For the past 12 days, I've been carrying around a manila envelope, grasping it like a talisman. Every 20 minutes or so, I check my phone, pull out one or more of the papers inside, start scribbling on them, and put them back. The papers are put together in a specific order, chronologically, and I would be immediately aware if one were put in the wrong sequence or, heavens, even missing. I am an anal retentive tax lawyer, only nerdier, with fewer friends.
This folder contains 31 sheets of paper. Each one is different and equally important. They are each a bracket.
There are 32 automatic bids to Sunday's men's basketball NCAA tournament. Thirty-one of them have conference tournaments. (The stubborn Ivy League remains a holdout.) Each one of those tournaments has a bracket. And each one of those brackets are in my folder.
Everything about brackets is wonderful, but nothing is more wonderful than the bracket we get Sunday.
A few years ago, writers Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir put together the book The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything. It was an ingenious idea for a book. You could take any subject on earth, from rodents to 18th century French literature to domestic beers to people you have met in your life who angered you so much that you wish them to fail in all their human endeavors, and once you organize that subject by placing its topics in a bracket, you will become deeply, instantly invested in determining a winner. Even if this subject inherently has no winners. Did you know that you can put together a bracket involving marital arguments? You can! (Film deaths are a little more intuitive.)
They ended up getting two books out of that one -- full disclosure, I contributed to the second one, Best Sports Books of the Last 25 Years; you'll have to buy it to find out which one I picked -- and I was always a bit surprised there weren't more. Because it seems like an idea that you could spin off, infinitely. Think about how much more fun Buzzfeed's Moments that Restored our Faith in Humanity would be if they put that thing in bracket form. That would be great, right? I might not hate myself for clicking on it.
Anyway, every bracket is perfect, and this week, this championship week, is a nonstop bounty of them. Some of them are neat and orderly: The Western Athletic Conference has only eight teams in its tournament, as simple a bracket as a person could conceive. (Also: Holy cow, what in the world happened to the WAC? No. 3 seed Chicago State? No. 6 seed Bakersfield? Freaking Arizona used to be in the WAC, for crying out loud, in my lifetime.) Some are unwieldy: It's not easy to figure out how to construct a 15-team bracket, but Conference USA figured did. You can make a bracket out of anything.
(That's completely true, by the way. There's a site that will put together a bracket for you with a shocking number of permutations. Here are a few: 29 teams, 47 teams and 127 teams. As you'd probably expect, I'm rather infatuated with that website.)
Point is, there is a concrete, sublime satisfaction in filling in a line on a bracket. It means something important, almost existential. The world is full of uncertainty, of chaos; it is ambiguous and confusing and impossible to truly get a grasp on. But a bracket, a bracket is final and entirely straightforward. If you win, you move along the bracket. If you lose, you don't. It is impossible to misunderstand. It is clear and glorious.
So I handle my brackets with the utmost seriousness. I find myself tsk-tsking printable conference tourney brackets that don't give you space to write in the winners of each game like the Big Ten's, or the ones that clearly no one put any work into, like the travesty that is the Big Sky's. The bracket is perfect and should be handled accordingly. The Big Sky doesn't have many days where anyone's paying attention to them: This week, when they provide the world with a bracket, is when they should be ready for their closeup, not haphazardly slinking from it.
The best part is that all these brackets are just practice. The real bracket comes out Sunday, the one everyone can understand. (Out of tradition, I use the glossy Sports Illustrated bracket in the middle of the magazine. I've done that since I was 8 years old. I still miss their old awesome covers with every team featured; the new regional ones just aren't the same.) Since they added the extra team in 2001 and three more in 2011, we've had to hold off on a truly perfect ballot of 64 teams until Thursday morning, which makes an obsessive-compulsive like myself twitch a bit. But otherwise, the 64-team bracket is the ideal decision making document.
You can solve all of life's mysteries with it. No one can doubt the team that emerges from it has not earned its status: There were 64, and through a plain, unassailable decision process, we emerge with one.
The world is crazy and unknowable. The bracket is order: The bracket is truth. The first four days of the NCAA tournament are my favorite in all of sports. The bracket isn't the only reason why. But it's a big one.