Hoops Fans Follow Road to March Madness

University Park resident Tom Bowen, center, has traveled to NCAA tournament games with friends John Ries, left, and Jim Wikman for more than 25 years. (Photo: Don Johnson)
University Park resident Tom Bowen, center, has traveled to NCAA tournament games with friends John Ries, left, and Jim Wikman for more than 25 years. (Photo: Don Johnson)

Every March, millions of basketball fans watch NCAA tournament games on television. Thousands go to the games in person at arenas throughout the country.

Then there are the Basketball Mavens, who have taken the fanaticism surrounding March Madness to a new level.

University Park resident Tom Bowen and his friends Jim Wikman and John Ries, who live in Coppell, have traveled to tournament games together for 25 years. Individually or in pairs, their attendance dates back further than that, as their mounds of colorful ticket stubs attest.

The streak isn’t built on just one game or one venue per year, either. Bowen and his friends insist on seeing games during every weekend of the tournament, and in multiple cities during the same weekend whenever possible to fill the off days.

That means that during the typical year, they see 18 of the tournament’s 65 games live across three weekends, including 12 games in two cities during a four-day stretch.

“We have personalities that mesh well together,” Wikman said of their ability to coexist through a hectic series of flights, car trips, and hotel stays in an effort to catch as many games as possible.

Their interests obviously mesh, as well. A love of basketball is what helped to form the friendship between the three co-workers at a GTE office in Indianapolis during the 1980s. By 1991, all three had moved to the Dallas area for their jobs.

“It very quickly evolved into doing a full weekend every weekend, when it’s logistically possible,” Bowen said. “We choose cities based on logistics and cost. Plus, cities that we’ve been to, we tend to go back there if we’ve enjoyed it.”

All of the reservations are made far in advance, so if they happen to catch their alma mater playing — Bowen went to Indiana, Wikman to Michigan State, and Ries to Missouri — that’s considered a bonus.

During the past quarter century, they’ve been to 36 cities and 44 arenas, watching almost 400 games featuring 162 different teams. And that doesn’t count the repeats. Some schools they’ve seen almost 20 times. The trio has been to Indianapolis on 16 different occasions.

Last year, they went to games in San Diego and Spokane, Wash., for the first time. This year, the itinerary includes car trips between Seattle and Portland, Ore., this weekend for the second and third rounds. Next weekend, they’ll be in Houston for three more games. Then it’s on to Indianapolis for the Final Four.

There’s not much time for sightseeing outside of the arena and the car, but the group enjoys interacting with fans, or even chatting up sportscasters and coaches they recognize.

“It’s become almost a secondary sport for us to find the most interesting people,” Wikman said. “These people we’ve met are almost equal to the games we’ve watched in terms of significance. That adds to the fun.”

Still, they’ve witnessed plenty of seminal moments in college basketball history together, including some memorable upsets and individual performances. And their passion remains as high as ever.

“It’s kind of this month that we look forward to all year,” Wikman said. “It’s a lot more than the games.”

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