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Gary D'Amato | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | March 19, 2017

Longtime friends attend every tournament round since 1991

There are college basketball fans, there are avid college basketball fans and there are the self-titled "Basketball Mavens," whose story is so extraordinary it straddles the line between truth and fiction.

Meet Jim Wikman, Tom Bowen and John Ries, three perfectly normal, average-Joe-type guys ... until the calendar flips to March.

You think you love the NCAA Tournament? Chew on this while you're watching a No. 1 chew on a No. 16:

The Mavens, who live in the Dallas area, attended all four first-round games in Milwaukee on Thursday. They got up at 5 a.m. Friday, drove to Indianapolis and watched all four first-round games there. They drove back to Milwaukee and attended both second-round games Saturday, then will drive back to Indianapolis and attend the second-round games there Sunday.

Next weekend, they'll catch the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in the South Regional in Memphis, Tenn., and then it's off to Phoenix for the Final Four. By the end of the tournament, they'll have seen 18 games in four cities over 19 days.

Crazy, right?

That's not the half of it.

They've been doing this since 1991.

Wikman keeps meticulous records and there's no reason to doubt the veracity of his color-coded charts and lists. The Mavens have seen more than 400 NCAA Tournament games in 39 cities and 48 arenas. They have traveled more than 137,000 miles by plane and car. After this weekend, they'll have seen 172 of the 351 Division I schools eligible for the NCAA Tournament.

Over the years they have spent ... well, that's a closely guarded secret.

"We know how much it is," Wikman says after a long pause during which the three men exchange furtive glances. "But if our wives found out, they'd kill us."

They're not millionaires. Wikman, 61, is retired. Ries, 57, works in telecommunications. Bowen, 53, is a website consultant.

They're just three guys who really, really, really love basketball.

"There's a small percentage of people who are envious of us," Ries says, "and there's a large percentage who think we're crazy."

Wikman attended his first NCAA Tournament games in 1977, when he was a student at Michigan State. He was driving to Florida for spring break with two buddies and when they got to Lexington, Ky., one of them said, "Hey, isn't there some basketball going on? Do you want to see some games?"

They stopped at a gas station, got directions to Rupp Arena, parked on the street next to the arena -- "for free," Wikman notes dryly -- and walked up to the box office to buy tickets. A woman looked at them incredulously and politely informed them the games were sold out.

"We had no clue," Wikman says. "But then she said, 'Wait just a second.' She went into a back room and came out with three tickets. We said, 'How much?' She said, 'Just consider this a little Kentucky hospitality.'

"So we go in, the first game is the University of Michigan, who I hated, playing the University of Detroit coached by Dick Vitale. The second game is UNC-Charlotte with (Cedric) 'Cornbread' Maxwell playing against Syracuse coached by their brand new coach, Jim Boeheim. So that was my start."

Wikman, Ries and Bowen met when they worked for GTE in Indianapolis in the 1980s; all three eventually were transferred to Dallas. Bowen, the youngest of the Mavens and then still single, got some friendly advice early on from Wikman.

"'Wik' actually did tell me to get a pre-nup," says Bowen, now happily married and the father of three. "He said, 'Get a pre-nup before your first date.' The thing I get asked about the most is our wives: 'How do you pull that off?' "

Says Wikman "I always say my wife's got 11 months, I've got March. But if we're honest, I think our wives are glad to have us out of their hair for a month."

The Mavens start sketching out their itinerary a year in advance, so they're already working on 2018. They're planning to see the first-round games in Detroit and Pittsburgh. They'll get on the presale ticket list and start looking for affordable flights in November.

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"We choose sites based on the first weekend, trying to go to two sites," Wikman says. "So they've got to be close enough together so we can go back and forth on the alternate days. Last year we were in Brooklyn and Providence. We've done Milwaukee and Indianapolis before. We've done Indianapolis and Nashville, Buffalo and Cleveland, Wichita and Oklahoma City, Portland and Seattle."

They shoot for 18 games every year but on a couple occasions, such as the year they flew back and forth between San Diego and Spokane, Wash., they could get to only 16 games. A couple times, for one reason or another, one of the Mavens has had to miss a weekend.

"Every now and then life throws a wrinkle at you," Ries says, "and a relative will die."

Occasionally, the Mavens will run into a group of fans wearing T-shirts that tout the consecutive (but modest) number of NCAA Tournaments they've attended. Wikman will approach them and say, "So, where are you going to be next weekend?" He'll get blank looks, turn to Ries and Bowen and say, "Amateurs."

One of the big changes they've seen over the years is the escalating price of tickets. Bowen says he paid $17.50 for his Final Four ticket in 1993. This year, the Mavens paid $90 per session for the three sessions in Milwaukee, and about the same for the three sessions in Indianapolis. That's $540 each.

"When we started going to the Final Four, the ticket prices were around $20," Ries says. "Now we pay more than that for parking."

They've met quite a few celebrities over the years and have run into virtually every major college coach and significant basketball figure you can name. Wikman has John Wooden's autograph on a program. Ries had his photo taken with John Havlicek, his childhood hero.

Once, they were returning their rental car and an "old man" asked to borrow a pencil to fill out his rental mileage slip. It was Al McGuire.

Another time, the Mavens were sitting in a bar in St. Louis when McGuire walked in alone, sat down at a Pac-Man machine and played the video game for an hour, then got up and left.

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One story they all love telling is about the time Bowen and Wikman flew out of Indianapolis but Ries had to catch a later flight. Ries was in the airport bar when Dan Dakich came in and sat down next to him. Ries texted Wikman, "Guess who I'm sitting next to? Dan Dakich."

So Wikman went on Twitter and tweeted to Dakich, "If you're sitting next to a guy named J.R., listen to him. He knows his stuff."

A few minutes later, Dakich turned to Ries and said, "Are you J.R.?"

Ries just about fell off his stool.

The NCAA Tournament names a most outstanding player every year, and the Mavens name their MOP (most outstanding personality). It's always someone they've met -- an usher, a waitress, a fan -- who made a positive, memorable impression on them. Dakich has made their MOP list.

"One year it was a Gonzaga fan who was a judge," Bowen says. "He was very entertaining. He was trying to buy tickets and he found a deal he liked and he took off his shoe. That's where he kept his money. A judge pulling money out of his shoe -- it was classic."

The Mavens know their streak will end someday but the way they look at it, that day is far off in the future.

"There's no end in sight," Wikman says.

This article is written by Gary D'Amato from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.