The Big Dance

Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players who recall their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Jason Collins remembers the 1997-98 Stanford Cardinal. ​​


When I think about March Madness ’98, the first thing that comes to mind is Mark “Mad Dog” Madsen’s unorthodox dance moves. But we’ll get to that later.

The second thing that comes to mind is the sickening feeling of looking up at the clock against Rhode Island in the Elite 8, and seeing 59 seconds left. We were down 71-65. I was always a pretty positive person, but I started doing the math in my head. We’d need to get a stop almost every time down the floor. Pray for a steal. Pray for some missed three throws. We’d need so many funky things to happen. What were the chances?

It’s always a terrible feeling knowing that you’re about to go home from the NCAA Tournament. Back to reality. No more TV cameras, no more hanging out in the hotel room watching the tournament unfold. It was 10 times worse for us at Stanford because we were on the quarter system, which meant that exams were still going on during the tournament.

I know some people will roll their eyes at this, but it’s not like you can totally put academics on pause during March Madness (well, maybe at some schools). At Stanford, you had to handle your business. You were just hoping to get through your work as efficiently as possible so you could concentrate on basketball. Guys have it easy now because they have tablets, smartphones and WiFi, so doing homework on the road is no big thing. In ’98, there might have been a couple 10-pound laptops floating around, but most of us were still writing essays with pen and paper.

So, needless to say, the thought of going back to my campus dorm was not appealing.

Fifty-nine seconds. Down by six. I was still recovering from knee surgery, so I’m sitting on the bench in my button-down and khakis, completely helpless.

Then I got a glimmer of hope. Our point guard, Arthur Lee, took over. He cut the lead to four. Then, with 32 seconds left, he drove to the hole and scored. Whistle. And 1! We started looking at eachother on the bench like, Okay … Okay!

He hit the free throw. We were still down 1. All Rhode Island had to do was inbound the ball, wait for us to foul, and hit their free throws and …

Wait, what?!

Out of nowhere, the ball was loose and bouncing on the floor. In a blur, I saw Arthur swing his arm and knock the ball away from Cuttino Mobley. I had been sitting down, waiting for the foul. Our whole bench was sitting down. The only person standing up was our coach Mike Montgomery. Coach was swinging his arm furiously like he was trying to take over Arthur Lee’s body through mind control and get the steal himself.

I saw Mark Madsen pick up the ball. There was one Rhode Island player standing between him and the rim. Unfortunately, it was their big man, Antonio Reynolds-Dean. Mark clutched the ball with both hands and jumped. Reynolds-Dean jumped. Our bench jumped. For a second there, I think everyone on the floor was in mid-air.

My brain was like %*!%#!%#!%$#*$

Let’s freeze for a second here. Let me tell you about “Mad Dog” Madsen. He was like the Soccer Dad of the Stanford Men’s Basketball Team. Mark was a redshirt sophomore who spent two years in Spain serving a Mormon mission. Picture a college kid who acts like a responsible adult at all times. If any teammate needed a ride, Mad Dog would be there to pick you up and drive you wherever in his hand-me-down minivan. If you were on the Stanford campus in the late ’90s, you probably witnessed the weird sight of a bunch of six-foot dudes piled into a minivan listening to loud hip-hop that we had ripped from Napster.

Mark was one of 10 kids in a big Mormon family. His parents lived about an hour away from campus and they used to invite the entire team over for dinner. His mom actually handmade basketball shorts for us with her own fabric. I remember going over there and she would hand them out to all the players. They were incredible. Super comfy, super baggy. That was the style back then. They kind of had an MC Hammer vibe.

So when you went to the Madsen house you got dinner and hoops shorts. I just want you to understand the kind of environment that Mad Dog grew up in.

Okay, we good? Let’s unfreeze.

Mark Madsen jumped up with both feet, with both hands on the ball — pure fundamentals — and dunked right on the Rhode Island player.

Whistle. And 1.

Our bench exploded.

Mark landed, did two little bunny hops and then did this:

It’s still the best celebration I’ve ever seen on a basketball court.

Mark hit his free throw. We were up 2, so Rhode Island still had the last shot. But they were rattled. You could feel it. They threw the ball away on the next possession. After Mark’s dunk, there was no stopping us.

When the final buzzer sounded, it was just crazy. Arthur Lee was running around flexing. Guys were looking at each other in disbelief. I remember the surreal feeling of how much can change in 59 seconds. We were going home. We were going back to exams, computer labs and hitching rides to spring lifting in Mark’s minivan. Then all of a sudden we were going to the Final Four in San Antonio.

The pure joy of Mark Madsen’s dance is what March Madness is all about.

For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.