Reasons To Be Mad, Part One

The various things that make us watch during the first wild few days of March Madness.
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Total Basketball Immersion. It is happening now. While everyone who cares to be subsumed in basketball is already happily in that place, we all found ourselves here for our own reasons. Here are a few of the reasons why we watch, from various Classical staffers, contributors and fellow travelers.

Holy, Holy, by Ryan O’Hanlon

I went to a college with a bronze statue of Bob Cousy outside of the athletic center. This school has not won a national championship since the NIT was the national championship. In my four years there, we made the NCAA Tournament once. This was during my freshman year, when we faced Southern Illinois back when that was sort of an intimidating match-up. They were a four-seed; we were a 13. I think Doug Gottlieb—or some other slick, faintly weasel-ish analyst-type—said we were a team to look out for during one of the bracket-breakdown shows.

We lost, 61-51. The game was pretty terrible, one of those where you’re waiting for a team to make run, but no one does and it just kind of ends where it started, with one team slightly but decisively better than the other. We watched in a dorm room, drank fizzy-fart beer, I had a modified caucasia-fro—you know, college stuff. My soccer coach was the centerpiece for the generic “COME TO OUR SCHOOL” commercial, but that was about it in terms of excitement. I imagine this happens all across the country on Thursdays and Fridays in mid-March. Most of the time, that’s probably about it—the same crappy beers, some brief and tenuous purpose. But also sometimes not, because there is always the chance that a basketball game—a totally meaningless one in the big, NCAA tourney picture—suddenly makes a small group of bored students and old alums stupidly happy for a few hours. Not many things can do that. And I went to Holy Cross, if that matters. But it doesn’t really matter.

Home Sick, by David Roth

Because it doesn’t really stop, because of the way it slops and sweats and intrudes, and because of the air of unreality that all that creates, the first days of the NCAA tournament are feverish in a more literal and less literary way than is maybe comfortable. It’s all woozed-out and weird and nothing makes sense and why is everyone acting like that and Bill Raftery’s there—the only thing that really distinguishes the NCAA tournament from the things that spin through my head when I’m in a sick-day half-sleep is that the commercials interrupting the actual NCAA broadcast make less sense. Like, why is Charlie Sheen showing up in ads? I would have to be nursing a fever of 117 to see the logic in any brand or product or anything else aligning itself with that particular neurochemical Superfund site. Anyway.

Anyway, maybe thinking of March Madness as a seasonal illness isn’t quite right. The other thing that takes us as far out of our bodies and selves as the internal churn of antibody and virus is pleasure. If there’s something disorienting about watching a dozen hours of live basketball over the course of a couple of days, it’s the sort of disorientation that we at least choose to seek out and hang out in and experience and such. So maybe clearing the calendar to watch basketball all day isn’t like taking a sick day so much as it’s like staying home to do drugs. Same destination, either way. Same conundrum, too, over whether anything this transporting and enjoyable could possibly be good for you.

The Messenger, by Sean Conboy

"Tar Heels are up 10, and 'Sheed is dropping bombs!" After he caught his breath, that's what Darren Deddis announced to our Phys Ed class. While everyone else played Four Square--our small Catholic school didn't have a basketball hoop, so any synergy with the 1995 Final Four was out of the question--Deddis had snuck off to the computer lab, which was really just a broom closet with stacks of Bibles, a card table and an IBM Personal System 2. Using some backwater terminal, probably Prodigy, Deddis had procured the score of the North Carolina-Iowa State game, and brought the news back to us.

Of course he had. He was the prick whose parents bought him the black-on-black patent leather Jordan XIs. Shoes were the only social signifier in a world of pleated khakis and clip-on ties, and Deddis’s shoe game was tight. He already had pogs and a Genesis, and now he was the hero shouting "Sheed's dropping bombs! Heels up 10!" as different pockets of the gymnasium erupted, asking about other games in progress in far off places. Tecnhologically, we are miles from that gym, but even now that we can access all of it, whenever and wherever and in HD, March Madness feels a little wild, decisively untame-able. Maybe that's the guilt that comes with the pocket radio in the back of the class, the secret Firefox window that gets minimized at the slightest noise around the office. Maybe that's the Catholic in me. Whatever secret access Darren Deddis had, he’s not giving it up. I searched for Darren in all the usual internet places a few months ago. Nothing.  

Being Nowhere, by Dan Packel

The geography lessons of the first two days are almost as compelling as the potential for upsets. Enchantingly, the two sometimes coincide, as when 14th-seeded Northwestern State stunned Iowa on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in 2006.

As it turned out, my inability to identify the state fortunate enough to have this school in its upper left-hand quadrant didn’t stop me from notching it in my bracket as the likely victor over an overrated Iowa. Following the contest with growing hope for my chosen underdog, I soon discovered that the state in question was Louisiana. Beyond unheralded hoopers briefly landing in the national consciousness, I found myself wondering: what goes on in this previously unconsidered—in my mind, at least—pocket of the south? I found, for whatever reasons, that I badly wanted to use the word “benighted” to describe the region, although I was still laughably uninformed about whether the word even fit. In the end, I learned nothing about northwestern Louisiana—its chief industries, the divisive issues in local politics, what people are listening to as they drive home from work. I liked watching their local team win, though. So, where’s Belmont? What won’t I learn about its part of the country this time around?

The Foreseen, by Tom Ley

I will watch the NCAA Tournament this year for the same reason I watch the NCAA Tournament every year. That’s because this is the one time of year in which I know that, at some point, I will be watching a basketball game in which the final seconds will feature some floppy haired kid letting loose a desperate yet beautifully arched half court shot. As I watch that shot reach its inevitable destiny, clanging gracelessly off the back rim, I will start forward in my chair. and I will honestly wonder how the hell that shot didn't go in.

Un-Fun, by Megan Greenwell

I wish I had a storyline. Shaka Smart or Doug McDermott or Baylor's neon uniforms or something. Better yet, I wish I didn't care at all. At least if I didn't care, I couldn't have my heart broken for the 14th straight year by people I love, despite myself. But I care, and I care for the most banal reason imaginable. I care because I'm a Kentucky fan.

No, I know, nobody feels sorry for the Wildcats. I get it. But when you grow up rooting for the winningest team in history, you develop a sense of entitlement, an assumption beyond hope that your team will win it all every year. When they don't—and they haven't for half my lifetime, poor me—it's terrible, and made all the more terrible by the rest of the world's glee that at least the Wildcats lost. Christian Laettner haunts my dreams. Those fucking Huskies crushed me last year. The assassins change by the year, but everything else is the same.

I'd gladly give up the top overall seed to take the pressure off both this year’s model and myself. Other people seem to think March Madness is fun, but mostly I think of it as ulcer-inducing. I'm ready this year, though, which is to say that I’m simultaneously hopeful that this is the year and filled with a sense of dread that it's not. I think I care too much, but it's a little late for that. Go Wildcats.

The Tournament That Loves You Back, by Jason Hill

It’s not controversial, describing the NCAA tournament as great. But, besides being great as entertainment, the tournament is great in the sense of magnitude and measure. The all-day glut of games is immersive to the point of collective delirium—everyone who watches becomes, briefly, part of something; everyone sees the same highlights, shares a kind of awe and thrill at the upsets and the same unfeigned amazement at the blowouts. Every year alums break out their South Dakota State t-shirts, Belmont hoodies, or Montana caps, and are approached by strangers who say not “What’s a Belmont?” but “I totally picked you guys to make the Sweet Sixteen.” The NCAA tournament has all the scale of the World Series or Super Bowl while being more inclusive and less steeped in animus. It makes strangers talk to each other, which is to say that it helps us not be strangers.

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