I remember my first March Madness office pool. The year was 1992, I was about to leave my teenage years behind. I had just nabbed my first real actual journalism job, working for out-of-state tuition as a junior copy editor at a farming magazine in Oregon. I recall that the whole bracket thing was a strange and off-putting experience.
The keeper of the brackets was one of the publishing partners at the company. His name was Jeff, I think. Jeff was one of the pioneers in "business casual," coming to work every day in a polo shirt with the embroidered logo of some golf course or other. Everywhere he went, he carried a cellular phone the size of a Subway sandwich.
During a weekly meeting (there was no mass e-mail in the Stone Age), he announced that we'd be having, once again, the annual office bracket contest. Ten-dollar fees and completed brackets would be due into him on Wednesday. Everybody knew how it worked, except for a few secretaries. And me.
"So we fill the bracket out, the whole thing?" I asked him privately afterwards, hoping to save myself some public embarrassment.
"Yes, jackass, the whole thing," came the reply. "That's how you win, see."
I'd filled out brackets before, sure, but not like that. And people don't believe me when I say this, but I haven't filled out a bracket like that since 2003. And I know I don't have time -- the deadline's coming up fast -- but I'm going to try and convince you that you shouldn't either. Don't fill out a bracket this week.
The brackets I filled out as a teenager took weeks to fill out. When the pairings were announced, I'd enter the team names on a blank bracket, one I usually drew myself with a straight-edge and Bic roller. Then, I'd enter the winning teams on the next lines as they won each round.
But my brackets were my own. If a team won that I liked, or adopted, or suddenly went madly nuts over (Cleveland State 1986), I'd put its name down on the next bracket line in heroic bold handwriting, all-caps, maybe with an underline or three. If a Big Ten or SEC team advanced, I'd enter their names as small as possible, in lowercase... hoping that maybe they'd become so small they'd simply disappear. The University of North Carolina would be three letters, illegible, and in pencil.
Each naked tree branch on my bracket was a place where new spring leaves would soon sprout and unfurl. The blankness was a canvas for dreams as I waited sleeplessly for the next round to begin. When the champion was crowned, I could look back on my bracket and recall the emotions I felt during each game. I still have most of my brackets from the Eighties; each one is a map to my NCAA memories. Together, they form a book that's all about how I fell in love with college basketball.
When the spots are filled out ahead of time, there is expectation and angst. The Tournament plays out behind a prefabricated lens, its magic and enjoyment diminished when the real thing doesn't live up to predictions. The gaping hole between an office pool bracket and the one that plays itself out on the basketball courts is paved over with disappointment, and perhaps that's why Our Game disappears so quickly from the public consciousness in April.
Because in March, everybody complains about their brackets, and how busted they are. Or they're crowing about how well they can predict random events, how tapped in to the sporting cosmos they are. That's all people talk about this month. When I'm down in Birmingham this weekend, maybe I'll run into you, and maybe you're going to start small-talking me about your brackets. I'm going to smile and nod, but deep down inside I'd rather hear about that colonoscopy of yours that went horribly wrong than your goddamned fucking office pool.
I understand that office pools and bracket contests are a huge part of what's made this a nationwide event over the past three decades, and I do appreciate their existence. I would be making a whole lot less money at this if there weren't such thing as casual fans. But this is a nationwide phenomenon because it's tapped into American narcissism, the need to feel connected to something everybody else is connected to, but via a personal channel that each participant has defined with their own personal selections.
So March Madness, the mainstream kind, has become less about basketball than it is about presumed psychic powers and calling people idiots. It's hardly about hoops anymore. Seriously, we'd be doing this about the NCAA women's bowling tournament
if enough people agreed that the NCAA women's bowling tournament would be the touchstone. We'd still have the total and complete weirdness of people claiming expertise over something they'd previously ignored.
I know my opinion is the minority one -- it usually is -- and we could fit the entire audience of this site into a single subregional venue. But I am begging you, imploring you not to fill out a bracket this week. There are enough brackets being filled out this week that you don't need to follow their lead. Trust me, it'll feel great. You'll see.
Download a blank bracket
, print it out real big, fill out the teams yourself. Put the schools you like in bold, the ones you hate in creatively misspelled small print. Then sit back and watch the greatest sporting event in the world happen before your eyes. As the Tournament progresses, express your opinion of the unfolding event with your bracket markings. Color-code things if you want -- red for surviving and advancing teams that make you angry, blue for ones that make you blue. Do anything you like, just don't work yourself into a position that you're rooting against teams because they'll ruin your chance to make fifty lousy bucks.
Try putting shorthand notes in the blank spaces and the margins about your experience of each game -- player names, the name of the bar where you watched, who you were with. Staple ticket stubs to your bracket if you go to games. Draw little cartoons if you're so inclined. Make your bracket a diary, a memory bank that you can tap into 20 years from now, and remember exactly what March 2008 felt like.
And when you're done, scan it and send it in to brackets at midmajority dot com
(we'll remind you later) and we'll post it in a gallery that people can look at over the summer when I'm not writing here. Then, finally, frame your bracket and put it up over your TV.
This is spring, sweet spring, and you don't need all that office pool garbage. This should be about enjoying great basketball games until it's warm enough to go back outside. And besides, if you do it this way, you'll get all the games right. I guarantee it.