By Grant Riggs, Editor-in-Chief
Lebanon, Ill. – To many people, basketball is just a game, and a silly one at that. Players run up and down the court, repeatedly banging away at each other in hopes of putting a small ball into a slightly bigger hoop. To some extent, these people are correct. At the end of the day, it is just a game, with a winner and loser. However, on countless occasions, basketball has touched people in a way that transcends winning and losing.
Sports, particularly basketball, have been a crucial part of my family for as long as I can remember. It began with my great-grandpa Otto, who had a passion for following sports in his hometown of Highland, Ill. He became known for being a part of the “chain gang” who operated the first-down markers at every home Highland High School football game.
Among other things, Otto was known for his passion. At my dad’s middle school and high school basketball games, Otto developed a special flair for waiting until everything was silent during a timeout before yelling to notify the referees of any wrong they had done towards the Highland basketball team.
In 1943, Otto witnessed the birth of his second son, Tom Otto Riggs. From a young age, Tom quickly followed in his father’s footsteps, as he was involved in anything sports-related that he found access to.
After his high school athletic career at Highland, Tom maintained his involvement in sports. He became the head basketball coach at Bunker Hill High School in Bunker Hill, Ill., and then took over as the head coach for the Greenfield High School basketball team in Greenfield, Ill.
A common thread that my grandpa and great-grandpa shared was pride. They were both proud of Highland, as well as their families. This is especially evident in their dedication to attending every single sporting event in which their children or grandchildren participated. No matter the distance or circumstance, they never missed a game. This trait was passed down to my father, Scott, who never missed any of my sporting events either, and was always in attendance with my Grandpa and Grandma Cherie by his side.
But as the years wore on, my hard-nosed grandpa was finally faced with a challenge he could not overcome. After a year-long battle with skin cancer, he was pushed passed his limits and, on March 8, 2016, passed away.
This left many holes within my family. For my dad and I, a noticeable gap was felt when we watched any sports game. For all my life, and most of my dad’s recent life, the three of us had watched numerous sporting events together, with my Uncle Terry (Tom’s brother) joining in most of the time as well.
In an effort to help us mend the loss, my Aunt Nikki (Terry’s daughter), who works at Syracuse University, turned to the world of sports and sent my family five free tickets to attend the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in St. Louis. The tournament took place on March 20, 2016, just twelve days after my grandpa passed, and featured Syracuse vs. Middle Tennessee State and Xavier vs. Wisconsin.
Following a rather uneventful first game of the day between Syracuse and Middle Tennessee State, we anxiously waited to watch Wisconsin, a program that my family has followed and developed a great admiration for.
Since Wisconsin is a Big Ten school in the Midwest, my family automatically favors them over other schools. Another reason we’ve built an admiration for them is because they go about their business the right way. When it comes to recruiting, they run a consistently clean program with no rule violations. They’ve also maintained success on the court despite not playing into today’s ‘one-and-done’ and transfer cultures that make the NCAA seem more and more like nothing but an avenue to the NBA or other professional leagues.
One of the Wisconsin players that my grandpa, dad, uncle and I all developed a sense of admiration for was Bronson Koenig, a junior guard on Wisconsin’s 2016 team. Off the court, Koenig carries himself in a confident-but-not-cocky manner. On the court, he’s one of the best guards in the Big Ten, and one of the most clutch players in the country. On that Sunday, March 20, in St. Louis, Koenig was at his best.
With a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line, the two teams battled back and forth throughout the game. With 30 seconds left to play, Xavier’s Edmund Sumner hit a reverse layup to give his team a 63-60 lead.
In the face of adversity, Koenig brought the ball up the court, hesitated for a moment and then calmly drained a huge three-pointer, tying the game at 63 with 11.7 seconds left.
After a Xavier turnover on the ensuing possession, Wisconsin regained control with five seconds left and a chance to win the game. After a timeout, Koenig received the ball off an inbounds pass, dribbled to the corner, fired up a potential game-winner…and swished it. Nothing but net to send Wisconsin to the Sweet Sixteen.
The elation, as well as the heartbreak, was felt throughout the arena, perfectly capturing the essence of March Madness. And for that day, thanks to Bronson Koenig, my family experienced a sense of jubilation that seemed to evade us after my grandpa’s death. His shot not only impacted my dad, uncle and myself, but also had an impact on my grandma and my sister, whom seldom watch or follow basketball. Koenig’s shot brought us all together and helped us with the grieving process.
The Badgers of Wisconsin are again a part of this year’s tournament, with Koenig playing a key role once more, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot in Wisconsin’s upset of the tournament’s number one overall seeded Villanova Wildcats on March 18. As March Madness hits its full stride again this year, I know my grandpa will be cheering along with us in spirit, just as he was in St. Louis last year.