Breaking Bad T-shirt on. Minnesota Twins cap pulled down tight. Backpack beside me full of notepads, computers and pens. Just minding my own business as I made my annual March journey to Las Vegas, Nev., to cover the men’s and women’s Mountain West Conference basketball tournaments.
The shuttle made one more stop before heading to the airport to pick up a man and woman from their car. As the couple climbed aboard, I smiled and gave the customary traveler’s head nod as they went to the back and sat down.
“Geoff Grammer?” the man asked.
As sometimes happens on college basketball season road trips in a college-basketball-crazy town — especially this past season when the passion for the UNM Lobos crept back into a fan base headed toward life support a year ago at this time — I got recognized as the guy lucky enough to cover the Lobos for the Albuquerque Journal.
I looked up, smiled and pivoted my body to face the couple, sure as could be that my fellow traveler was about to offer up some form of he enjoys my coverage, reads all my articles and then ask how I thought the team was going to fare in Las Vegas.
“Yes, I’m Geoff Grammer.”
Then, instead of the exchange I had prepared my big head inside that tightening Twins cap for, the man’s next words weren’t meant for me at all.
“His daughter beat him at picking basketball games this season,” the man said with a big smile to the woman he sat with.
I began wondering how much longer the shuttle ride could possibly take.
By the time I boarded my Southwest flight less than an hour later, I had been asked two more times who my daughter thought would win in Las Vegas.
A family affair
At a time when the news industry is moving away from such things, I am lucky enough to have a job at a newspaper still choosing to invest resources to not only cover college athletics for its community, but to pay for me to travel to cover the Lobos basketball team so we can bring readers insights beyond UNM press releases full of exclamation points and glowing headlines no matter the outcome of games.
That good fortune isn’t lost on me.
But as grateful as I am for this gig, leaving arenas at 1 a.m., catching flights at 7 a.m. and spending days in airports can wear on a guy who misses an awful lot of time with the two most important girls in my life back at home, including during the formative years of my 8-year-old daughter, Jaedyn.
So, I look for creative ways to keep her involved with what I do. Facetime calls from hotels and airports are just a part of it.
She finds on maps where I am and can’t wait to visit the places her old man travels to — exotic far away places like Boise, Fresno and that one town in Wyoming he always refers to as Laradise.
The last few years, I’ve tried to share with her my love of college basketball. When she was 5, I helped her fill out her first NCAA Tournament bracket. I showed her the mascot of every team. She picked the cuter one to win each game through the 68-team tournament field.
She really had a thing for little furry animals then, which paid off when Wisconsin, and its cute Badger mascot, made it to the national title game (the Badgers lost, 68-63, to Duke in 2015).
I also unknowingly chose way-too-cute images of Wilbur Wildcat (Arizona’s mascot) and Spike (the bulldog mascot for Gonzaga), who were also Final Four teams that she had going deep in the tournament.
Needless to say, her method was better than mine.
She picked more correct games than did I that year.
Dumb luck I thought. She offered, “Don’t worry, dad. Maybe next time I can help you on your bracket.”
Ever since, there’s been nothing I enjoy more each March than when my season of college hoops ends and my season with more time spent being her dad starts to pick up with us filling out our March Madness brackets.
Each of the past six seasons covering the Lobos, I’ve used my job expertise, not to mention my role as one of the country’s 65 Associated Press Top 25 voters and a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Board of Directors, to do a simple task.
I try to pick the winners of games.
How hard could it be for a guy covering hoops for a living, right?
Truth is, it ain’t all that easy.
And in an effort to show just how little anyone really knows about these things, I post my picks before every game on Twitter under the title: Grammer’s Guesses.
This season, I took it a step further and invited Jaedyn to go get a coin out of her piggy bank and flip it to predict each game — heads for the home team, tails for the road team.
I thought the 50/50 nature of a coin flip would keep things close. It would be fun for a few weeks then the gimmick would be up when it wasn’t all that cool to see an adult beating his daughter in a contest all season.
But a funny thing happened along the way.
My daughter not only got a few games right, she got a LOT of games right.
As each week passed, more and more people following along on Twitter started rooting for her to keep beating me, often using the hashtag #TeamCoin in their comments to me about the contest.
Coaches around the league — seriously — would send me lighthearted text messages either thanking her or giving her a hard time depending on whether my daughter picked their team to win.
My “Guesses” became an afterthought, even though I actually did quite well with a 60-45-4 record against the point spread (explaining a point spread for those who don’t know is the topic of another column). For perspective, a $10 bet in Vegas on all those games this season and I would have been about $100 richer today.
My daughter, meanwhile, armed with nothing more than a cute smile and a lucky coin from her piggy bank, went 64-41-4. Had someone wagered $10 on all her picks, they’d be up $170 today.
Now, she doesn’t quite understand how point spreads work. Her mom, the only adult in our house, seems to think maybe it’s a good thing I haven’t yet taught our third-grader all the details of sports gambling.
Maybe next year.
What my daughter does know is, she beat me and she loves telling her teachers or whoever else will listen. I even invited her on my sports podcast a couple weeks ago (one that featured as the main guest former Lobo Danny Granger) to ask how it felt knowing she was doing better than her dad in the contest.
“It makes me feel good because he does this for a living and I don’t do any of it,” she said.
I wasn’t able to bring my daughter with me to Las Vegas last week, but as the champion of our house, I let her cut down the nets of her mini basketball hoop hanging from a closet door in celebration. I also brought her small piggy bank and sent her courtside pictures of it during the tournament.
There are plenty of people who will remember fondly the improbable Lobo hoops season that just ended. Myself included. But for my money, or my daughter’s, easily the best part of the past season was sharing the experience each step of the way with my daughter.