An Ode to March Madness

I’m generally not a basketball guy. I enjoy the odd pickup game, even though I suck-diddly-uck. I’ll pay attention to the playoffs if the Spurs are involved. But for the most part, I pay as much attention to basketball as NASCAR. It just doesn’t do it for me. I’m reminded of a takeoff a Sidney Lanier poem, reprinted by the immortal Lewis Grizzard:

Down through the hills of Habersham

Into the valleys of Hall

Every son of a bitch and his sister

Is bouncing a goddamn ball.

(Aside: some people in high school nicknamed me Sidney Lanier because they liked my poetry.)

So I’m not a basketball fan, generally. But oh, how I love March Madness. Why?

  • The symmetry. I love mathematics. The power of 2 structure of the NCAA tourney — the four within four within four cusping of its brackets appeals to that part of my mind that makes sure all of my books are in alphabetical order, by subject, on my bookshelves. That part that will write little programs to analyze Retrosheet to look at game scores.
  • The brackets. The embodiment of the NCAA tourney’s fearful symmetry. I could play with brackets all day long, watching the ebb and flow of each team. When the tourney starts, there are tens of millions of brackets in America, all perfect, all potentially able to predict the precise flow of wins and losses. By the time its over, most of the brackets are in flames, a sea of red lines. It’s like being able to visualize a fan’s broken heart.
  • The odds. It seems so easy when the tournament starts. Just six wins and you’re the champ. But there is no tougher stretch of games in sports. A team can be the best in the country but fail because of one lousy game or one player going crazy for the other side. A team can make the tournament ten years in a row but be considered a failure because they haven’t quite threaded the needle just the right way.
  • The cinderellas. I can still remember Valparaiso’s run in 1998. Or George Mason a couple of years ago. Or Gonzaga seemingly every year. We can always count on at least one team going wild, playing out of their minds for a week and dashing the hopes of big fat favorites. It’s lovely, even when it happens to a team I’ve picked.
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