March Madness. No sport has coined its golden moment better than men’s college basketball. Not March Mayhem. Not March Delirium. Not March Playoffs.
It’s the rare moment when we are allowed to forget our bills, our troubles and our lives.
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Even the Super Bowl, America’s preeminent sporting event, lasts only a few hours. And we’re often reminded that it’s also a business transaction, with commercial spots selling for seven figures, a Twitter god singing at halftime and a beleaguered commissioner handing the Lombardi Trophy to a team that took him to court.
Even the World Series, the peak of our pastime, has suffered under the iron fist of the NFL, which has surpassed MLB as our favorite sport. Indeed, baseball, while still profitable and prosperous, has seen sagging ratings, with playoff coverage splintered into a TV tree of networks. It took the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, two teams that had gone a combined 160-plus years without a World Series title, for baseball to produce epic ratings.
But March Madness is about unfiltered joy, about school spirit and esprit de corps. It’s about Northwestern, a media powerhouse and hardwood pauper, making its first tournament ever, and then winning its first game, after six lead changes in the final 90 seconds and a silly foul that will haunt a young Vanderbilt man for the rest of his life. No matter how it happened, there were 220 NCAA men’s basketball teams (including Vandy) that won a tournament game before Northwestern finally made the archives. You need not be named Warren Beatty, Stephen Colbert or Joe Girardi — all Northwestern alums — to smile toward Chicago.
But even the NCAA Tournament has to fend off the smog of industry. While Northwestern’s players, students and alums danced the day away, pundits took to the TV studios to explain the firing of Tom Crean, who just a year ago was the toast of Bloomington. Now the Indiana Hoosiers are looking for a new coach, no doubt on a crusade to bring back their native son, Steve Alford.
Wasn’t Indiana reality-proof? Isn’t it not only the home of the Hoosiers, but also the home of Hoosiers? Didn’t Gene Hackman become our surrogate coach? Isn’t Indiana the spiritual embryo of high school basketball, the birthplace of John Wooden?
So March Madness, for all its splendor, has only so much Teflon. The tourney doubles as a portal to spring weather. But someone forgot to tell Stella, which tossed a thick, white blanket of snow over the East Coast, from Virginia to Boston.
But not even snow can freeze our feelings, or our bracket, in duplicate, triplicate or those phone apps that allow you to create 20 brackets. To be the lord of your office, king of the cubicles. To sneak out of the office and storm your local pub, swathed in college colors, or to flop on your couch, nestle next to a beverage and bag of pretzels. It’s the one time the term “gambling” is benign, a cozy euphemism for fun. Your thumb strains from pounding the remote, between TBS and TNT and truTV and the epicenter of the sport, CBS.
The best way to spread fairy dust on March Madness is for Cinderella to finally break through. Not just make the last weekend, but snip those nets from the rim. Every time George Mason or Butler crashes the party, there’s a blue-blood bouncer at the door, unwilling to lift the velvet rope.
There’s too much time, money and manpower devoted to the powers — to Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA, etc. — to keep them out of the Final Four. And, frankly, we need them. For all the lamentations about the same teams in April syndication, we need villains as much as we need heroes. It would just be nice for a basketball version of the Cubs to climb that ladder on Monday night.
But not even the hardwood aristocracy can stain this moment, these first four days of mayhem, of incessant basketball, literally more games than we can watch, beyond our eyes’ poor power of correction. Whether you attended one of these schools or just feel some spiritual connection to them, there’s no sport that can produce this kind of magic. Sixty-four teams, beaming with optimism, get reduced to 32, to Sweet 16, to Elite Eight, to Final Four, to two…
Forget that networks spend billions for the right to broadcast these games, or that players graduate, or that coaches get fired. Give us this long weekend to fit small schools for glass slippers, to dream of our favorite team drowned in confetti, for our hated team to taste defeat. Allow us these four days of March. Of magic. Of mayhem. Of Madness.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.