Finally. The madness has returned. And there’s nobody happier in the world than me.
You see, I’ve been in love with the game of basketball since the age of two. The year was 1991 and my parents had just presented me with a Fisher-Price basketball hoop for my birthday. Seeing that I was just learning that my fingers weren’t actually food and other now-hilarious childhood facts, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I do, however, remember my father showing me the basics. He’d catch my attention and proceed to loft the little orange ball through the air and into the little portable basket. Swish. The whipping of the ball through the net fascinated me. After a couple successful conversions from yours truly, I was hooked.
Growing up, I would spend most of my time either at the park or in my driveway playing ball. Playing pick-up games with friends and neighborhood kids alike. Re-creating Christian Laettner’s game winner against Kentucky. Trying to dribble like then-Georgetown point guard Allen Iverson. Improving my mechanics toward the perfect jump shot. Even inclement weather wouldn’t rain on my parade. As a matter of fact, I’d run outside in snowstorms just to shoot around. I’d nestle on my Illini beanie and hit the pavement. Bounce. Dribble. Swoosh. It was that obsessive. I was encompassed in the game, a feeling that still holds true today.
And while my playing career ended almost six years ago in a way I would rather not talk about, the game has not left me. In fact, maybe that’s why I spend so much time watching and analyzing the game: I didn’t want basketball to pass me by. Sure, I’m not lacing up the kicks anymore, but I’m not that naive. There’s no hard feelings or selfishness here. I’m just thankful enough to be able to turn on the television and watch my favorite sport — college basketball.
Why college, you might ask? It’s actually very simple. The passion. The pride. The rivalries. The bragging rights. The tears after devastating losses. What’s not to love about a bunch of kids playing their hearts out, not for money, but for the love of the game? It’s incredibly inspiring to watch players with team-first mentalities. Players that value the name on the front of the jersey, not the back. It’s about student sections, decked with face paint and enough fire power to kill a buffalo, packing arenas and stadiums to create insanely loud environments for their opponents. And coaches are actually respected, some feared.
In clutch situations, college players worry about running suicides in practice after botching free throws, while NBA players worry about their latest collaborations with Sprite or Nestle Crunch. College basketball isn’t a business to the players. There are no sneaker deals. No agents. And absolutely no reason to take plays off. It consists of hard-nosed athletes putting everything on the line for 40 minutes at a time. Nothing more, nothing less.
The month of March provides not only the start of spring, but the beginning of the greatest sporting event in the world. The 18-day long NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship, which causes uprisings among friends and co-workers over bracket contests, is the most anticipated event in all of sports.
Because anything can happen. Sixty-five teams come together in a winner-take-all battle royale, where only the team standing tall at the end can deem themselves the best in all the land. Cinderellas come to life and shock the world. Favorites choke and fall on their faces. Ordinary players become legends.
Some of my fondest memories in tournament lore are the little guys who earned both respect and historical significance. A relatively unknown freshman by the name of Michael Jordan hit the game-winning shot in the 1982 championship game. MJ progressed through Chapel Hill and went on to become the greatest basketball player that ever lived, and it all started with his first brush with March Madness. Other memories include Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew being mobbed at center court after hitting a 25-foot three-pointer as time expired to knock off Mississippi in 1999. The 11th seeded George Mason Patriots going on an incredible run topping Michigan State, defending champion North Carolina and top-ranked Connecticut before finally bowing out in the 2006 Final Four. Stephen Curry cementing his name in the record books as Davidson advanced to the 2008 Elite Eight before falling to eventual champion Kansas. And most recently, the Butler Bulldogs clawing their way to back-to-back national title games the last two seasons.
Everything about this tournament is great, especially the desire to put everything on the line in an attempt to succeed. And when failure occurs, we witness the pain and sorrow. Especially with the seniors. When the clock strikes zero on the final game of a career, you’ll witness players putting their heads in their hands and breaking down. It’s inevitable: a true assessment that these games actually mean something. After four seasons of blood, sweat and tears, these 22-year-old young men have to adapt to the realization that they will never play competitive basketball again. The passion and pride of college athletics is exemplified to the fullest in March Madness.
So while you lounge around the house over the next few weeks in your recliners and La-Z-Boys keeping a close eye on your failing bracket sheet, try and appreciate the game of basketball. Because in the end, it’s not about the hundred bucks you might nab in your best friend’s pool. It’s about the chance of a lifetime for college athletes to participate in the national spotlight. It’s about athletes representing their families, their universities and their teammates. Most importantly, it’s about a bunch of college kids playing for the love of the game.
And that is what makes these next three weeks so euphoric.