More Than “Just Balls”: The Legend of the Ralph Marlin Tie

DSC01242_thumb.jpgWhen ESPN.com brought me on in the summer of 2005, my good friend Sarah bought me a Ralph Marlin “Just Balls” tie. It was one of those nice timely things that good friends do — they buy you things having to do with what you’re celebrating just as you’re celebrating them. Little did I know that it would be a key instrument in bringing down arrogant, overbloated power conference teams in the NCAA Tournament.

I adopted the practice of wearing a shirt and tie to every game that year (inspired by my new colleague Andy Katz), and wore the gift tie to my first game as a representative of the Worldwide Leader, a game on November 19 between Vermont and Harvard. It is certainly a little awkward wearing a tie with basketballs all over it to a basketball game, in all honesty. It’s something that you’d expect some eccentric alumnus to do, someone who hasn’t been to a basketball game at his school in five years. Or maybe Dickie V, if he was more like Don Cherry. Wearing a “Just Balls” tie is not something you do if you’re trying to be anything resembling cool. After all, they make a clip-on version as well.

I don’t remember wearing the “Just Balls” at all that 2005-06 regular season, not until March. I broke out the tie out again at the NCAA tournament in Dayton, and it hung around my neck for four games during the first round on Saint Patrick’s Day 2006. One of those games was No. 11 George Mason’s stunning 75-65 upset of Michigan State, a six-seed that had gone to the Final Four a year earlier. As I was standing in the Patriots locker room collecting quotes for a story, the winning coach interrupted my question.

“That’s some tie you got there, Kyle,” said Jim Larranaga, inspecting the thing.

“Thanks, coach,” I replied.

Two days later, I wore the tie to the second round. George Mason clinched a spot in the Sweet 16, with a 65-60 win over North Carolina, the previous year’s National Champions. It was the first inkling that the tie was some sort of talisman, so I strapped it on when I moved on along with Mason to the Washington, D.C. regional. That game was the “Mid-Major Super Bowl” between GMU and Wichita State for a shot at the Elite Eight. After Mason won, I was sent home and ESPN’s sole credential was passed along to Mr. Katz. Nobody expected Mason to beat mighty Connecticut, and I watched the game from my couch in Rhode Island. The tie was rolled up in my pocket.

We all know what happened next, and I was reactivated. On the day of the Final Four games, I walked around Indianapolis, wearing the “Just Balls” tie with a crisp white shirt. With time to kill, I walked over to the NCAA museum, which at the time was still coming together and not quite worth the $7 entry fee. As an added attraction, however, they had a member of basketball’s royal family — the grandson of the inventor of the game.

Ian Naismith was at a table out front, signing his recently-released book. There weren’t very many people stopping by — the Naismith surname doesn’t have the same Q rating as Jordan or James these days — so I walked up, introduced myself with a handshake, and asked him to sign my media credential.

tiecloseup.jpg“Forget that,” he said. “I want to sign that tie.”

And he did — with indelible black Sharpie. The “Just Balls” tie had transcended its cheesiness and had become one with the very history of the game. Walking back to the giant RCA Dome, I felt its warm orange glow.

I had “MUP” status for the Final Four, which is short for “media, upstairs.” Folks with MUP credentials have no access to the floor area an hour before the game, but have to retreat up the elevators to the high skyboxes to watch the game unfold like ants on a matchbox. This was too great a distance for the magic to work… and Mason fell by 15. My season was over.

Sure, I had doubts about the tie after that. And it’s not like I’m superstitious or anything, even though I carry a 1987 Minnesota Twins Homer Hanky in my pocket when I watch the team play, and freeze a little plate of water and put my New York Rangers action figure on it before playoff games. I tried to recharge it with mid-major mojo in the early 2006-07 season, wearing it to the season-opener between Bucknell and Albany and the Sweet 16 rematch between Mason and Wichita. I also wore it to Hinkle Fieldhouse for the Southern Illinois-Butler BracketBuster (longtime friend of the site Brandon Loy has photographic proof). By March, there was plenty of power in the tie, and it helped propel Southern Illinois through the Columbus pod, as the Salukis destroyed Virginia Tech by 15 to make the Sweet 16.

I was very careful with the tie this season, not using it for any regular-season mid-on-major matchups. I only wore it on high-profile mid-versus-mid occasions, like the SIU-Butler rematch and the Davidson-Winthrop Buster game. I stormed three floors with it on, as the excitement of UMBC, Siena and Temple fans rubbed off on the tie.

But last weekend in Birmingham, for whatever reason, I decided not to wear the tie. Or maybe I simply forgot to. As Butler fell away in overtime of the Round of 32 to the streetball All-Stars of Tennessee, just four feet from the edge of the court, I looked down at my standard red and silver noose and cursed myself for what I didn’t do. In such a close loss, the “Just Balls” tie could have given the Bulldogs the little bit extra they needed to get over the top. It was the one time that I messed up, and I apologize to every Butler fan everywhere.

On Friday night, the tie was ready. Seated directly behind the Davidson bench (10 feet in front of LeBron’s chair), the tie was present and prominent, and made several nationally televised appearances over the course of the evening. And after a rough and tumble first half that ended in a 36-all stalemate between Davidson and Wisconsin, I knew what I had to do. During halftime, I did something that was daring, powerful, and unprecedented.

I walked up to the Davidson bench, bent down, and touched the tie to it.

The effects were, in a word, explosive. OK, two words: “Just Balls.” The Wildcats outscored the Badgers 37-20 in the second half, held Wisconsin to 24 percent shooting from there on out. LeBron James, standing directly in the Tie Zone, screamed out oh shit as Stephen Curry hit a running baseline layup. A 10 had beaten a three, and my chest was melting from the sheer force of my Ralph Marlin tie. Because the force, it’s got a lot of power. And it makes me feel like… It makes me feel like… Oooh!

But now I am in a full-on quandary, and need your help. Do I keep on with the force? Do I stop until I get enough? More to the point, do I wear the tie on Sunday? Will its immense power backfire (perhaps…), or is its strength simply sapped for the season (more likely)? I’m fully aware that the Naismith connection could give aid to Kansas, since The Inventor was also one of the founding fathers of Jayhawk basketball. There’s also the key consideration that my wearing a goofy orange basketball tie might cause further embarrassment.

This decision is completely out of my hands; I’m leaving it up to you, dear readers. Write in with the form, remember to include a valid e-mail address so it’ll get through. Give me the pros or cons of wearing the “Just Balls” to the game tomorrow. I will ponder and consider your opinions with the utmost respect, each letter will carry the relative weight of 15 message board posts