'm 61. They say how are you going to stay awake?" he says, laughing.
He also tells his team to "play their [butts] off for these new fans . . . we've got to give these kids a reason to come back."
Lily Scheindlin, sociology major, had not gone to a game in three years, but she is giving hoops a chance.
"It's really fascinating that sports does something that draws you in here, even though I'm not that interested . . . OK, you see through my ruse. I'm here for the pizza."
Just before tip-off, a line of students slowly walks single file onto the court holding hands. One of them is Clark freshman guard Justin Stewart.
"We are fighting racism," he says, the group showing support for the students and athletes at the University of Missouri.
Soon, hundreds pour out of the bleachers.
Adwoa Anno, an environmental science student from Ghana, wants the floor occupation to continue.
"Stand your ground, do not leave," she yells.
But the students vacate on their own, and the police gently direct the stragglers off the floor.
"I am out here because I am black and I have experienced racism,'' she says. "I know what it feels like and I want the people in Missouri to know we support them and we will stand up for our rights."
The start of the game is delayed nine minutes.
On the Clark bench, co-captain Luke LaLima just wants to play ball.
"Their hearts are in the right place, but this may not be the right time," says LaLima moments before the national anthem starts.
When the performers sing, "land of the free," the crowd, now back in their seats, drowns out "home of the brave" with a chant.
"USA. USA. USA."
Tip-off comes at 12:10.
To the players, it makes no difference what time they play.
"We're used to weird times. We get up at 4:30 a.m. for a 6 a.m. practice," says Clark's Aidan Naravane, a freshman guard.
"Once tip-off happens, it's second nature with the adrenaline flowing. You forget about what time it is," says LaLima.
Worcester State coach Dave Lindberg, in his 21st season, agrees.
"Adults have to deal with the times; they're college kids, they're used to this. They're up anyway."
No matter what time the game ends, nobody gets the next day off, both coaches say.
"I will tell our guys, 'Look, I know you're dragging but you've got to go to class,' " says Phillips. "We're not Division 1 or on the road with tutors. I think it sends a strong message as student-athletes."
The game is high energy.
Cougars guard Tyler Huffman scores 29 points, and despite making just 20 of 40 free throws, Clark defeats Worcester State, 83-78.
At one point late in the fourth quarter, Huffman couldn't hear his coach and drove to the basket when Phillips was screaming to kill some clock.
When Huffman returned to the bench, he got yelled at because of "the miscommunication."
"I took it to the rack and got a layup," says Huffman. "It was loud, very loud, the loudest I've every heard at Clark, it was crazy."
The game ends at 2:16 a.m.
Phillips says his raspy voice is permanent and that the adrenaline was flowing. He's wide awake.
"It was like playing at Duke, they can't hear. At Cameron Stadium you can't hear what the coaches are yelling. I think I lost 10 pounds," he says. "Twenty years from now they'll remember the midnight game."
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.