Sunday, April 01, 2012

Brevity Is the Soul of Competition or Should Be

Naivete is not a very attractive personality trait at my age, so let's admit up front that the main reason the NCAA Basketball Tournament is a popular sports event is how uniquely suited it is for low-investment but possibly high reward gambling competitions. It's as if the Sunday Times crossword offered cash prizes for winners.

However, for me, the singular appeal of the tournament is not a pool or pools. No, what makes me able to grit my teeth and endure Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg is the happy knowledge it's just a date, not a relationship. The key word in the phrase March Madness is the first one. Of all the annual big U.S. events, the tournament requires the least amount of time and emotional commitment. In our era of sports overload, that's of inestimable value to any fan.

From Selection Sunday to One Shining Moment is 22 days. Throw in conference championship week, and we should, that's 29 days. That's an entire season of high-stakes thrills conducted in far less time than it takes baseball to have spring freakin' training, its mystical ritual of nothingness.

And unless one has some emotional identification with one of the six or seven schools where basketball is a socio-religious imperative (two of 'em will play for the title tomorrow), there's no pain involved, only entertainment. I was highly entertained when Lehigh beat Duke, but there was no corresponding sorrow when Xavier thumped Lehigh. What's Lehigh basketball to me, or for that matter, to Lehigh? For the players and coaches, March is life and death. For fans, except maybe for immediate families of players and coaches, it's just fun. This is how sports is supposed to work and would be how sports worked if the human race enjoyed better emotional health.

Basketball is a wondrous game, beautiful to look at, full of operatic passion. To delve deep into the skills, dreams, joys and anguish of thousands of its participants is an abiding pleasure. So is the knowledge that you're coming right back up to the surface and getting out of the pool to move on with life. The tournament arrives and then, poof! it's gone, with only one of those fraud Sports Illustrated commemorative issues to mark its passing.

Come May, when the baseball season and the NBA and NHL playoffs already seem longer than the Thirty Year's War, the transitory nature of March Madness comes off as sports' Brigadoon.


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