Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Hopeless Duty, I Mean, Tradition Like No Other

Three out of every four years,  February is my month for watching regular season college basketball. At the end of it, I am on reasonably familiar terms with at least half of the top ten teams. But every fourth year, like this one, the Winter Olympics come along. The spectacle of insane daredevils risking life and limb on ice and snow is far more appealing than viewing a parade of time outs where alleged genius coaches assault their young charges with their mighty brain waves.

The above is a long winded way of saying I didn't see much college hoop last month. When the Olympic flame was doused, I was struck with the horrid realization, "holy shit, the NCAA tournament is in less than three weeks." So by way of compensation, I overdosed on conference tournament watching.

Conference tournaments for the one-bid set of schools you could not locate on a map are magnificent drama because the stakes are so high. Tournaments for the so-called power conferences provide more than the occasional entertaining game as well.  Unfortunately, for the reason I watched them, handicapping an NCAA bracket forecast, they are useless. No, worse, they are actively deceiving. A plunger who bases his bracket on conference tourneys has a swell chance of seeing it busted before dinner time today.

Let's take an example. In ITS conference tourney, San Diego State looked as if it could give the Lakers a good game. They are an 11 seed. Are they a value bet, or a conference tourney mirage? Beats me. One thing I learned a long time ago about sports gambling. Nothing is more unreliable than what one thinks is the evidence of their own two eyes.

A sensible person would probably not fill out a bracket in Winter Olympic years, let alone expose their guess to whatever corner of public stumbles onto this blog. But I've been doing brackets for 40 years, and making them public for over 30. I'd rather be thought a fool than a coward, I guess. That's not smart.

I am not going to do a full bracket analysis because only Final Four and National Champion count unless you're in one of those mega-pools, which is even dumber than what I'm doing here. Without confidence but with resolution, I will offer at least that.

Final Four:  Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Villanova, Michigan State. Villanova over Cincinnati for the title.

If, and of course I mean when, that forecast goes south, you can't say you weren't warned.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Roger Bannister, 1929-2018

Sir Roger Bannister has died at age 88. He spent most of his life in a career in medicine, far away from the world of sports while at the same time being one of the most famous human beings in the history of sports.

That paradox stemmed from the damp afternoon of May 6, 1954, when Bannister became the first man in history to run a mile in under four minutes, a feat that had been tried unsuccessfully by so many previous track athletes that it was seriously thought to present some sort of physiological or psychological barrier that might never be broken.

Bannister broke it. A year later, he retired from running. There was precious little money in track and field in the '50s and none at all in British track and field. He returned to becoming and being a neurologist, and spending the remainder of his days in his paradox -- a life outside the public eye while being extremely famous.

As a small child, I knew who Bannister was, just like I knew who Sir Edmund Hillary was. They'd done amazing things. But in what's become a reasonably long life, I never laid eyes on Bannister, not in person, not even on TV, except for a few fuzzy film clips of some long ago races. That's real fame, the kind that exists separately from the man or woman who earned it.

Today, a sub-four minute mile might earn a high school kid a D-I college scholarship. The mile itself is hardly ever run, track being one area of US life that succumbed to the metric system. Records of all sorts are broken so often in that sport they attract no attention except at the Olympics. Why has Bannister's accomplishment remained so renowned for so long?

To try and answer that question is to require a deep dive into the sports consciousness of the child I used to be. Back in the days when black and white TV and frozen dinners were miracles of modern life, adults said "records were made to be broken" but they didn't really mean it. In every sport, us kids were also confidently told there were some records that never could be broken and would stand for all our lives.

Take baseball. Nobody was ever going to garner more base hits than Ty Cobb, hit more home runs in a career than Babe Ruth, play more consecutive games than Lou Gehrig or strike out more batters than Walter Johnson, because, well, they just couldn't, that's all. Of course, each of those records was shattered in my lifetime, hell, before I passed out of middle age, because in reality, records are numbers, not barriers. They get passed, not "broken." Sports are a unique form of human endeavor because there really are no limits to what can be accomplished.

The four minute mile was the most symbolic record in sports that May day in 1954. When Bannister took a most arbitrary time limit and passed it by less than a second, he became a symbol himself. He didn't break a record, he broke the very idea of records themselves. Not to get too spacey, but any time any athlete goes faster, higher, scores more, wins more titles, whatever, than anyone else has done before, Roger Bannister is part of his or her story -- even if the athlete has no clue who Bannister was.

Tom Brady wants to win a Super Bowl at age 45? Bannister says, sure, why not? Forty five is like 4.00. It's just some number.

There are still records in sports that appear dauntingly unbreakable. Nobody's come close to scoring 100 points in an NBA game as did Wilt Chamberlain. The pro golf Grand Slam seems to be less likely than ever.

And yet this morning I will cheerfully bet those records will fall, too. I may not be alive to see it, but fall they will. I know that because I shared part of my life span with Roger Bannister.

They won't put "Records are made to be broken" on Bannister's headstone. But they ought to.