Archive for March, 2017

March Madness Is Far From Maddening

“Basketball junkie” doesn’t fully capture how into the sport I was. The Nerf hoop in the hallway next to the TV room staged real-time re-enactments of what I witnessed on screen. The sweat, the nerves, the dunks, the jumpers.

 In the mid-1980s, Vanderbilt Commodores basketball didn’t justify live, prime-time television coverage. Their games were broadcast only by tape delay on an obscure UHF station, WZTV. 
On Saturday nights, I somehow persuaded my folks to put me to bed at 8 pm and then revive me after the late local news for Vandy game replays.

Those late nights weren’t the only exception to traditional parenting rules. When Vandy made it to the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen a time or two in that decade, it was cause for early release from school.
Shooting guard Phil Cox led the nation in foul shooting percentage back then, an achievement you’d expect from an institution with high academic standards.
I still have a Hollywood style black and white head shot of Mr. Cox. “To Kevin…Phil Cox.” I imitated his every move, including the feathered hairstyle with the middle part.
When March Madness rolled around each spring, it was as serious as a game could get.
I carefully taped the tournament bracket from the Nashville Banner newspaper onto a large piece of cardboard. I attached a pencil on a string to the cardboard so as not to miss a game result for want of a pen.
I stayed glued to the tube except when game action inspired me to the outdoor hoop beside my house. We lived on a tall hill in Middle Tennessee. An errant shot could mean a three hundred foot hike back up. It didn’t take many ball retrievals to learn the value of concentration.
For all that’s changed in the world since 1987 when Keith Smart’s last second baseline jumper lifted Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers over Syracuse, March Madness has morphed very little. 
You still have no-names blown out by dynasties and powerhouses upset by underdogs. You still have college kids’ playing for the thrill of victory and dealing with the agony of defeat.
As The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay put it, “This is the best of amateur sports in America, and nobody makes money off this thing except for the coaches, schools, sponsors, vendors, networks and the NCAA.”
And that’s what makes the whole atmosphere entirely palatable. Players, though they train like professionals, are still kids. Coaches, though they’re paid like CEOs, are still dependent on nineteen-year-olds’ doing what they’re told.
The personalities around the event continue to enhance its value. Clark Kellogg remains painfully boring. Greg Gumbel’s chia hairdo remains fully endearing. Gumbel and DirecTV have produced an hysterical series of commercials for this year’s tournament.
But Charles Barkley, the NBA great who is best known for having never won a championship, is the best commentator of all. His own line of commercials for Capital One will have you rolling, especially the one where his “clapper” turns off the TV right before a last second finish.
Barkley represents the finer qualities of March Madness: simple, unassuming, thoughtful but not pretentious, letting amateurs have the stage. The tournament is, after all, their one shining moment.


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