Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022 |
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I remember March in St. Augustine. I spent four of them there. The dawning of spring in North Florida was beautiful, so I hear. Friends would tell me about the morphing of the foliage from a barren gray into enough flashes of colorful brilliance to make a kaleidoscope jealous.
Problem was, I never saw it. I was too busy filling out my tournament bracket.
For a college hoops’ junkie, there’s no time like March. It’s a monthlong Christmas; a 720-hour birthday; four weeks of unabashed euphoria.
You can imagine why April is my wife’s favorite month.
The NCAA tournament is unlike any other sporting spectacle in a country teeming with competitive outlets. It’s the only one I can think of off hand — besides, perhaps, the only-happens-ever-four-years Olympics — that features upsets on the order of logic-defying every year. Some twelve or thirteen seed slips through the first round or two, and all of a sudden, Southwest Missouri State has a chance to eliminate Stanford.
This screws up almost every pool in the nation, but nobody cares.
Instead, a society that thrives on the underdog’s success — that loved Rocky and Rudy and Hoosiers — gets to live vicariously through the NCAA tournament.
Two years ago, a basketball team from a little Jesuit school out of Spokane, Wash., spent its March capturing the fascination of hardwood fans everywhere. Gonzaga, seeded 10th, zigged all the way to the Elite 8 before falling to Connecticut. In the Bulldogs’ wake floundered teams like Stanford, Florida and Minnesota. Bandwagoners in the Sunshine State were sporting purple “Go Zags” T-shirts and rooting for America’s new princes with wide-eyed vigor.
For three weeks, little-known Gonzaga was the darling of the sports world. Try finding even the possibility of that in other competitive formats.
Could the NBA field such emotion? Nope, too much exposure. At the very least, you had to live on the West Coast to even see Gonzaga’s basketball exploits on the small screen. Yet, with satellite television and a six-month supply of Pepto-Bismal, you could watch almost every L.A. Clippers’ game. Same goes for pro hockey and baseball. What’s more, in those three professional sports, a team can get to the playoffs, lose, and still win a series. That’s why only the NFL comes close to the NCAA Tournament.
The gridiron at least provides a lose-and-go-home format for its postseason. And, in fact, just this year, a wildcard team — the Baltimore Ravens — was able to make a less-than-magical run to the NFL championship. But the Ravens were no darlings; the fresh-faced young men from Gonzaga surely were.
And don’t even get me started on NCAA football and its beguiling bouquet of bemoaned bowls.
Last year, a buddy of mine ordered some special package that piped every game of the tournament’s first three rounds onto his 19-inch television screen. Then he gave me the keys to his apartment. It was the best belated birthday present I’ve ever received. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my production at work slipped for three weeks.
Over the first weekend of the tournament — actually Thursday through Sunday — I spent most of my waking hours at his place. My wife joined me once, but, though we were the only two non-televised people in the room, I kept forgetting to talk to her.
Properly annoyed, she split, told me to call her when I was ready to come home. I remember now that I hardly turned to acknowledge her departure — a twelve seed was leading by six in the waning moments of a first-round game.
Needless to say, I won’t be getting the package this year.
But only because there aren’t enough hours in the day. In St. Augustine, the sports department went three deep, so I could delegate. As the only man running the show here, I can’t just leave the command post for four days at a time. But others would.
In Florida, I knew guys who exercised a portion of their precious two weeks of paid vacation on the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend. And two of them were married! I bought each of those gentlemen a VCR for Christmas last year.
Degrees of rabid aside, there is something attractive about the purity of the tournament. The young men on the floor are not paid to challenge for the most elusive of titles. Rather, they do it because since mid-October they’ve been flushing out their basketball souls in the name of winning, in the name of qualifying as one of the top 65 (one more team has been added this year) teams in the nation. Once into the field, every team believes it’s got a chance.
And more than the dawning of young buds on tree limbs, that belief means spring to me.
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