It’s March. The conference tournaments are wrapping up. The NCAA Selection Committee begins the grueling and (mostly) thankless process of whittling 341 schools down to only 65 for the Big Dance.
I have spent many a March wondering how my beloved team could make it to The Tournament, as it’s called reverentially.
Lately, however, I have had the joy of sitting down on Selection Sunday, and my only thoughts were, "Just how high a seed will they make us? And what region will we be in?"
Yes, I say "us" and "we" as if I were a letterman, or at least the towel boy. I am a fan, after all!
So, just what is it that draws us in, from every nook and cranny of the country, to this curious spectacle every March? This could be the single most unifying event in America today.
Young or old, male or female, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances—we watch.
Country boys, city slickers, gang bangers, and bank tellers—we hang on every dribble, every pass, and every three-pointer attempted and made.
Somewhere, there is a kid who is too young to have seen it live who can recite to you, play-by-play, the sequence that ended in "The Dunk" by Lorenzo Charles, to produce that oh-so-improbable victory for North Carolina State over the seemingly invincible Phi Slamma Jamma.
Imagine that: a team that dunked their way to the championship game, done in by its own signature move.
Isn’t that why we love it so?
We love the fact that, even though we know only 15 or 20 teams really have what it takes to win it all, on any given afternoon or evening, some upstart can knock one of those would-be champions on their keister, and right out of the tournament.
Sometimes, though, David reaches into his satchel and finds no more stones, and Goliath rises up to impale the lad, ending his dreams of conquest.
Some of us root for David, some for Goliath; in the end, though, don’t we all just want a good, tight game more than anything else?
It’s hard watching some of these young men crying their eyes out as their season ends, as their careers are extinguished and as the grim reality sets in: It is now time to enter an entirely different world, one in which their past accomplishments mean little or nothing.
It must be an empty feeling, and guys, there is no shame in admitting that there are times when we want to walk up to one of our vanquished heroes, give him a hug and say, “Son, thanks for the memories.”
On the flip side, though, is the thrill of triumph. The knowledge that “your” team has overcome all obstacles, won those last six games in a row, and has earned the title of national champion.
I would love to have that feeling some day.
In the end, there is absolutely no way to quantify in fewer than a million words or so what it is, exactly, that attracts so many of us, from so many walks of life, to this marvelous spectacle that is about to unfold.
This year, for me personally, I want to see Robert Dozier and John Calipari celebrating a national championship. I bet Robert would be very quiet and subdued; Calipari would dance a jig.
But I digress.
We live vicariously through our gallant, innocent heroes. No matter how jaded these student-athletes may (or may not) be, no matter what they have done or what they have seen, they become our kids when they are on that floor, living their dream.
We get an intense adrenaline rush out of the opening tip, the last two minutes before halftime, the first five minutes of the second half, and of course, the taut last few minutes of the struggle.
For two hours, we live in a black-and-white world, where anything positive that our team accomplishes is good and absolutely anything else is simply bad. The opposite team is the enemy, and referees are either good or evil from one minute to the next based strictly on whether or not they side with the favored team—ours.
I think all of us—the coaches, the players, and, of course, the fans—know that, in so many ways, this is it. For most of the young men playing in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, this is the last time they will play in front of thousands of people with nothing else at stake except pride.
Besides playing on the playground, this is as pure as it gets.
Of course, it’s not actually that simple. There are insane amounts of money to be made, by the colleges and universities involved.
But the kids are playing for free. Isn’t that part of the appeal?
There are fans in Kansas who pull for Memphis; people in Texas who bleed Carolina Blue; UCLA fans living in New York. The locality doesn’t matter.
The loyalties do.
What I’m saying is this: There are more reasons to watch March Madness than there are words in the dictionary. In the end, it all comes down to love.
Love of the game. Love of the university. Love of the coach. Love of the players. Love of the conflict.
Professional sports have let us down time after time. Narcissistic free agents leave us just as we have memorized their career stats. Heroes disappoint us with the revelation that they were playing under the influence of performance-enhancing drugs. The players’ unions have gone on strike, the owners have dirty hands.
We love March Madness because it is one of the last bastions of innocence. Not perfection, maybe, but innocence, nevertheless. It is pure; it is simple; it is fair and just.
Did my team score more than yours?
If the answer is yes, we shed tears of joy and revel in what we have just experienced.
If the answer is no, we shed tears of anguish and prepare for what is yet to come.
Either way, we don’t really lose. Isn’t that why we love March Madness?