I was introduced to the magic and ritual of March Madness in my grade school years. During tournament time, my dad would take my siblings and me to McDonald’s for breakfast before school and we’d devour our Egg McMuffins along with the USA Today sports page. We perused the brackets and my dad would explain the seedings, the selection process, the regions, and the NIT. At those breakfasts I learned enough about basketball to carry me through my adult years, when I didn’t have time to read Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover anymore and my work schedule interfered with watching the tournament games.
Studies in contrast
This year, I watched the part of the bracket pairings on TV. Periodically CBS provided live shots of teams huddled in front of the TV, erupting into celebration upon hearing that they had received an at-large bid. During the one-hour broadcast the networks revealed the chosen 65 bracket-by-bracket, and feel-good moment after feel-good moment unfurled. I have the same thought every year: March Madness is always great fun and, at its onset, the air is ripe with jubilant anticipation.
But this year, in the world at large, an entirely different kind of anticipation mounts. War with Iraq appears imminent, perhaps only hours away. Physicians and scientists scramble to pin down the source of a deadly pneumonia outbreak. Violence continues in the Middle East. We watch CNN on edge. It’s hard to stomach the contents of the morning paper while eating one’s Egg McMuffin. Yet in the midst of global unease and world unrest, tournament time arrives and Bracketville beckons. A strange juxtaposition indeed.
March Madness has always provided a welcome pick-me-up before the official onset of spring, but the diversion it provides may be all the more important now. One could argue that we really shouldn’t be obsessing about whether Kansas should have been a number one seed or Boston College deserved the at-large-berth that went to Auburn. Not when our world has bigger fish to fry. Maybe phenomenal first-round matchups such as Gonzaga vs. Cincinnati even seem trivial in the face of unprecedented global unrest.
Still, one can hardly ignore all that is good about the NCAA tournament:
- The test of a team’s collective physical endurance that the rigorous game-after-game schedule provides.
- For college seniors like Hollis Price of Oklahoma, a last stand and final test of their leadership.
- For fans, days of finagling long lunch hours while searching for a sandwich and satellite.
And, most importantly, the NCAA tournament offers
the opportunity for David and Goliath matchups (Kentucky vs. IUPUI anyone?) that can give rise to Cinderellas of Hoosiers proportions. Football superpower schools with deep pockets are matched with Big Dance first-timers (think Troy State).
In other words, little guys have the chance to win and often do—a refreshing thought when our country, neglecting anything remotely resembling a team approach, is about to unleash overwhelming force against an entire country (and not just its dictator). It is the little guys who will ultimately suffer.
It may seem insensitive, trivial even, to revel in the joys of March Madness in the midst of war. But I think we need to, if only to celebrate the good that these joys represent. We can watch and wonder what would happen if the same values that make March Madness so special—teamwork and a fair chance for underdogs—could somehow alleviate the tension in the larger world.
If only it were that simple. If only we could all work together as a team. If only everyone, big and small, had a chance on the same court.
Cynics will say that it’s naïve to think that this could ever happen, but at least, this tournament season, we can celebrate these values where they do exist. On the court. In the paint. On the bench. If not in the Global Village, at least in the good town of Bracketville.