CLEVELAND -- Just as you don't need to put lipstick on the P.I.G.
, Championship Fortnight doesn't need any pretty dressing. It's compelling competition that sells itself. March basketball is elimination basketball, and we need to get 31 from 347 before we whittle 65 down to a single champion.
It's not difficult to find an emotional connection with the participants, because we share something in common. We love basketball, right? The players and coaches love Our Game more, certainly -- they've turned over their lives and livelihoods to it, to the sacrifice of nearly everything else... and we all understand loss. When a team is eliminated, it doesn't get to play basketball anymore, and that's sad.
That's what hooks me, right there. These two weeks are full of victory, tragedy, romance and death, death, death. Over and over, superior and cunning organisms destroying weaker and unlucky ones. Dreams live and die every two hours. Isn't that enough?
Whether one accepts all of this mid-major stuff at face value or not represents our far outer border. It separates the readers and the non-readers, you right now and all those who have drifted away over the seasons. Our year is beautiful
, and it doesn't need further explanation or apology.
It's been the message we've been sending out for six years, on a relatively consistent basis: just enjoy the games.
We've lobbied against office pools
, pushed the importance of long-term emotional investments
, talked about the emptiness of gambling
, and we've taken an evangelical role because so few seem willing to take what we love seriously. We're never going to stop the status quo, we'll never smash the system. Those are impossible ideals, but not as hard as convincing someone to love the same things as you love... mostly because it's so easy to pretend.
I know in my head that we're the crazy and contained ones, but my heart doesn't believe it. I don't really understand why or how the games aren't good enough on their own. I don't get why people need to sweeten this experience, whether it's with putting their money or pride or fake testosterone on the line with soothsaying contests. You may have heard about this, but in the past few years, there has emerged a new format called "The Jerome"
that involves picking all the winners of Championship Fortnight. Sportswriters like to play this, apparently. This "Jerome" appears to be a joyless experience, because participants like to complain into their Twitters a lot about how badly they're doing in it (much like the bitching that bracket pickers will be doing again next week -- You let me down, West Virginia
). And that has more to do with autofellatio than basketball.
Perhaps they just don't love this game enough. Synthetic value-additions can always be analyzed as signals of dissatisfaction with the Way Things Are; our societal marketplace is full of special enhancers to make mundane experiences tolerable. From taking Cialis to get it up for one's own wife, to getting blitzed off 10-dollar beers at an American-Style Football game, to smoking pot at a Jimmy Buffett show, we have a lot of ways to make uninteresting things interesting. But at some point, you've got to ask yourself why you're participating at all. Is it for the sake of a shared experience? To keep the peace? If you don't love it, why bother?
There's no common drug that will make a Mid-American Conference basketball game in March more interesting (acid and mushrooms are a little too niche-y), but gambling can be a good value-added substitute. If taking the points is not legal or acceptable within your community, there's always The Jerome.
But love is imperfect. Love requires self-deception and a complete erasure of doubt. To survive, contradictions have to be spackled over to become blind spots. Love has to feel complete, and because it can never truly be, and the heart needs to lie to itself to keep it alive. And, of course, there is a lie in all of this that can't be denied.
Beyond Championship Fortnight are the chutes and ladders that dull its urgency. To truly enjoy it, the way that we do, takes a certain amount of imagination and selective mental editing. You have to pretend the NIT, CBI and CIT don't exist.
Two years ago, I was at the Atlantic 14 tourney in Atlantic City. I've been to my share of Phil Martelli press conferences, but this one echoes in my mind to this day. After an 18-point first-round win over Fordham, the Saint Joseph's coach was mad. Not because of the score, but because the No. 5-seeded Hawks had toyed with the Rams, not taken the game seriously. Fordham had won the rebounding battle, even though SJU easily had superior size. Coach Martelli had the distinct sense that his team was not playing as if a loss would send the Hawks back home to Philadelphia. Because at 19-11 in a tough Atlantic 14, it wouldn't have.
"They think there is always going to be another game," he burst out angrily. "It's not just my team. It's all the teams. It's a societal problem. It starts in high school. When they lose in the playoffs, they forget about it and then go play AAU ball the next week. They don't care. I don't see a lot of teams anymore that play with that all-out, 'let's leave everything out there because there's no tomorrow' attitude. It's sad to say, but winning and losing doesn't burn as much. Winning has to become paramount again for the game to advance."
I assume that Coach Martelli took that message back to his players, because the Hawks dominated Richmond the next day and then shut down the top seed Xavier's offense in the semifinals. Cross-city rival Temple won a close title game, but the Selection Committee was convinced that Saint Joseph's had done enough. They were off to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large with a No. 11 seed. There was another game after all. But whatever he said in that locker room in Atlantic City, Coach Martelli definitely earned his paycheck that week.
Our country has an odd history. We were the underdog once, overthrowing a powerful, well-dressed absentee landlord with handmade weapons and a can-do attitude. It took us a century to all get on the same page -- and it got bloody there for a while -- but once the United States were states united, we set about expanding into the wide-open vistas. Many took the opportunity to start over and leave bad history behind. The west became a metaphor for reinvention, and it still is to this day.
So we have both a revolution and a manifest destiny in our souls, the first takeover and the second chance. That, right there, is the only explanation I can come up with for the confusion in our sporting souls, why we root for underdogs
, then give lucky losers wild cards, at-larges and repechages. It's probably why video games give you three, five, eight lives instead of one.
A loss in context should be terminal, because there's no lesson otherwise. (Would we give the British another shot to defend their North American empire? Hell
, no!) It should be the end, goodbye, that's it. It's a big reason why l love the Olympics so much -- there's no National Invitation Podium, and that's why those five rings inspire such ultimate, urgent performances.
Thirty-five years ago, this time of year mattered. It was a Tournament of Champions. Every game was fraught with tension, because a loss meant the end... or at least, a chance invitation to the purgatory of the irrelevant First Tournament
. Then the NCAA Tournament was expanded to include Duke and
Carolina, UCLA and
USC. Then it was expanded again. Basketball fans a generation ago didn't talk about RPI and SOS and Top 50 wins, because they didn't matter. You won or lost on the court, where sports should be played... and people were more able to enjoy the games for what they were.
As I say at this time every year, those at-large bids weren't created for us. They were made for TV, to create a better product. Every second-chance bid we steal is a tiny revolution in itself. And as the extra 31 bids killed the drama of the power-conference tournaments, the CBI and CIT are eating into the do-or-die drama of the Other 24 conferences' tourney events. You can see it in the faces of the players this week -- they know there's an escape hatch, a slipknot, that can keep the team together for another couple of weeks. Just like in high school, they think there is always going to be another game. Winning isn't paramount.
But we can't believe that, those of us who love this. We have to put the blinders on and pretend there's no tomorrow. If we don't, we run the risk of falling out of love.