Most of us, blessedly, do not have to deal with what big-time athletes deal with. No one accosts us, fresh out of the shower, to plumb the depths of a still-unfolding bad day; our achy backs and flu-like symptoms are our business and subject to the anguished speculation of no one; we do not receive fines from a bespoke-suited autocrat because we were too exuberant in celebrating some minor triumph or other, and we do not have to live according to the picayune cruelties and self-satirizing legalisms of the NCAA's Infinite Jest-length rulebook. This doesn't mean that life is harder or easier for anyone. Professional athletes may worry less about having enough cash on hand for rent, but professional everything-elses are allowed to spend less time stretching, getting yelled at by Kirk Gibson, and listening to a Skittles-addled Dwight Howard re-enact his favorite scenes from Finding Nemo on the team plane.
This is all good, as far as it goes, but it also means that we're not inured to sports-related pressure in the way that top athletes are. We know how to watch games, of course, and we learn -- or should learn -- how to care about the players and teams we care about in a way that adds to our lives. But somehow, however many years we do this, the pressure of March Madness is more than we can bear. The college-age kids who'll take the floor in the NCAA Tournament later this week will be nervous, and will make mistakes because they're nervous and because they're college-age kids; the games will be better and richer for all this, but the anxiety will be present, palpable and performed all the same. It's reasonable, all of it: they're under a lot of pressure, a lot of people are watching, and a good many of us will care entirely too much about how what they do impacts a speculative bracket we spent 15 minutes filling out. In terms of keeping things in perspective, we doomed bracket prognosticators will acquit ourselves far less well than the players.
We pretty much freak out. We break down and overthink it and get the yips and generally forget ourselves. This is just before the games start, at which point things get worse. The promise of some small pot comprised of damp twenties from your co-workers' pockets, the accumulating irksomeness of being wrong, the little unbidden updrafts of partisanship that make viewers pick sides in a game otherwise without import or interest -- all these things remake us into baffled crazy people during the first days of the tournament. To say that there is overreaction involved is maybe overly generous. The craziness is accretive, one hyper-reaction compounding on another, each bit of mania fueled by another, higher and higher and further and further out.
I am not above any of this. Some years ago, at the home of friends who welcomed me into their place and even made seven-layer dip, I shrugged off most everything I hold dear and started cheering for Duke. Loudly, and only because I was the one person in the place that hadn't picked Duke to be upset in the first round, and thus stood to gain some slight advantage in our bracket. I slapped the floor. I put on a fake triumphal-bro Dukie voice and tormented some of my dearest friends by talking about Brian Zoubek's toughness and Coach K's singular leadership. I made up some stuff about graduation rates and I'm pretty sure I said "winning the right way." I was horrible, in short, and while I was joking I also still said all those words. I'm not proud of Duke Guy, because why would I be proud of it. Anyway, I'm not that person anymore. I still spend time filling out my NCAA Tournament brackets, I still get frustrated when I am -- invariably, inevitably -- wrong. But I am working on it. I am learning how to deal with this madness. Join me.
* * *
The truth of the matter is that no one understands college basketball. Those of us who have watched it for decades, perhaps with more misguided floor-slapping emotion than cold objectivity and still with no great success, can't help but admit as much at this point. There are the KenPom.com stats, which are good. There is conference tournament week, when our own subjectivity and emotions and the frantic context conspire to convince us that Belmont or Northwestern State or land grant branch campus or directional institution or jumped-up midwestern liberal arts school is This Year's Team. There are biases on biases on biases, but finally there are the facts -- college basketball doesn't make sense and cannot really be predicted, and college basketball players (with the odd virtuosic exceptions) do not make sense and cannot really be predicted, and that is that.
Watch all the games you like, study all the stats you like, care or don't, trust reason or faith or pseudoscience, but you will not be ready for Bucknell -- this is what I'm pretending to know this year -- streaking to the Sweet 16. None of us, really, are ever ready for it, paid experts and enthusiastic amateurs and people picking according to cuteness-of-mascot alike. This is the fun of it.
The key, then, is to have fun with it. And this is the harder part, the part that I'm working on. I know that I don't know, because my career in brackets is a testament to it. With the exception of a six-person NIT pool I won a few years back, I haven't finished first in a bracket-related challenge since I was in eighth grade. In 2010, in a bracket I organized at The Wall Street Journal, I -- and, to be fair, many others -- was trounced by a bracket picked by five-year-old triplets, who picked Butler to win it all either because Alfred was their favorite character in a Lego Batman Wii game, or because the first syllable of Butler is "butt." This is what it means to pick a bracket for March Madness: a ritual exercise of humbling, a repeated series of cosmic whacks from some Zen master's stick, the realization that five-year-old triplets, little Lunchables-eating kids with bedtimes and baby teeth and Velcro sneakers, know as well or better than your adult self who will win a given game.
In some sense, this is probably good for us. We all walk around a lot more certain and sure of our correctness than we probably have any right to be. But also it's no fun to be wrong, to be made aware of how little we know and how extravagantly we don't know it. So what I'm doing is this: I'm trying to start with the feeling I invariably have by the end of the first weekend, my bracket in ruins and four giddy days of more or less non-stop basketball still sweet and fresh in the memory. At that point, whatever delusions of competence or imagined knowledge I have are gone, bracket-busted and outward bound. I'm humbled, but more often than not I'm happy, too, maybe even happier than I am during the churning immersion of the tournament's first days.
The vanity and false knowing, the pretense that any of this bright, beautiful chaos could or should be predicted -- all that is gone, by then. What's left is more basketball, more of the same good stuff; what's vanished is the illusion that there's something to do with all this besides submit to be carried by it, wherever it's going. That seems like a good place to start.