When you think about the month of March, there are plenty of images that spring to mind. It’s a capricious time in the northern climes, as spring attempts to arrive and (often enough) gets buried under another blanket of snow. It’s a time of hope for baseball fans watching the reports from Florida and Arizona and dreaming that maybe this year is The Year. It is a time of celebration around St. Patrick’s Day, a chance to quaff cheap beer dyed green. In Chicago, they dye the Chicago River green and stage a parade where the Democratic Machine and the labor unions get to strut down State Street, usually chasing their green plastic derby hats as the gale force winds whip them about. It can also be a time of reflection – a significant chunk of the Lenten season always falls in March.
But most of all, March is about basketball. March is the time of March Madness, when the high school tournaments in each state unfold. The “Big Dance,” the NCAA tournament, takes place in March. The tournament brackets are printed and posted throughout the land and countless side bets and office pools are made. SportsCenter junkies pore through the results looking for trends, while those who have little or no interest in the game fill out their brackets with a mixture of wild guesses and largely irrelevant considerations (school colors, toughness of mascots, etc.) Every year the tournament itself is grand theater, with obscure schools defeating mighty universities and buzzer-beating bombs sending fans into ecstasy or agony. While I love baseball most of all, I think it beyond dispute that basketball can be the most dramatic of our major sports. It is also beyond dispute that the most consistently competitive and entertaining of our major sports championships is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Given all of this, it’s especially appropriate that my best childhood friend, Mark Miller, has his birthday today. Mark is a deluxe basketball junkie who has turned his love of the sport into something substantial. Way back in 1985, after Mark had graduated from UW-Oshkosh, he had an idea. He wanted to publish an annual basketball yearbook that would focus on basketball in Wisconsin. He would produce a publication similar to the preview magazines that regularly appear on newsstands before each season, but his would feature basketball at the high school and collegiate level. Mark’s own basketball career had ended back in high school, but he had already begun cultivating relationships with coaches and players during his college years. He would give it a go.
Mark traveled the state that first year, spending most of his time trying to explain his vision to skeptical coaches and local advertisers. Most publications never reach the store shelves without sophisticated market research. Mark didn’t have that, but he did have a hunch; he thought that if he could produce a quality product and provide fair analysis of the state basketball scene, there would be an audience. He worked like crazy, did almost all the work himself, and got the inaugural Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook published in the fall of 1985. It was a Herculean effort and he lost a lot of money his first year. But his hunch was correct – there was a market.
As the years went on, Mark continued to publish the WBY while simultaneously pursuing a journalism career at a variety of local newspapers throughout the state, moving from Waukesha to Sheboygan, to Oshkosh. Along the way he inexorably became the “go-to” guy for basketball in the state. Coaches came to see him as an ally and confidant. Players were thrilled to have their names in the WBY. Advertisers began to see that there was an audience for this publication and ad revenue started to climb. As the internet became a greater source of information for people, Mark expanded his universe to the World Wide Web, starting two excellent websites, www.wbby.com and www.wishoops.net. He leveraged his relationships with coaches throughout the state to create a highly successful holiday tournament in Milwaukee and, this season, a “Border Battle” tourney pitting Wisconsin teams against Minnesota squads. The kid from Xavier High who dared to dream big is now recognized as the pre-eminent basketball expert in the state of Wisconsin. It’s a great story that I’ve been observing from a distance for many years now.
Happy birthday to a true son of March – Mark Miller, who has proven that you can live your dream. Your old pal couldn’t be more proud of you.