There aren’t many “take-me-now, Lord” experiences left for a sports fan born and raised near the 45th parallel.

If you think any of the New England professional teams owe us a thing at this point, you’re just an entitled jerk. All I ever wanted was for the Patriots to celebrate a status greater than laughingstock, and we’ve been able to guffaw our way through five duck boat parades. My only prayer for the Red Sox was that they wouldn’t send me to my grave unfulfilled, like my grandfather, and they blessed me with three titles in the space of a decade.

Celtics? I merely wanted my son to have a taste of what it was like to grow up when Bird, McHale, the Chief and DJ ruled the world. And while 2008 was merely a shadow of that 1980s glory, it happened, and the kid and I got to bounce up and down in the living room together like fools. Eternal peace achieved.

Bruins? Never high on my list of priorities, but after watching them serve as one of Wayne Gretzky’s victims during my high school years, it was a joy to watch them end a lifetime of frustration for my more emotionally invested pals. It sounded like the final wedge of New England’s puzzle being snapped into place.

Ah, but if you look a few miles closer to home, there is one missing piece. It’s unsightly, it feels irretrievably lost, and we get slapped across the face with it around this time every March when Dickie V, Bill Raftery and an endless parade of bracketologists jockey for air time.

The University of Maine has never qualified for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Never, to paraphrase the great philosopher Prince Rogers Nelson, means forever, and that’s a mighty long time. A century, give or take: The Black Bears’ program has existed since 1904-05; the NCAA tournament was introduced in March 1939.

Every year the hullaballoo surrounding the Madness gets bigger and the dubious list of “Teams That No, I Never” shrinks by one, or two, or nine. That, after Maine gets bounced in the preliminary round or quarterfinals of America East.

Northwestern is an at-large team this year. Northfreakingwestern. I should be giddy, since the Wildcats are better known for producing bespectacled, cranky journalists than NBA point guards. They’re basically a school with NESCAC academic requirements trying to survive in the Big Ten, which explains why they had to hire a coach with a Duke pedigree and wait for Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana all to have a down year at the same time. Sure, now they make the cut.

Yes, I’m a tad bitter.

This isn’t the first time I’ve lamented in print about never being able to experience the sight of a crying piccolo player struggling through the “Maine Stein Song” after a 40-point loss to Kansas, but it took my moving away from the scene of that perpetual drought to fully appreciate how lost is the cause.

I live an hour south of Highland Heights, Kentucky. It’s a suburb of Cincinnati, and it is home to the Norse (from the Utah Jazz School of Mismatched Nicknames) of Northern Kentucky University. Perhaps you’ve heard that NKU won the Horizon League and earned its first-ever bid to NCAAs.

Forever and a day I’ve lamented the number of schools with directional words and hyphens in their name making it to the Big Dance before the flagship university in my native state, but this one is the real kick in the shorts. NKU was in Division Ii while most of its current players were in high school. After its jump to the upper echelon, it endured the four-year probationary period in which it was ineligible for postseason play, which was a non-issue because the Norse never won more than 13 games in a season.

Then, lo and behold, in its first year of tournament eligibility, wham-o, Northern Kentucky has earned the right to be ignored in your office pool. And yes, in a world where “our” team continues to eat the dust of Vermont, Albany and Binghamton, that seems unfair.

But the solution isn’t as easy as the obvious question – “Why can’t Maine recruit better and get the same results? – makes it sound. No man is enough of a miracle worker to make Orono, Maine, seem any less desolate. Believe me, if Bob Walsh had even the remotest chance to hook Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Indiana, Butler and Xavier’s leftovers for one year, the way NKU does, his team would be cutting down nets, too.

Technology may have shrunk the world, but it has made Maine’s corner of it seem even more remote to the average Division I prospect. It’s a conundrum neither Walsh nor any future coach is likely to conquer. I’m afraid Maine’s best chance to make the tourney in our lifetime is to hire a snake-oil salesman who got himself run out of a more prominent program, then let him convince two or three blue-chippers with an even more checkered past that the shadow of the Canadian border is a great place to resurrect their careers.

Of course that would make the achievement less satisfying. Still, it might be a price I’m willing to pay, since I’m likely past the halftime show of my life with nary “One Shining Moment” on the highlight reel.

 Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]

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