Column: A March Madness tradition is put on hold
I first met Alan Lankford last year while working on a March Madness story in Las Vegas.
Going to Vegas for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament had long been one of my favorite traditions with my childhood friends. No matter what we were doing, we blocked out those first four days of the NCAA tournament from Thursday to Sunday and committed to being together in Las Vegas.
I figured it would make for a nice story, allow me to mix work and pleasure, and it would capture just how special Las Vegas was during this time.
The annual trip to Las Vegas represented so much more than basketball to the thousands of others who made that journey each March. Walk around the casinos and sports books, and seemingly everyone had a story about making the trip there each year to see their brother, father, childhood friend, college roommate or fraternity brother no matter where they were in the world. It’s a trip they always scheduled and circled on their calendar.
It’s still hard to write that in the past tense as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of March Madness, the complete shutdown of Las Vegas hotels and casinos, and has turned our lives upside down.
One of the first people I thought of when March Madness was canceled was Lankford. Of all the people I have befriended at sportsbooks and watch parties during my annual trips, Lankford was my favorite.
The Las Vegas high rollers packed up; the entertainers and musicians went home. And suddenly this city of hustlers and romantics shuttered Wednesday and changed in a way it never had before.
Lankford is a 59-yard-old engineer from Kansas City with white hair, eyeglasses and an infectious smile whenever he’s watching basketball.
He used to come to Las Vegas with his friends every year for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament but nine years ago, when his oldest daughter, Stephanie, turned 21, he decided to turn his annual guys’ weekend into a daddy-daughter trip.
“I’m a father of three daughters and they all played basketball and we bonded through basketball,” he said last year. “So when my oldest daughter turned 21 I decided to bring her out here for opening weekend and we had such a great time, we decided to make it a tradition. As each one of my daughters turned 21, they were able to come out. My wife’s not invited. My son-in-law isn’t invited. It’s just a weekend for me and my daughters.”
When I first met Lankford, he was sitting at a table surrounded by his daughters, Stephanie, 29, Megan, 26, and Paige, 24, wearing matching purple shirts that read “Daddy-Daughter Vegas Trip 2019,” as they watched the first round from inside the Cosmopolitan. It became Megan’s responsibility to design the shirts for the trip since she was old enough to go and had made them purple for her dad, who went to Kansas State.
At the time, Stephanie was seven months’ pregnant and had to get approval from her doctor to go on the trip but “once my doctor gave me the thumbs up, there was no reason not to come,” she said. “When I turned 21, this trip was a Christmas present and he said we could make this our trip and our thing to do and every year now it’s on the books.”
I kept in touch with Lankford after the tournament. We had hoped to meet again in Las Vegas this year and he e-mailed me last summer to let me know Stephanie had given birth on June 3 to a boy, Logan, his first grandchild.
“He’s already into basketball,” said Lankford. “She coached a grade school team and he was in the gym with her at every practice in his stroller. He sat on the floor, rolling the ball, so we got him hooked right out of the chute.”
As much as Logan may love basketball, however, he won’t be coming to Las Vegas with his mom any time soon.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered all gambling operations and other nonessential services to shut down for 30 days.
“He and his dad will have to find their own March Madness tradition,” Lankford said. “This is a daddy-daughter trip. Granddaughters will be invited though.”
I called Lankford at his home in Kansas City on Wednesday night, on the eve of what would have been the first round of the NCAA tournament, to see how he was holding up.
“This past year all four us were coaching different basketball teams at different levels, anywhere from grade school to high school,” he said. “We spend the entire year talking basketball so we always look forward to going out to Vegas for the tournament. We have a fun competition and bet on everything from the games to the horses. It was really about the bonding more than anything else. Everything was so special from the shirts, to the plane ride, to hanging out and watching basketball with my daughters. I miss that.”
While they were not in Las Vegas, Lankford did get together with his three daughters Wednesday and the family will be together on Thursday for a March Madness party without basketball.
“We’re having a staycation party with less than 10 people,” Lankford said. “We’re still going to be together, toast and celebrate in our own little way the trip that never was and look forward to our trip next year.”
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