There's going to be a moment, at some point on Thursday, when you're going to wonder why you got so excited about this NCAA tournament business. Anticipation is such a large part -- such an essential part -- of the sports experience that sometimes it can overshadow an event itself. This can be a particular problem for the NCAA tournament, a sporting event that infiltrates every office in America even though, frankly, the average person filling out a bracket sheet probably couldn't name five people currently playing in the tourney. This can lead to a moment when, once the ball is tipped and the game actually begins, you stop and wonder, hey, wait … why do I suddenly care about South Dakota State?
This is natural, and normal, and nothing to be alarmed about.
The NCAA tournament, particularly these first two days kicking off at 12:15 p.m. ET on Thursday with Michigan State vs. Valparaiso, is the best sporting event on the calendar. There is nothing like it. It's like the first Sunday of the NFL season -- that first day where everything is so overwhelming, where it's all happening so fast, where there's just so much to take in every damned second -- except it lasts for 12 hours and also for two days. Thursday is the day that the medical profession has named "Vasectomy Day" ... and this name is a good thing! (The apocryphal stories of men scheduling vasectomies for the NCAA tournament, giddily, have the added benefit of being true.) These are the two days of the year in which you absolutely do not want to move. These are the days that are only for you.
There's so much to love about the tournament; it has something for everyone. It is, of course, one of the most heavily wagered events of the year, from small-time office pools to high-stakes lunatic bets in Las Vegas. (The thought of being in a Nevada casino this weekend absolutely terrifies me.) It's easy to enter and understand, on a macro level; anyone can fill out a bracket, from your grandmother to the President to sea turtles. But you can also love the NCAA tournament just because you love your team. What is a national story, or a betting line, to the rest of the world is a deeply personal story to the players involved and the fans that have followed them. To you Illinois-Colorado is just a line on a bracket, one of those tricky 7-10 games you want to get right; to me, it's the start of a coach's brave new era and the end of one of the most fascinating, inspiring classes in school history. You probably feel the same way about your team. The NCAA tournament is when everyone is watching, but to a team's fans, it's the culmination of a year of anguish and thrills and fear and hope. It's huge, and it's tiny.
It has the flash of big arenas in big cities, all the national media flocking to discover the next Marshall Henderson, but it also is charmingly low-key and small town; the idea that Charles Barkley is somewhere flipping through North Carolina A&T's roster right now makes me feel good about the human condition. For my money, the NCAA tournament's charming egalitarianism is one of its finest attributes. We spend so much time psychoanalyzing what's happening in New York City, and Los Angeles, and Chicago, and Boston, and then the NCAA tournament comes around and focuses an entire sports nation's gaze, for a few brief moments, on Orangeburg, South Carolina, or Pocatella, Idaho. One of my favorite NCAA memories is from 2006, when Northwestern State's Jermaine Wallace hit a crazy shot to beat Iowa in the first round. Seriously, watch this shot again.
No one was talking about the Lakers in that moment, or the Yankees, or steroids or anything stupid like that. They were talking about this tiny school in Natchitoches, Louisiana. This small-town kid who still sneaks in to see Eastern Illinois games at Lantz Gym when I'm visiting my hometown loves that. That's what this is supposed to be about.
Sure, there will be some dull games in the next couple of days. There are 32 in two days, after all. And some of them may even bump up against each other, and you will have that very early 21st century feeling that you are watching something that can't live up to all the talk -- all the endless, incessant, all-encompassing talk -- and maybe you should just go back to anticipating something else, something in the distant future that's perfect and unspoiled, at least for now. The NCAA tournament is so much fun that we expect it to be everything, to blow us away, in every little detail. Sometimes, you blink and it's 4:30 and you wonder what you got so excited about it.
And then it happens. It starts with a score in the upper left hand corner; the No. 14 seed is hanging in with the No. 3 seed. Keep an eye on that one, you note. Warrants further attention. Then it's halftime and it's still close. The underdogs hang in through the first couple media timeouts, and then they know, and you can tell; the bench is erupting and the whole arena is starting to shake and you have put aside all the other games because this is every American sports story. Every American anything story. It's wrapped up and prettified for you, the scrappy kids standing in for all those kids you knew, all those kids you were, who weren't the stars, but who fought harder, who believed. It doesn't matter if the story isn't true, if the kids at the No. 3 seed busted their butts just as hard as the ones at the No. 14 seed; the tournament is for that hope that when you get your moment, when the whole world is watching, you step up and change everything. When you succeed! There is nothing more American than that. This is the story we have told ourselves for decades. This is what we're all about.
And this is how it ends:
That is what this tournament is about. It is every rags-to-riches story, every sports trope, every inspiring movie, every reason that we love sports ... happening 48 times in roughly 96 hours. I can't believe we get to do this every year. This is why we go through all the trouble. Enjoy this weekend; it's finally over. It's so great that I find myself missing it already, and it hasn't even started yet.