By Alexa Day
The NCAA Basketball Tournament starts in a few days. The selection show, which will formally announce which teams are playing this year, is later this evening. The very first games (I can’t make myself call that the first round) start on Tuesday. The real action starts on Thursday. I’m so excited that I’m thinking of taping Scandal this week so that I can devote that hour to watching the first round games. My secret fantasy … well, one of them, anyway … is to watch the Round of 64 live and in person, but that’s a long-term goal.
I guess I come from a basketball family. My brother and I both played, and my years on the court taught me more than most of my years in school. Especially law school, which would benefit from some good old basketball wisdom. But you don’t have to be into sports to love the tournament. The tournament is really a story that will take a few weeks to tell, a story with a cast of 68 teams. It’s a tale filled with plot twists, surprises and lots of heroes, and there’s more than a little magic built into that bracket. Check out some of these tourney themes, traditions and takeaways to find the method in the Madness.
1. The world can change in seconds. The shot that wins the game in its final second — the buzzer beater — is a given in the first few games of the tournament. That alone, I think, is reason enough to love this time of year. Anything really can happen, and you really can miss it if you blink. That electricity drives the tourney’s emotional rollercoaster.
2. Hope matters. At some point during the first round games, at least one team will find its tournament future hanging on a single foul shot. Some will need the shooter to succeed and others will need him to miss. While the shooter sets up on the foul line, flanked by his teammates and opponents, and facing a sea of fans who are trying to distract him, watch the sidelines for the real show: a row of players, their arms linked, usually staring down at the floor as they bring their hopes to bear on that one shot. For that moment, all anyone on the bench can do is hope, but in the first round, hope matters a great deal. It’s a force strong enough to feel over the airwaves.
3. Thoughts become things. As the head coach at North Carolina State, Jim Valvano set aside one practice, the sole purpose of which was to cut down the nets. He knew his Wolfpack was going to take the title one day. When that happened (and it was never a question of “if” for Valvano), everyone would need to be comfortable up there taking the nets down to celebrate the victory, so he made that the focus of one entire practice. He was that sure. So many of us have affirmations or big-picture predictions posted near our workspaces or on our bathroom mirrors. But do we believe them? Do we know them to be true? Are we getting ready, or are we going through the motions? (Valvano’s Wolfpack cut the nets down for real in 1983. Valvano’s championship run and his battle against the cancer that claimed his life ten years later are the subjects of the remarkable documentary Survive and Advance.)
4. Character reveals itself in setbacks. Impermanence is one of the things that makes college basketball special. The players seem to understand that it won’t last forever. Keep an eye on the seniors who realize in the last moments of the game that they aren’t going to win. These games are the absolute center of the universe for them, and the end of that last game will mean the end of a lot of things. The end of the tourney. The end of a dream. For many of them, it’s the end of basketball. But they will handle this with a sort of intense grace, a deep dignity that so many of us lose somewhere along the way. (Looking hard at the NBA. Just saying.) Emotions run high in college basketball, and every so often, someone will lose his composure over one of those random things that make the tourney so exciting. But good teams pull together until they regain their focus, and that’s always inspiring to watch.
5. Beware the cynics. The world is filled with people who will try to say that this process is far less magical than I’m making it out to be. Those people almost always point at money. Most of them aren’t actually watching, so they haven’t seen a 21-year-old male weeping without shame on national television because he and his teammates aren’t quite going to make it to the next round. They think everyone’s behavior in college sports — including that intense grace I mentioned a second ago — is motivated by someone else’s money. There will always be people ready to turn that into something base.
And that’s fine. It really is. There’s not a way to stop people determined to take a long whiz into our joy. We can’t control them. We can only move forward with intense grace, palpable hope, the knowledge that magic can happen in a fraction of a second, and the sheer, immovable conviction that good things will eventually come to pass.
That’s not madness, is it?
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