INDIANAPOLIS — If you’ve been to a game during a March Madness tournament in the last nearly four decades, there’s a good chance Jim Wikman, Tom Bowen and John Ries were there too.
The trio calls themselves the “Basketball Mavens,” a name they earned during an interview in the 1990s while at a March Madness game in Indianapolis. It has stuck with them ever since.
Wikman, Bowen and Ries say they’re just three “ordinary Joes” who love college basketball, but their story is pretty extraordinary if you ask most people.
All of the Mavens, who now live near Dallas, first met when they were working at the same company in the Indianapolis area in the 1980s. You know what they say, “the rest is history.”
“About a year before the games we actually try to find a presale site and start buying tickets because we pick the cities regardless of which teams are there,” said Wikman. “We’ve been all over the country, and we always look forward to Indianapolis. It’s our favorite place to come watch games just because of our history here.”
Years ago, the Mavens realized it was possible to attend up to 12 games per weekend by driving back and forth to host cities that were within a few hours of each other. That sparked their excitement to take in as much as they could of March Madness.
Wikman said, “When the NCAA announces their sites for upcoming years, we start years in advance and say, ‘Okay, which two cities are close enough to drive back and forth to?'”
Fast forward to 2021, and they have traveled approximately 157,000 miles in total to games across the nation, both in the air and on the ground, for a total of more than 500 games.
Although last year’s NCAA Tournament was cancelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mavens weren’t going to let it stop them from picking right back up where they left off.
Aside from this year’s tournament, Wikman and Ries have been to March Madness 38 times, including the last 35 straight tournaments. Bowen on the other hand is still jokingly called the rookie of the group with “only” 30 tournaments under his belt.
“When the Final Four was here in 91′, they came back and I said, ‘Hey I wanna come,’ so I’ve been the rookie out of these three,” laughed Bowen. “I still carry the bags. I don’t even get a room key.”
They’re back again, and even for these pros, getting tickets wasn’t a walk in the park with limited seating due to capacity restrictions.
“Normally, we have tickets so far in advance it’s easy to do our planning. This year, we didn’t even know if they’d be selling tickets until, you know, a few weeks before the events,” Wikman said.
The lesson: persistency is key. Each of the Mavens got their game face on, prepared ahead of time for how they would try to get tickets and then as the pre-sales went live, it was game time.
“We had to have several strategy sessions about who’s going to try to buy what tickets and how many can we get,” said Wikman. “All three of us would hop online as soon as the pre-sale opened and try to buy whatever tickets we could, and we were very lucky that we quickly were able to buy a game, get back in, get in line for another game, buy that game.”
Although the crew lucked out in the first few rounds, they’re still empty-handed on tickets for the biggest weekend: the Final Four.
“We’re still working on the Final Four and are hoping that we have a chance to buy tickets for that,” Wikman said.
If they can land tickets to the Final Four, it will be their 24th tournament consecutively where they will have attended all rounds of the March Madness tournament, excluding 2020’s canceled event.
As of Tuesday, Wikman and Bowen have been to 24 games so far this tournament. Their third teammate was sidelined until he received his final COVID-19 vaccine, so they hope they can find tickets for the Final Four so Ries can make it to Indy.
Ries said, “The unique fact that they’re hosting the entire tournament makes it hard for me to have to bow out the first couple of weeks because Indianapolis just does such a great job of putting on the events.”
As they await their fate for the Final Four, the group reflects on the past nearly four decades and the memories they’ve made traveling across the U.S. All three said although the games are great, what makes March Madness so special is the people they meet and experiences they share.
“We always look forward to just that social interaction and meeting people and laughing,” Ries said. “Any time we get together, we’re reminiscing about what we’ve done over the last 35 years and those stories, you just never get tired of.”
“It’s not just the games, it’s the whole experience of March Madness that just makes us look forward to March every year,” Wikman shared.
Wikman said the Mavens are in the process of writing a book to document their adventures.
“I don’t know if it will sell three copies being myself, Tom and J.R., but we just want to have a record of it,” he said. “It’s been really fun to look back at the years and try to remember what did we see, who did we meet, and what was the most fun part of a trip.”
You may be wondering how much the Basketball Mavens have spent over the years. Although they keep close tabs and know exactly what that number is, you’ll likely never get it out of them.
“It is a closely held secret how much we spend because our wives would kill us if they knew,” Wikman joked. He said they find ways to significantly cut costs based on how far in advance they book for each tournament trip.
Wikman is retired, Bowen has an internet marketing agency and Ries is a part-time telecommunications consultant.
Overall, they’re family guys who just really, really love their college basketball traditions and meeting new people along the way in their travels.
“We still have no end in sight. We want to continue doing this as long as we are able to, and it’s just be so much fun we hope it continues, and we hope to get to the Final Four,” said Wikman.
FOX59 reached out to the NCAA for an interview, and although a spokesperson was unavailable, the organization wrote:
“The NCAA admires the dedication of fans like the Mavens and other similar circles of friends who plan their vacations and reunions around going to various NCAA championships each year.
“We appreciate all of the fans who love collegiate athletics but are especially fond of groups such as the Mavens, whose passion for their favorite sport is evident year after year.”