Reasons To Be Mad, Part Two

More of what makes us watch during the first few wild days of March Madness.
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Total Basketball Immersion continues. As does our series of brief musings and jokes and statements of purpose and purposelessness on the topic of why we watch in March, courtesy of various Classical staffers, contributors and fellow travelers.

I Hate Myself and Want to Die, by Bethlehem Shoals

As a die-hard NBA fan, March Madness is generally a time for me to write some snooty pieces, and watch with a combination of fear and sadness as all of America goes bonkers over unwatchable basketball. If UNC makes a run, I cobble together a rooting interest, since that’s my birthright and all, and I’ve duty-bound to pay attention to Kentucky so I can sound smart when the draft rolls around. Mostly, though, these weeks are ugly and mean for me. Everybody else is having a blast, and I feel like a grouchy Communist—too alone to fight and too useless to die.

I refuse to fall into the “College basketball drives like this; the NBA drives like this” binary, but it’s safe to say that March Madness delivers very little of what attracts me to basketball. It’s small-time, inept, sentimental, goofball sport, suckling at raw nerve left dangling like this was life itself.

This year, though, I’ve decided to give in and taste the magic. I wouldn’t exactly say I’m enjoying myself, but I’ve come to realize that very few people watch March Madness for the play-to-play beauty. It’s about a cumulative effect of excitement and intensity, one that almost benefits from broken plays and deferred gratification—to say nothing of endings that come down to free-throw shooting contests. It’s basketball as pure drama, sport drained of its finer points and many of its larger concerns. Rather, it's the exaggerated highs and lows of shitty movies and energy drink binges. March Madness isn’t about how the game is played, or what’s left out. The stuff that fills in those gaps is something that’s accessible to pretty much anyone with a pulse. It’s the anti-matter of basketball, and we’re as helpless to resist it as we are to save the universe from slowly decaying away.

Promiscuity, by Graydon Gordian

The empty shock—that flash of uninvested enthusiasm—is what I enjoy about the NCAA tournament. I have never had nor do I anticipate having much deep-seated emotional investment in the tournament. As a Texas fan, I expect the Longhorns to make the tournament, but a second round knockout has never caught intellectually honest UT fans by surprise.

It’s also not really about the upsets either, although an upset victory can be one kind of empty shock. And by “empty shock,” I mean those hollow moments when I piggyback on the joy felt by a group of young men and the hordes of fans whose vicariousness is somewhat more defensible than mine. I’m talking about Western Kentucky’s last second victory against Drake in 2008 or Northern Iowa’s upset against Kansas in 2010 or Kansas’ overtime victory in the championship game against Memphis or countless other games I’ve forgotten because, for me, they’re nothing more than a cheap thrill, an unanticipated, easily forgotten ejaculation of enthusiasm.

That’s all it is for me, but it’s something. That moment when I hear the 14th seed beat the 3rd seed and with fleeting yet genuine excitement say, “No way.” Anyhow, the dogs go on with their doggy life, the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree, and there I am, not specially wanting it to have happened. By the next week I can’t even remember which sacrificial team had the dubious honor of that third seed.

X Year to Next Year, by Pete Beatty

I don’t even like basketball very much, probably because I sucked at it as a kid (I also suck at it as an adult). But I like the NCAA basketball tournament, and I like the Xavier Musketeers, because they are, in their appearances in the seeded era of the tourney, on average an 8.4 seed. There is no better numerical expression of middle-class humility-as-defining-trait-and-slightly-pathological-hangup than averaging 8.4 out of 16. I like Xavier because their coaches keep leaving them for bigger programs, pretty much as soon as they can. Because Xavier is Jesuit. Because my sister went there. Because their current primary dude is named Tu Holloway. Because they had a fight with Cincinnati this year, then offered some unusually gully explanations for said fight.

People who haven’t done at least a couple of transits of southwestern Ohio don’t understand that a brawl at the XU-Cincy game, particularly an ugly, YouTube-quality brawl, is like a fight at a family reunion, or a fight at that event every year when the president pardons a turkey. It’s bad vibes. The bad vibes, plus the suspensions, pretty much wrecked Xavier’s season. Except, like Xavier always does, they wadded their season back together with snot and wood glue and chicken wire and clawed their way into the tournament, where they’ll probably lose to Duke in the second round. Every year I pick XU to make the Sweet Sixteen, sometimes when they aren’t even in the tournament. Most of the time they let me down, but not always. If you subtract most of the time from always, you still got something.

A Real Hero, by Kevin Lincoln

We are talking about kids, here. I am also pretty much a kid but I will call these kids kids because they are younger than me now, which is strange and maybe something important also, on another level. But these kids are kids who rise up like gods and destroy, rise and fire, sprint and blow through opponents, negating them so that their executioners can mean something. Sacrifice and subjugation. Kids, then, but kids becoming these bigger things, what Tommy Craggs once so aptly described as the gargantuan lives that become ciphers for sport. Without the kids it's like, well, this is just the regular season in the shape of a cone.

The teams that win March Madness are whatever. Without being too dismissive, I like tournaments. They're nice. I just like the kid-characters better, when they slice through swaths of the nation like it's not even up to them. Stephen Curry will never not be the skinny alien genius corkscrewing, pivoting on himself into another weird dimension. And the kids who are lucky enough to win the whole thing, at the end, get to wear those ill-fitting hats. It’s an awkward phase that doesn’t end. God, seeing Kyle Singler in that hat was like seeing a dolphin wearing shoes.

Duke Issues, by Noah Davis

Every year, I pick Duke to win my bracket. A childhood love of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill led me to support them well before I thought about college or understood the river of hate in which Blue Devils fans are perpetually hip deep. As I write this, for instance, the team's Wikipedia page reads "Duke Blastin Boners" and features a broken link that leads to the 2011-12 roster of the Blastin Boners men's basketball team.

Dragging Duke into the National Championship box is a rite of spring, although I miss the old days, when I would write the name down, in the old-fashioned pencil-on-paper way, six times in a row. The truth about Duke teams, which is fairly well-known but also broadly true of other teams, is that they seldom perform to expectations. Occasionally, a team that doesn't seem very good goes on a run and surprises you, but usually it's the other way around. They suffer crushing, yet predictable-if-you've-been-paying-attention defeats when they forget how to shoot threes against an inferior opponent or Jay Williams misses a free throw. When you spend your formative years quietly chanting "Let's Go Duke" under your breath and crying when they lose, you grow steeled against these setbacks and prepared for the inevitable red line through your predicted national champion. But I have never stopped putting those four letters in the final spot. Even if, yes, almost everyone I know who has gone to Duke is at least kind of a blastin’ boner.

Being There, by Joshua Lars Weill

I just drove 10 hours back to my home state of Kentucky to watch the opening games at Louisville's shiny new YUM! Center. Except not exactly, because I don't actually have tickets to any games. I'm just going to visit a friend, watch games at his downtown home, and be in proximity to where my beloved Kentucky Wildcats are playing—them and Murray State and others. So I'll be close to the experience, as close as possible, but also on the other side of the television screen. As we watch, the streets right outside will be seas of jolly-bellied beardos and European football-style chanting, all in the service of a hostile takeover of arch-rival Louisville's home court. There is no place I’d rather be, or almost-be.

The Small Stuff, by Charles Star

I want the Goliath universities that draw the bulk of their fans from state pride or national profile fall to the well-flung rock of a David college supported by alumni and townies. I always want this and will always want this. More prosaically, I want the underdog to win.

Which is not necessarily unique, I know. I root for the underdog out of habit. I chose my favorite teams young and for idiosyncratic reasons and, generally, chose poorly. I spent the 1980’s rooting for the Pirates, Saints and Red Wings. I couldn’t have done worse if the goal was to get into clinical antidepressant trials. I’ve learned that it is much more exhilarating to win unexpectedly or after a long stretch of losing, but mostly I have learned about losing. I have learned, that it is slightly more painful to lose as a favorite but also that rooting for a loser isn’t a vaccine against disappointment.

I’ve learned this, if not exactly learned from it. Come March, I put my hopes into HBCUs, Directional State U’s, commuter schools, intimate campuses and old alma mater, which finally paid off in 2010 when Cornell made the Sweet 16. This once, it was not for hockey. Which, while I have your attention, is a better tournament.

Without Madness, by Eric Freeman

I spent my years at Stanford fairly obsessed with college basketball, watching at least five games per week (in addition to our two), consulting bracketology at the time of the year when everything was just a blind guess, and treating every admissions rejection of a coveted recruit as if it were a personal slight. In the years since I graduated, that mania has become something more like indifference, both because of Stanford's descent into irrelevance and for the simple fact that it's a lot easier to care about a non-championship team when it takes ten minutes to walk to the arena.

And yet I still watch every round of the NCAA Tournament religiously, and not just because I work from home and need to watch something to keep from falling asleep. There's something exciting about watching uncompensated youngsters playing their hearts out for the glory of their school and draft position, sure, but casting a single-elimination sports tournament as some kind of moral journey threatens to turn an enjoyable thing into an election-season talking point.

What I've come to realize, now that I watch the games while doing other things, is that the fundamental appeal of the early rounds of the tournament isn't the pulse-pounding drama that pops up just a few times a day, but that the games hum along at such a steady pace they become soothing. Twelve hours of basketball, played by various directional institutions and feline-mascotted teams, provides both a uniform background to the day's events and a welcome distraction from the more pressing aspects of work.

It's possible I'm just getting older. But, when I think back to my years as a college basketball fanatic, my fondest memories of the tournament are of the times I didn't really care what happened to Stanford. I was perfectly happy sitting around with friends drinking terrible beer and talking about insignificant aspects of our social lives. No one was consumed by the tournament as a whirlwind. It was a cool thing we watched while we relaxed and had a good time.

Previously: Reasons To Be Mad, Part One

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