The NCAA Division I Men’s basketball tournament is one of the most exciting sporting events in the world. At the amateur level the tourney knows few rivals.
65 collegiate basketball teams from across America play a total of 64 games, with every single one ending someone’s otherwise impressive season—as pure of a playoff format as you will find in sports.
Young men, aged 18-23, play a game invented 117 years ago, in Springfield, Massachusetts, in a single elimination tournament broadcast live into millions of homes and to every establishment in America that serves alcohol and has a television.
CBS, the Columbia Broadcasting System, televises every game live—using hundreds of cameras, and thousands of announcers, cameramen, professional statisticians, producers, and others.
If one watched every game—possible through CBSSports.com and with satellite packages providing multiple feeds—he or she would have seen nearly 43 hours of basketball, and in only nine days. There are undoubtedly thousands of Americans who do just that.
Basketball is the only American sport to gain a popular foothold on every continent, except Antarctica.
The National Basketball Association, with 32 teams in cities across America, boasts players from Asia, Central and South America, Europe and Africa.
The amateur game and its championship tournament, however, is a distinctly American love affair. We are drawn to it like no other domestic sporting event.
Our higher education structure, with thousands of colleges and universities dotting the landscape, is unparalleled and serves to create an amateur sports tournament unlike any other.
We have over 4,000 higher education institutions in the U.S, and from the 40,000 student University of Texas to the University of Dayton, population 3,000; the range and depth of our universities is quite impressive.
In fact, there is nowhere else in the world where such an athletic event is possible.
Even if the rest of the world’s amateur sports teams represented universities and colleges like ours do—they generally do not—no other country would be able to produce an amateur tournament of the size and grandeur that we can, and do, with the NCAA tournament.
It is a special event, and an historic one, every single year. It is a celebration of America, where teams of diverse backgrounds and regions can compete for the same prize, the ultimate prize, a national championship.
Each team good enough and lucky enough to earn a bid to the tournament represents a group of people much larger than themselves.
There are regional favorites, large state universities representing millions, and small private schools, with fans scattered throughout the country. Nearly every American can find an excuse to root for at least one team, although many Americans follow the tournament’s progress with rabid passion long after “their” team has been eliminated.
Undoubtedly, if Americans love one thing about the tournament—it’s the system. It’s clean, pure, and simple—traits beloved by a people who demand and expect brutally efficient structures.
From the seemingly absurd “queues” in England to the ingrained corruption in Asia and South America—Americans are appalled at the lack of efficiency in the rest of the world. We know a crap system when we see it, and—if given enough time on this earth to learn to appreciate it—marvel at how America simply works.
Accordingly, if there is a model of efficiency in determining a champion of sport—the NCAA tournament is it.
In businesses, schools, and nearly every other establishment across the country, Americans of every age and background fill out their brackets. This is a very big deal.
Americans smart enough and fortunate enough to pick every winner of every game are bestowed legendary status—giving television appearances and writing articles on how you to can “pick” all the winners.
For an entire year, winners of ESPN.com, CNNSI.com and other sports website bracket competitions are viewed with a distinctive awe: “How did they do it?”
With millions of Americans filling out their brackets, year after year after year, with little to no chance of ever going 64-for-64 (there are over 9.2 quintillion possible brackets), the few who get close are credited with abilities normally reserved for superheroes and prophets.
The tournament provides one of the rare occasions where millions of adults take advice from a 14-year-old, as the 2008 ESPN.com winner, Johnny Gilbert, gave his on Mar. 17, on the program “First Take,” broadcast by ESPN2.
Gilbert's prodigious talents became all the more maddening when he revealed his secret recipe: the sports page with a heavy dose of no cable television.
Winners of bracket pools, whether between friends or in the office, gain instant credibility.
Bosses look at employees different—witness to an unexpected flash of brilliance from an otherwise indistinguishable employee—ignoring the implications of a successful bracket, namely the amount of research, with company resources, it takes to acquire a superior knowledge of collegiate basketball.
Among friends, the embarrassing sports related comment made last August, “Lord Almighty, Chuck Knoblauch is having a great, great year,” can be forgiven and forgotten with an impressive bracket.
Redemption is best served aged, and from one March to the next, fortunate Americans across the country take a big bite.
As the game of basketball spreads, giving tall and awkward fútbol players the world over hope for the future, we Americans will hold our tournament high—a beautiful model of amateur competitive sport—for the world must take notice.
The NCAA tourney is an event bringing all Americans together, in a celebration of things, whether we realize it or not, quintessentially American.