Thursday, March 17, 2011

Christmas in March

There's plenty to be depressed about around the world.

Japan. Bahrain. Libya. The Deficit. The Economy.

And here in New England, the winter has been one of the snowiest and longest in recent memory.

Yet, with the dawn of the "real" opening day(*) of the NCAA Tournament -- and on St. Patrick's Day, no less -- it's truly Christmas in March, at least for those of us who love basketball.

(*-The NCAA's "First Four" notwithstanding. In reality, most people (and more importantly, most bracket pools) have ignored the four games played over the past two nights.)

The tournament has changed over the years. When I was in grade school, there was no "Selection Show", no ubiquitous printable brackets. On the Thursday of the first week, Sports Illustrated would arrive with a stapled-in insert (often sponsored by Camel Cigarettes) with my first look at the bracket as a whole. (The Springfield Union-News would publish the matchups in agate type, with the Second Round indicated only as "Saturday, 2pm: Game #7 Winner vs. Game #8 Winner")

But I would race home breathlessly after school, flip on a nascent ESPN (cable had arrived the year before, and ESPN was one of the 13 channels that were included) and watch Reggie Lewis lead a Jim Calhoun-coached Northeastern squad against LIU. Like Opening Day of a baseball season, there's no substitute for watching real-live sports in the afternoon -- and in a game that matters.

Over the years, I was lucky enough to be a small part of three First Round weeks: in 1989, 1990, and 1991. The memories of those weeks -- and in particular the "what-might-have-been" at the end of each of those games, decided by a total of 7 points -- will be with me as long as I live.

But what is most interesting is not that the memories of the Tournament would stick with me -- a role player on a mid- or perhaps low-major team. Even Kenny Anderson, a high school phenom, #2 overall pick in the NBA draft, and who played 858 games(*) in the Association -- thinks back fondly on his days in his only NCAA Tourney. And it's nice to see a player like Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor -- a player whose NBA prospects are not at all certain -- be able to reflect on the tourney even as it happens: "This is one of the best times of the year. Probably better than Christmas for a lot of us."

(*-If you don't think 858 games in the NBA is a lot, check out the all-time list. If you are even a casual sports fan, you will recognize the vast majority of the names above Kenny (for sure once you get above 1,000 or so), and you can probably bring an image of each player on that list.)

Of course, what really makes today is our discovery of Cinderella: the unheralded small school that can take down a Major. It happens every year -- almost -- but even still some are more amazing then others. In 1996, Princeton took out the defending NCAA champs in a nail-biter; Sean Gregory (also a former Tiger player) wrote a terrific retrospective in Time Magazine about the inside story-behind-the-story.

So enjoy today. And tomorrow.

By Sunday evening, the clock will probably have struck midnight for all of the Cinderellas, and we'll be (most likely) back to the BCS heavyweights for the Sweet 16. You know, the ones you've projected in your pool.

But for now, hope springs eternal. And unlike baseball, you only have to wait 40 minutes -- not 162 games -- to see it rewarded.

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