The 2017 NCAA Tournament was a peak in the century-long history of Northwestern basketball, but the lasting image from that run came from the stands.
The Wildcats made it to the second round and faced top-seeded Gonzaga. It was a tall order for Northwestern to keep up with, let alone beat, the eventual national runner-up. As one young fan showed, that didn’t make the game any less emotional.
Northwestern had trimmed a 20-point deficit down to 11 when Barret Benson was called for a flagrant foul with 7:54 left to go in the second half.
And then a meme was born.
The CBS cameras cut to a hysterical kid in a Northwestern jersey losing his mind at the call, and he instantly went viral. That kid is now attending a university in the northeast while keeping up with Northwestern from afar.
Speaking with Sporting News, John Phillips reflected on his moment in the spotlight and said he brought up the experience in a college application essay that helped him get into Harvard.
“It doesn’t get much more unique than that,” he said.
Phillips’ Northwestern fandom runs deep. His father, Jim, served as the university’s athletic director from 2008 to 2021. At just 12 years old, John knew the importance of the school’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
“We were not used to being good at basketball,” Phillips said. “That season was truly magical.”
Northwestern went on to lose 79-73 against Gonzaga, putting an end to a brief tournament run 112 years in the making. Still, the impact of Phillips’ 15 minutes of fame lives on.
“Each day, I confront a decision,” John shared from his college essay. “Should I run from my enthusiasm or embrace it? Without that embarrassing basketball game years ago, I might answer the question differently. But today, I am proud to be that crying kid with shining braces, exposed rubber bands, and thickly gelled hair. ... Every day, I choose to be that kid — for his lively spirit, infectious enthusiasm, and compassionate understanding.”
With a 2023 first-round game against Boise State Thursday night, Northwestern is back in the NCAA Tournament and the national spotlight.
With so few national tournament memories to point to, it’s no surprise Phillips is back in the spotlight, too. The cameras have already caught Phillips again earlier this month sitting beside his dad, now the commissioner of the ACC, at the ACC Tournament.
Even if he’s not front row for Northwestern’s first national tournament game since 2017, expect the lasting images and gifs of Phillips to make the rounds again Thursday night.