Brackets bug me. I’m sure it has something to do with money I lost betting on Gonzaga one time. But there’s a bigger issue for me and this brackets business sucking in all the office workers in North America this month.
Maybe it’s because I like basketball more than horse racing that makes me such a wet blanket around March Madness time. All around me, people play these bracket games, mostly checking off random choices about schools they couldn’t identify. Forget about the players. Most people turn this college tournament into a “Make Money by Watching TV” scheme. Maybe being on the hook for cash and prizes generates a kind of interest that watching these student athletes compete for a chance at immortality just can’t match for some reason. I think the reason I like to bet on horseracing is because it distracts me from the sadness of realizing that these beautiful animals have been bred to do only one thing: run around a track. This is not the case in the NCAA tournament. These students come from everywhere, and they are all going places. That’s what I love. That’s what makes this event so special and so different from a glitzy casino sweepstakes.
Did I mention that Gonzaga is my team? They play in beautiful Eastern Washington State. There are lots of Native Americans in the largely Catholic student body. The unlikely place and people at Gonzaga gives the Gonzaga story an added Cinderella charm for me. Gonzaga also always breaks my heart in the NCAA tournament, but I don’t care. It’s all these students, playing for all these teams that matter most to me. What’s not to love about these players, for any of the teams? They are playing at the top of their game, in front of the biggest audience of their lives and most have no chance at all at ever playing after they graduate. This means these games, for most of the players, are the last high profile basketball games they will ever play. From the NCAA it’s back to pickup ball, maybe a league here or there. Some might coach, and some may never pick up a basketball again.
That’s the beauty for me. I marvel at the drama of all these ending and beginning moments in the NCAA tournament that make it like no other sporting event. So many young people graduating with degrees in engineering, pre med, mathematics, aerospace, English, and I suppose there are also a few Physical education majors out there as well. Their whole careers lie before them even as we watch their runs in competitive basketball wind down. Think of it: If the students started playing intramural hoops back as far as sixth graders, they have probably been playing competitive basketball longer than anything they’ve ever done, save eating, walking and reading schoolbooks. And now it’s all ending while the rest of their lives beckon.
It’s not just the players. I even love watching the marching bands in the stands. They too get a piece of this “Hi, Mom!” moment on national television. In the cutaway shots, you’ve got Fred and Janey over there playing baritone horns for Xavier. The shiny brass Utah State glockenspiel looks both proud and goofy up there next to the trombones like a military flag. (Did you know that Utah State has a 100% graduation rate?)
I love the real cheerleaders in the NCAA tournament. They are acne-faced multi-sized college kids, not like the perfectly coiffed NBA or NFL supermodel wannabes. The cheerleaders get a piece of the magic too. You can see them crying their eyes out for their schools, win or lose. The March Madness sweepstakes I like to watch is this along-for-the-ride roulette game of people swept onto center stage, only to disappear into a cloud of memory. All these tournament images on the court and in the stands just float away when the games are over and take their place as still photos, home videos, and scrapbook memories for people whose lives will lead them somewhere unimagined during these exciting March Madness days, soon to be so, so long ago.
I still remember the last moment of the 1982 NCAA finals. Patrick Ewing of Georgetown and Michael Jordan of North Carolina were two brilliant students playing in their last college game. Ewing lost that game and Jordan won it when unknown Georgetown student player Fred Brown made a bad pass to NC star and Jordan teammate James Worthy in the final seconds. Unlike most everyone else in the tournament that year both Michael and Patrick went on to hall of fame careers in the NBA, while poor Fred Brown faded into an initially painful obscurity. That’s not the end of the story, though.
Regardless of their heroics playing professionally, Ewing and Jordan have always remained, for me, frozen in that last riveting game. Patrick Ewing went to the New York Knicks and never won a Championship, repeatedly facing and losing to Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls, who it seemed could never lose. Fred Brown’s life moved on, becoming a successful financial planner, even though he still hears about that nasty bad pass from time to time. Ewing and Jordan, for all their stellar NBA stats, never matched that dramatic NCAA finals game when everything was at stake and both of them were nobodies to most of America.
The betting and the money of brackets get in the way of all that NCAA magic, by my way of thinking. It substitutes our generic horseracing gambling experience for the once in a lifetime moments for all these students. I don’t begrudge anyone their brackets and may the best team win and all that, and the best players make the best deals with the NBA. But I’ll be watching for the faces I’ve never before seen and will never see again. They may not all come out on top, but in my view they all win. Now … Go Gonzaga.