Late on the night of March 19, 2005, a white Grand Am slipped silently from beneath the bright streetlights of Cleveland and into the empty darkness of the Ohio countryside. A white plastic pole rose from the passenger-side window of the car carrying a blue plastic flag emblazoned with a gold “Flying WV” – the logo of West Virginia University. The flag was being blown with such force that it wasn’t so much waving as it was standing up. As the car sped further away from the city lights it became more and more difficult for passersby to see the flag, but it was flying all the same.
When I was nine years old I developed the ambition of eventually playing on the USA Olympic basketball team. These were the heady, halcyon days of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and “The Dream Team”. Aiming for these heights was a common fantasy among boys my age, though it was more common among those more physically coordinated than I was at the time. A polite assessment of my potential would be that I had my work cut out for me.
Because ambition is difficult for a nine year old to differentiate from dreaming, I found myself working on my dribbling skills in front of my grandparent’s house on a particularly hot day that summer. I would start by dribbling the ball at a normal height before slowly lowering the dribble until there was not much room between my hand and the pavement. My first few attempts ended with the ball rather lamely rolling away from me but after a while I started to get the hang of the maneuver. By the time my grandfather pulled up to his house in his signature Jeep I could lower the ball and bring it back up again in a movement that surely looked more awkward than I realized. Within the Madison Square Garden of my young mind, my basketball skills had reached their pinnacle. I was eager to strut my stuff.
“Hey, Grandpa!” I shouted with enthusiasm, “Look what I can do!”
He stopped on the sidewalk in front of his house and I unleashed my talent in front of the unsuspecting but captive audience he had granted me. I’m certain this was more impressive in my head than it was to his eye but he still acknowledged the effort in a way that felt a lot like winning a gold medal.
“Lookin’ good – like Larry Bird! Keep it up!” he shouted back to me as he disappeared into the front door of his house. It was a rare moment of candid enthusiasm from a man who wasn’t typically quick to hand out undeserved encouragement or recognition.
This refusal to wear his emotions on his sleeve was a byproduct of my grandfather having been a military man. The traits that such a statement invoke are the same ones that defined him throughout his life. At some stage his friends began to call him “Humble” Howard and the name stuck as fast and true as this disciplined demeanor. I didn’t really understand the meaning of the word “humble” when I was younger but I always thought the fact that he had any nickname at all was the coolest.
During my childhood Humble Howard was a part-owner of a humble sports bar in equally humble Parkersburg, West Virginia. Most of my interactions with him took place inside the confines of this bar, the walls of which were covered in television screens. After a while, I began to see the same thing on these screens that my grandfather and the assembled faithful were seeing: West Virginia University football and basketball.
Everybody in my family who is willing to pay attention to sports is faithful to the West Virginia Mountaineers. As is typically the case among those who suffer from this particular affliction, football is the favorite while basketball is the eternal but always-close second great love. My grandfather was no different in his preferences. Forced to choose between football or basketball he would ultimately choose football but he would take a lot longer to decide than anybody else I’ve ever known. The two were basically equals upon the very high pedestal on which he placed WVU sports.
This made him different than any other WVU fan I knew while growing up. Where others spoke about basketball as a fun little diversion to pass the time until spring football began, Humble Howard took it seriously. There is only one personal account of the 1959 NCAA Final that has been shared with me by somebody who was alive for the game and it came from my grandfather. He and his brother, Clarence, were building a shed that day and listened to the game on the radio. He told me that the Mountaineers made the mistake of letting California control the tempo of the game. This account of the high-water mark of our basketball program has always been the gospel to me.
Humble Howard was a man of few words but basketball was a language that he and I both spoke fluently, willingly and with enthusiasm. It was one of very few such topics and I clung to it as if I were the only one that understood his love of the game.
I found myself studying at WVU more than a decade after Humble Howard dubbed me the next Larry Bird. My own basketball dreams having gone unrealized, I found myself living vicariously – as I always had – through the Mountaineers. After all, now I was the same age as my “old gold” and blue idols.
Spring break of my Junior year brought a berth in the NCAA tournament. This was exciting in itself but the blessing of the selection committee had us playing our first games in Cleveland, just a three-hour shot up I-77 from my parent’s house in Williamstown, West Virginia. My mother and sister were spending the week at Disney World, so I was enjoying something of a bachelor’s week with my father. We watched WVU drop the championship game of the 2005 Big East Tournament to Syracuse but we both had high hopes for “the” tournament and, thanks to the maneuvering of my good friend, Rich, I had tickets to see it all unfold.
March 17, 2005 found me climbing into my white Grand Am and driving north toward Cleveland. I completed my bracket in the car before walking toward the arena and my excitement about being a part of “March Madness” grew as I inked in each confident pick. WVU slotted into the tournament as the region’s seven-seed and our first game was against the ten-seed, Creighton. I was feeling good about a victory that would see us face Wake Forest – the region’s two-seed – in round two.
Rich and I settled into our seats among the highest altitude of the relatively small Convocation Center, but there were no bad seats to be found and the atmosphere within the gym was electric. Ten years later I remember almost nothing about the ensuing game except for the very end. Tied at 61, Tyrone Sally slammed home what looked to be the game winner until – in the blink of an eye – Creighton was on the other end of the court lofting a three-point attempt for the win.
There are few things more terrifying to a sports fan than moments of absolute uncertainty. As a Mountaineer fan I have seen many of these toss-a-coin moments go against us and on this particular night I was preparing myself for the very worst. The ball was in the air and the siren had sounded. Gravity would now decide the winner of the game: if the ball goes in, our tournament run would be over before it even began. If the ball misses, we live to fight another round.
An entire gym held their breath and watched the ball ricochet off the back of the rim.
West Virginia 63, Creighton 61.
Rich and I high-fived and hugged. Mountaineers around the gym and the nation toasted cocktails made of one part jubilation and two parts relief.
Three hours down I-77 South, my grandfather was among those celebrating a close but exciting win.
The next morning I found my father in the dining room talking to my grandfather on the phone. When I stepped into the room, he handed me the phone.
“Your grandpa wants to talk to you about the game,” he said quietly.
Because he hadn’t attended the game, I found myself speaking to my grandfather on the most genuine and loving of levels: jealousy. Not the kind of jealousy that bears contempt and resentment but rather the kind that creates an atmosphere of shared excitement and enthusiasm. He was genuinely interested in hearing about my experience from the night before and when we found ourselves comparing notes on the final moments of the game he made a declaration that I’ve never forgotten:
“That’s why I call them ‘The Cardiac Kids’!”
Sleep eluded me that night. I had spent the day watching other tournament games. More than a few favored teams had fallen to the underdog and I allowed myself to be whipped into a hopeful frenzy. We, the seven-seed, would be underdogs the next day against second-seeded Wake Forest but I had seen The Cardiac Kids pull off some crazier things over the years. I was watching in 1998 as Jarrod West sunk the three that lifted tenth-seeded WVU over second-seeded Cincinnati in the second round of that year’s NCAA tournament. As that game started my father told me I was wasting my time by watching it but I did so despite his advice.
Maybe I got that optimism for WVU basketball from my grandfather.
I was standing in the kitchen of my parent’s house the next morning when my dad came in and told me that something had happened with my grandfather and he had to go to their house immediately. He left as quickly as he had come.
There are bonds between family members that can sometimes transcend the physical. My father had said few words but he had communicated much more than his words had been meant to state. Somehow I knew in that moment – an hour before he called me and said the words – that my grandfather had died.
Later in the afternoon I drove the ten miles south to my grandparent’s house in Parkersburg to meet my father. I would soon have to decide whether or not I would drive to Cleveland to see WVU take on Wake Forest. In my heart I knew that my grandfather would want me to go to the game. In the last conversation I ever had with him he had stopped just shy of saying he wished he could be there himself.
Standing by my car, my father confirmed as much. Grandpa would have wanted me to go, he told me, and there was nothing for me to do that afternoon to help. My mother and sister were already mobilizing for an early return from Orlando. By the next day our family would be reunited. Go to the game, my dad said. Grandpa would be watching.
I got in my car and watched my father walk back up the same sidewalk my grandfather had walked thousands of times over the years. When he was halfway back to the house he casually passed the point where Humble Howard once stopped and told me I looked like Larry Bird.
The second drive to Cleveland took on a significantly different character than the one of two days prior. Excitement and anticipation had been replaced with contemplation and mourning. Three hours alone in a car with little scenery to enjoy allows one plenty of time to organize one’s thoughts. By the time I arrived in Cleveland I had sorted out my own: The Cardiac Kids had won the last game my grandfather got to see on Earth. Surely they would win the first one he would watch from that great grandstand in the sky. No other possibility made sense.
Our seats were again high. Banners hung from the rafters to memorialize past Cleveland State victories but we didn’t need to crane our heads up to see them – we needed only to look straight ahead. Only slightly less palpable than those banners but hanging alongside them, still, was an air of uncertainty. Anxiety is a very real side-effect of the malady that is Mountaineer fandom, even under the best of circumstances.
True to the name my grandfather had given them the day before, The Cardiac Kids made us sweat things out. By halftime they had fashioned a 13-point deficit for themselves and things were not looking good. The second half saw us claw back, though, and by the end of regulation the scoreboard showed 71 for each team.
Once, of course, a desperate three-point attempt from Wake Forest fell short of breaking our hearts.
The first overtime ended with a tie at 93.
After, of course, we missed a layup that would have given us the win. It seemed to me that The Cardiac Kids were painting their masterpiece by embracing the moniker Humble Howard had granted them. It was becoming a bit too much.
Until it wasn’t.
The second overtime was an unexpected show of force. Having played catch-up throughout the entire game, The Cardiac Kids finally put their foot on the accelerator and drove away with the game. All excitement and no cardiac strain. I’ve never forgotten the final score:
West Virginia 111, Wake Forest 105.
It’s tempting for sports fans to draw romantic correlations between events that don’t have a realistic connection. The Cardiac Kids didn’t go out there with the knowledge of what their victory that day would mean to me. They weren’t playing for me or Humble Howard any more than they were playing for any other faithful Mountaineer fan. In these instances, though, the cause does little to dilute the effect.
Five years after that night in Cleveland, West Virginia would win their first (and only) Big East Tournament Championship, prompting ESPN columnist Dana O’Neil to write:
It’s only a basketball game, 40 minutes of chucking a ball into a modernized peach basket. It can’t cure what ails you. It can’t erase mistakes and it can’t rewrite the past.
But sometimes, when the stars align and the moment is just right, a basketball game can mean a little bit more.
High within the Convocation Center on the night of March 19, 2005, it certainly meant a little bit more to me.
I eventually made my way to my car and found my WVU car flag in the trunk. I placed it in the passenger-side window and drove my way to I-77 South. I hoped everybody could see the flag and would know what it meant but the streetlights gradually became fewer and fewer as I drew away from the city. Eventually there was no light at all.
I knew that nobody could see the flag anymore but I flew it all the same. Not for myself or for those fellow travelers who could no longer see it.
I flew it only for Humble Howard and The Cardiac Kids.
J. Greg Joachim was born and raised in West Virginia and has baby photos to prove he has been a Mountaineer fan his entire life. He graduated from West Virginia University in 2006 (B.S.) and the University of Technology, Sydney in 2014 (M.B.A.) where he is now an undergraduate tutor in sport management (when not writing). He currently resides in Sydney, NSW, Australia with his fiancée, Claire.
Reach out to him on Twitter: @gregjoachim