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I’ve mentioned in a past blog that University of Michigan’s head coach, John Beilein, is my mom’s youngest brother.
Which means… Uncle John is headed to the Final Four. The Final Friggin’ Four.
But let's go back a bit: 11 years ago, my family gathered in St. Augustine for my sister Anna’s wedding. I had just moved to Charleston at the time, down from New York City. Somehow during that wedding weekend, a narrative circulated that went something like this: when you’re down and out, and you need to pick yourself up and dust yourself off, just go visit Charleston. It became something of a joke, an answer to everything. A cousin who had had some minor health problems? “Send her to Charleston with Ellen... She’ll be fine.” A cousin who's down and out? “Send him to Charleston. He'll be good as new.”
I don’t know how it started, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that that’s what I was doing back then. Tucked into a condo at Folly Beach, writing and keeping to myself… dusting myself off.
That weekend, a bunch of us were sitting by the pool. It was mostly mom and her brothers and sisters sitting along the side with their feet in the water—my uncle John included. He had just left his head coaching position at University of Richmond for West Virginia. As I remember it, he had his work cut out for him in all respects… The players, the program. It was a hell of a move, an uphill climb in every way.
The conversation drifted in and out of basketball, as it always does with Beileins, and the sisters offered their optimistic words at the challenge he had ahead of him. And then I remember seeing Uncle John smirk, and lift his head to the sun and say, “Ellen… make room for me in Charleston. I may need it in a year or so.”
We got a huge laugh out of that. Mostly because we all knew he would need no such thing. And he didn’t. Five years later, he’d logged trips to the NCAA Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, plus an NIT championship. Then he moved to the Big Ten and Michigan, where he's in his sixth season.
Which brings us up to date. And how we have a hell of a weekend ahead of us. One. Hell. Of. A. Weekend.
Because John Beilein is the second youngest of nine siblings, and these nine brothers and sisters produced 44 children, you might say the hard-core fan base stretches far and wide. We’re all over the place, from Dubai to Hawaii, and tucked into little tribal pockets all over the country—St. Louis, Wilmington, San Diego, D.C., plus a ton of small towns in Florida, Ohio, Montana, and of course, the little corner of upstate New York’s apple country, right on Lake Ontario, where the Beilein Nine (as we call them) grew up.
The result as it pertains to basketball? Hours-long cousin carpools to regular and post-season games. Shot orders in the double digits at pubs after big wins. We’ve got the die-hards who make it to near every tip-off, and we've got moms bouncing their babies to sleep in front of the tv, cheering quietly when Burke or McGary or Stauskas sink a game-changer. We’ve got a few who have to walk away as the seconds tick down and it’s not looking so good, the same way kids hide behind the door when the “scary part” of a movie starts, and we’ve got our media watchdogs who can sniff out a Beilein article online and blast it out to the rest of us seemingly before the writer even hits publish—currently, there's one circulating linking Beileins to the story that inspired Saving Private Ryan. There are those who huddle together via Facebook for all 40 minutes on the clock (“What?? Terrible call…” “Come on, John, you can pull this one out…”). Chimes of text messages ping all over the country after the final buzzers, and we pace the floor on our phones, talking about our next play. Can we make the trip? What hotel? Enough seats to hold us?
This, my friends, is our March Madness.
I made the mistake of bringing a date to the tournament in Charlotte two years ago. Or should I say, my date made the mistake of showing up in an orange and blue plaid shirt. My cousin Luke, a good-looking, very fit bald guy who my brother-in-law claims bears a strong resemblance to an assassin, was standing nearby when said date explained to my parents that the orange is for Clemson, the blue for Michigan. Luke, his arms folded across his chest with zero expression on his face, looked off into the distance and said quietly, "Buddy, I suggest you pick a side..."
I watched the Michigan-Kansas game Friday night with my parents (my mom had been to Detroit the weekend before for the first games—she's pictured below with her new friends).
After Michigan’s jaw-dropping win in overtime, my mother announced she was going to make herself a white Russian. This is the same woman who buys a bottle of wine for herself on a Monday, and is still pouring from the same bottle two Mondays later. I want you to really think about how little you have to pour into a glass each time to make it last that long. It reminds me of the time she and her five sisters all came to Charleston one weekend and went out to dinner. They ordered a bottle of wine. And at the end of dinner, they were left to decide whether to “bring home the rest.” Of the wine. From the single bottle they split six ways.
So yes, after the win against Kansas, Mom drank that white Russian down—a huge smile on her face.
Again, folks, this is March Madness.
Am I going to Atlanta this weekend? No. In the first place, your family has to be much smaller than mine to guarantee you a seat at the Big Dance. And I’ll take an oversized family and seat in front of the tv any day. Second, another Beilein tradition is the Cooper River Bridge Run (check out The Bridge Run Etiquette You Haven't Heard). I get a handful of siblings and cousins in from Florida and Wilmington every year, and though it’s a smaller group this time (several have peeled off and headed to Atlanta), we’re going to charge the bridge in the morning in our Michigan shirts, then settle in for the game against Syracuse come 8:30.
And the smart money is on the Beileins sweeping them both.
Okay, not the smart money. Just some money. Because though we’ll try—my aforementioned cousin Luke is no slouch, and I'm putting him forward as our best hope—it’s doubtful any of us will lead the pack down the Meeting Street stretch. Chances dwindle even further when you consider another three in our group are walking it. Somehow, walkers tend to be the underdogs in the quest for Bridge Run fame.
But hey, we're okay with being underdogs. Call us pioneers with a highly competitive spirit—who’s to say it can't be done? Especially if it means we hold up our end of the "Beilein sweep?"
So keep an eye on the front page of Sunday's edition of the Post & Courier. If it has a photo of a pregnant blonde speed-walking past the Kenyans and ripping through the finish line tape with her belly, that’s us. That’s the Beileins in Charleston holding up our half of the sweep.
In the meantime, maybe just keep your money on John Beilein on Saturday night? That brings us back to where the smart money is.