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Mike Paulsin

Former Andrean standout Mike Paulsin, left, and wife, Susan, took part in senior night with son, Michael, at Sky View High School in Smithfield, Utah.

This NCAA tourney is like riding a roller coaster without a safety harness.

Thrilling. Crazy. Scary.

It's like watching a soap opera marathon, minus tissues and a comforting hug.

Heartbreaking. Shocking. Devastating.

With the Sweet 16 and Indiana high school state finals offering a mixed bag of emotions, I opened the dusty vault of memories to revisit one of my favorite athletes — Mike Paulsin.

The Andrean grad is entrenched in Region sports lore.

Fade back to the 1980 state basketball final four, considered the most thrilling ever held at Market Square Arena. In the wild opener, Andrean was battling Jack Ford's unbeaten New Albany team, ranked second nationally and with 10 of its 12 players eventually going Division I.

With time expired and Andrean trailing 69-68, Paulsin had two free throw attempts — and missed both.

Andrean's huge fan turnout was crushed and its players in shock while Ford quickly approached the 59ers guard, put an arm around his shoulder, and told him: "'Without you, (Andrean) couldn't have gotten to the state finals. There were 400 teams wishing for that same opportunity.'

"That's about as much consolation as you can give any kid," said Ford, who also coached at Lowell and Kankakee Valley.

I covered those state finals and wrote that although Paulsin may have lost the game, he had won the hearts of fans around the country, receiving bundles of hand-written letters of support, including from Indiana coach Bob Knight and then-governor Otis Bowen.

"I look back at it a lot of different times," Paulsin told me in a 2009 interview. "I got the ball, took my dribbles, and tried my hardest. It all happened so fast. I really thought I'd make one of those suckers."

On Monday, Mike and I renewed old times by phone.

He's been watching the NCAA tourney, loving every minute of it, and was very upbeat about his life in general, often laughing as we caught up.

I wrote that there are winners, losers and somewhere in the middle are the "whiners" who make excuses and blame everyone but themselves — though Paulsin bravely accepted his fate the dark morning of March 29, 1980.

He told me he preached that same sermon in years of coaching youth sports and dealing with kids who complain too much when things don't go their way.

"Indirectly, you made a difference in my life and a difference in some other kids who look at me like: 'Man, this coach is different than anyone I've had before,'" Paulsin said.

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Life is good for Paulsin, the CEO of Candela Lighting in California, who is now living in Utah with wife, Susan. Their son, Michael, a former hoops standout, is on a church mission in Hong Kong.

"That (New Albany game) hurt. It was a real tough time in my life," Paulsin said. "I broke my leg two weeks after that in baseball, my first love, but I never really got in a funk. Maybe it was the people in my life or my DNA, but you just have to get back on the horse.

"It made me appreciate that there were a lot of good people watching out for me."

The four teams at MSA that year — New Albany, Andrean, Marion and Broad Ripple — came in a combined 106-8.

Though the 59ers went 12 of 23 from the line that morning, Paulsin's two misses became the unfortunate story line.

So big, so encompassing, was that story, that if he wore any Andrean apparel years ago, he would be approached in public and asked about that game.

There was that time at a California supermarket, and another on a Florida beach during spring break.

"People would ask 'Was that ...? Yeah, that was me.'"

Teammate Dan Dakich, who played for Knight and is now an ESPN analyst, later said: "I never even had a thought to blame him. I told Mike: 'I took 29 shots and missed 15 of 'em! I missed three layups! I missed a free throw that would've put us up two. Blame me.'"

When Andrean held its 35th class reunion at Gary's Marquette Park Pavilion, someone put together a series of video clips from the 1979-80 season.

But with an unique twist.

"When it came down to the end, it didn't show me missing 'em, but it had a happier ending than the reality," Paulsin chuckled. "Everybody got a good laugh out of it and a lot of people patted me on the back.

"Life has gotten easier and easier now."

There was a torrent of tears at MSA that year.

Notre Dame-bound Stacey Toran hit a three-quarter court shot at the buzzer to stun Larry Liddle's Marion team in the other semifinal.

And that night, Broad Ripple, barely a 50 percent free-throw shooting team, upset New Albany by converting 21 of 28 attempts.

If there had been a shelter for heartbreak victims at MSA, it would've had standing room only.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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