They come at us now like characters from a bad dream that never ends. They have numbed our minds, broken our spirits. They perhaps insulted our intelligence in the beginning, but no intelligence is left to insult. We sit. We let these people come into our homes. We can do nothing to stop them. We are helpless.
We do not even touch the clicker.
"I am your hot water heater," one of the familiar characters says as he stands in someone's suburban basement, presumably ours, his torso wrapped in a makeshift kind of aluminum shield. "You probably don't know I exist. That's too bad. Because if my pressure relief valve gets stuck…"
The guy shoots upward from the basement, presumably ours, travels through the house, then blasts straight through the roof. His trajectory reaches an apex maybe 15 feet above the house and then he comes straight down. He lands feet-first in the middle of a suburban street, presumably ours. The crash is horrific, a definite thud, but he doesn't even say 'ouch."
"We hot water heaters can transform into rocket-propelled wrecking balls," he says instead, finishing his sentence. "And if you have the wrong home insurance it's your bank account that might explode. So get All-State."
The first 700 times we saw this 30-second bit of commercial video, back when our journey on the Road to the Final Four began, we had a certain mild amusement at the stranger's message. The second 700 times, the amusement definitely waned. The third and fourth times, ad infinitum, left us in our present condition.
As the end of the Road approaches this weekend in Atlanta, we have become consumer zombies. This has been the heavy price for the basketball thrills we have enjoyed following Wichita State and the lads from Dunk City and the inspirational doings of the University of Louisville and all the rest. We have seen so many commercials that we have been overwhelmed, overcome, downright lobotomized.
"He's hiding because his wife doesn't want him to eat a dessert without her," we now say all together as soon as those two nimrods appear in the car at the Sonic Drive-In eating sundaes.
"She's going to come walking across the parking lot in five, four, three, two…," we say. "There she is."
We know the words before these people speak them. We know the actions before these people do them. Ten media timeouts during every game, usually stretched to three minutes per clip, have allowed the networks to deliver an incessant stream of commercial messages. Add an expanded 22-minute halftime and the normal coaching timeouts, even the 30-second quickies, and we know what we know. We all know too much.
Most of the time Greg Anthony and Alec Baldwin are going to talk by remote to Charles Barkley while his mother takes a mammoth set of tighty-whitey underpants from the drier and holds them in the air. Some of the time, Charles is going to be outdoors broadcasting a little-kid basketball game. He thinks Julio is out of control. A third option has Charles and Alec Baldwin at a basketball game. Charles keeps a hot dog and a container of mustard inside his sports coat.
"What's in your wallet?" we all say, a half-second before Alec asks that same question at the end.
"Not as much as what's in your wallet," we might have added in the beginning, but now we are quiet.
We know what we know.
1. The boring couple out on their internet date find each other surprisingly attractive. Hey, they both brought back-ups and his friends are trying to buy her friends a Bud Light!
2. Jimmy Fallon can't give that little girl money. Oh, wait a minute, he can!
3. All those people who work at that Enterprise car rental played sports in college. Who knew?
4. The guy in the ski mask isn't going to rob the convenience store. He was driving around in his Volkswagen with the top down!
5. The DirecTV genie, a fine-looking woman, can make good things happen!
The list seems to go on forever -- oh there's the family landing in the cold weather, back from a Florida vacation, brrrrrr, but it's OK because Dad owns a Buick and he can start the car in the parking lot right from the plane, get that heater going -- but every one of these commercials has been seen countless times. Bryce Drew's game-winning shot for Valparaiso in 1998 somehow attracts an astronaut and sells body wash. Billy Donovan, coach of Florida, talks about "Logistics" for UPS but doesn't mention the bad logistics his team suffered from against Michigan. On and on.
The most repeated commercials of all have been the AT&T spots featuring an actor at a classroom table with four children. The actor is 28-year-old Beck Bennett, who has been seen so often that he probably is going to wind up with his own television show. He engages the four kids in conversation, nods at their answers, treats the kids as if they are adults.
"What's better, faster or slower?" Bennett asks (and we ask with him.)
"Faster!" the kids reply (and we reply with them.)
The kids tell what they think is fast. A cheetah. My mother's car. A spaceship. Bennett asks what is slow. A kid says his grandma is slow. Bennett says maybe she could use some turbo boost. The kid says, "Maybe tape a cheetah to her back."
"You've thought about this," Bennett concludes (and we conclude with him).
The kid commercials have been like the other ones, interesting for a day, then neutral. Then ultimately they became annoying. The kids came, the kids went, the kids came back again and again. There was no stopping them. Timeout. There they were. Faster or slower? It's not complicated! AT&T.
Then a strange thing happened.
Beck Bennett sat at the little table. He asked 'What's better, faster or slower.' We watched through our normal dull, devoid-of-interest glaze. The answer, as always was 'faster." This time, though, the voices were louder. Louder? We blinked once, blinked twice. The kids had been replaced by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Larry Bird. Same little table. Same school room. Same Beck Bennett.
"They don't call it a slow break, do they?" Bennett asked.
"Except maybe in Larry's case they do," Magic said.
The players all laughed. Except for Larry.
"It's like I don't have feelings," he said.
We stared in wonder at what had just happened. Ingenious! Funny! Different! This was the miracle moment of the entire Road to the Final Four. We had been liberated, brought back to life. We could think, breathe, act, feel. We were human again.
And then we saw the commercial a second time.
And a third ...