The Rite of Spring

Just a quick note to commune with those who enjoy, and extend condolences to those who endure, the annual spring rite of March Madness that begins today. It’s the time of year when for three extended weekends, my calendar and, where possible, my work and social life are organized around certain blocked-off slots. Those slots are filled with my watching college basketball. I have done my office-pool bracket and am ready to roll. Or to recline, anyway: for the next few weeks my wife knows that my default location, Thursday through Sunday night, will be on the recliner in front of TV.

Of the trifecta of American sports mega-happenings – the Super Bowl, the World Series and the NCAA basketball tourney – the favorite for me is, well, a slam dunk. My preference reflects my own past as a basketball player, both in high school and (at the far end of the bench) in college, then for decades afterward as a rec-league player with a poignantly high passion to talent ratio, until I hit fifty and my joints fell apart, spousal sympathy for my constant injuries evaporated, and I reluctantly became a full-time spectator.

Like most fans I use sports as a personal timeline, and remember exactly where I was when Magic beat Larry Bird in the NCAA finals in 1979, a game that underwhelmed in itself but inaugurated a rivalry that would change the sport; when Lorenzo Charles made the buzzer-beating put-back of Dereck Whittenburg’s Hail Mary to propel Jim Valvano’s NC State Wildcats to victory over Houston in 1983; when Villanova played a perfect half of basketball to beat overwhelming favorite, Georgetown, in the finals in 1985; or when Christian Laettner made a turnaround from the foul line to beat Kentucky, 104-103, in 1992 in the semifinals, in what many consider the greatest college basketball game of all time. These days I find I tend to forget the specifics of last year’s great game; it all melts into a mythic tableau of last-second heroics and players piled in a scrum of joy at center court.

The things I love about the sport would require a whole ‘nother essay. But why college basketball? Well, first of all, it’s not college football. College hoop fans feel helpless and miffed by the relegation of their sport to the status of minor auxiliary to big-money football, which in turn is dominated by what an article in the Times calls “a football-driven financial aristocracy” of big schools and so-called power conferences, feeding greedily on huge TV money. In college basketball, smaller schools can still slay powerhouses. The Times article quoted NCAA president Mark Emmert, who noted that “one of the reasons March Madness is so popular is that Mercer can go beat Duke” – referring to a first-round upset, two years ago, of one of basketballs Goliaths by an all-but-unknown David.

Basketball is far less costly than football, less militaristic in conception and less brutal in execution; it doesn’t have the dreaded CTE issues; and – Commonweal readers will note -- Catholic colleges are great at it: the Big East, arguably the greatest basketball conference ever, still includes the nucleus of the so-called “Catholic Seven” schools, which have contributed mightily to the annals of hoop glory for many decades.  

But why college basketball instead of the NBA? An old friend and former basketball pal of mine, who grew up in Israel and as a boy would stay up all hours of the night to watch NBA action on Israeli TV, can’t fathom my preference for the college game over the pro. His basic point is that professional basketball is simply a lot better. Once I tried to explain to him how much I enjoy the enthusiasm of college players, the excitement of their games.

“OK,” he said, “but if what you want is really excited players playing really crappy basketball, why not just go to your local high-school games?”

That was mischievous, but he had a point. It’s true that if you watch primarily college hoops, tuning in to a pro game can be startling. The skill level is high – so high, in fact, that it changes the nature of the game and of watching the game. A great satisfaction of watching pro basketball is seeing how teams reduce the game to its essence. The players have mastered the basic individual skills of shooting, dribbling, passing and defending so fully that you can take them for granted, and watch the action for how it lays bare the strategic and tactical elements of the game. Take, for instance, the situation in which a pass is made to a strong player in the key, and a second defender slides off his man to help with a quick double-team. This leaves a momentary imbalance in the defense, and the team with the ball will now pass quickly, in sequence, to find the open man, as the defending team attempts to scramble back into coverage. Two or three crisp passes later, the attacking team gets the ball to the man at the three-point line who has been left open, for just a second, by the defending team’s double-team... and bang, he sinks the shot.

This kind of precision, at its best, turns the game into chess. It’s as if you’re seeing the play itself in idealized form, as diagrammed: a tiny defensive weakness is exposed, and then ruthlessly and immediately exploited. In college you can rarely see the bones of the game that way. There’s too much extraneous movement, and too much error in the execution. The shot-making simply isn’t good enough in a reliable way.

But there’s a tradeoff. The other thing I notice, when I foray into watching the NBA, is how bloodless and cold it often seems. Nobody gets excited, at least not during a regular-season game. Nobody expends one iota of physical energy that is not absolutely required by the mechanics of the action. It all seems weirdly calm, surgical, and even at times perfunctory. And why shouldn’t it? These are pros, after all. They are doing their job, night in and night out, at an extraordinarily high level of competence. Basketball is their life.

For college players, in contrast, it’s the time of their lives. Part of what makes watching college basketball so exciting is how excited the players are. So it’s true, I’m willing to sacrifice some skill for enthusiasm. Would you be? Would you rather watch near-perfect but perfunctory execution by highly-skilled professionals, or a boisterous spectacle almost as full of error as energy?  



I could segue here to the political campaign... but why sully sport with that kind of thing? See you in April!  

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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