I will always love the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament despite the fact that it has reached painful mainstream proportions, which in today’s world renders it instantly prosaic.
Like when I see Marla, the receptionist at my hair salon, fill out her bracket by choosing teams based on how much she likes their “costumes.” Sure she doesn’t know the difference between a foul and a fowl (not unlike most PAC 12 refs this year), but that doesn’t stop Marla, in all her magenta mohawked glory, from enthusiastically participating in the madness that is March.
I suppose I should feel a kinship toward her, since she’s engaging in an activity in which I too will soon be embroiled. But instead I feel judgmental and possessively nostalgic, curiously threatened by the realization that everyone and their proverbial mother now takes part in this magical event.
(Actually “proverbial” is inaccurate since my friend’s literal mother won our pool last year, especially painful considering it came after the following discussion regarding the nuances of the game: “Yes Mrs. Rippel, I’d have to concur that much like their ‘billowing britches,’ the fact they have to bounce the ball up and down while running does seem a superfluous constraint; nonetheless, it is an actual rule.”)
My snobbish reaction to Marla is similar to the sensation one gets when suddenly hearing their favorite indie band playing in the background of a Volkswagen commercial, or even worse, blasting from the Honda Odyssey parked in front of them in the preschool pickup lane. Particularly gut-wrenching if one has managed to delude her fragile ego into believing that “she’s” the only cool Mom out there.
I admit it, I am a March Madness elitist and that’s because I am an “Original Gangster Bracketeer” (realizing that referring to myself as an “OG Bracketeer” automatically invalidates that previous sentence about being cool).
Platitudinous ESPNisms aside, it is a distinction that should somehow separate/make me superior to the growing neophyte masses crashing the Big Dance each year. (And yes, I just typed “Big Dance,” thus officially sticking a fork in any discussion of my coolness.)
Much like the original loyal fan base of the Toxic Marsupials who gathered in a tiny Brooklyn garage before the band blew up, I’ve been ditching work or school or mommy stuff with my crew of degenerates to watch the first two rounds of the Tournament for over two decades now, long before all the hype. (That’s right, we played hooky in kindergarten).
For as long as I can remember, we’ve anticipated the spring equinox with the eagerness of a hipster updating his or her Tumblr after a morning at the farmer’s market. It’s one of the best times of the year for sports fans. Not only does it mark the symbolic departure of winter chill, but also the end of those cold, dreary, depressing weeks post-football. It signals the promise of warmer times to come – Opening Day, the NBA playoffs on the horizon – and tips it all off with the most majestic four-day stretch in all of sports viewing gluttony – the Tournament’s opening weekend.
And us “OGB’s” (that’s right, I’m running with it) remember the primeval days when you could only watch ONE GAME at a time, held hostage by the network no matter how big the blowout. We updated our <gasp> handwritten brackets with obsessive precision, ever vigilant not to soil them because replicating was so tedious. (An impressive feat considering the amount of adult beverages typically involved.)
If we wanted to watch more than one game at a time, we went to the bar – an empty bar, as it should be in San Diego at 9:20 am on a Thursday – and were often given control of the satellite dish and thus our own destiny, thereby ensuring hours of uninterrupted viewing, drinking, celebrating, crying, and also drinking.
We didn’t have to Google where Weber State was and we didn’t need fancy statistical models to pick our “Giant Killers.” We implicitly understood that you picked a 12 seed over a 5, if a team pressed and created turnovers, were aggressive on the offensive boards, had senior guards, and weren’t afraid to shed their princess pull-ups and launch it from beyond the arc.
At least in our own minds, we were the elite level spectators, partying March away in our own VIP Club.
So forgive me if I feel a twinge of resentment, as the world is now pledging our once special fraternity. Cut me some slack if my heart sinks a bit when I see Marla at the party, making a scene with her flippant dismissal of Indiana and Ohio State (because few can pull off red), all the while having to listen to Kishi Bashi selling out to Microsoft on the Big Screen in the background. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it is what it is.
And what it is, if I’m being completely honest with myself, is ridiculously absurd.
Why do humans carry this irrational predilection for being fiercely possessive of things that don’t really belong to us in the first place? Music, sports teams, the perfect vacation spot, our favorite neighborhood bar. We are such a fickle species. We desperately long to connect with others and share experiences, but only to a point. Too much overlap threatens our sense of uniqueness. Once this happens, we immediately latch that velvet rope of exclusivity, restricting access to the masses, leaving them to shiver outside the club doors, coatless in the cold, all in an effort to protect the allure of our special life narrative.
This behavior is especially foolish in this circumstance. We all know that winning the office pool is minimally correlated with any real basketball knowledge and, as I can personally attest, is clearly not associated with years of involvement.
March Madness is therefore, by nature, one of the most accessible events out there. Filling out a bracket automatically issues you a golden ticket through the doors, a seat in the front row, a pass for the after-party. Everyone can join in the fun, even if you know nothing about basketball, or if you follow a team that makes a perennially early round exit, or one that’s rarely invited at all. Tournament joy is a contagious, and it’s as inclusive an experience as one can find these days.
So why fight it? As inevitable as the 112,000 shots of Ashley Judd soon to be gracing our flat screens, Marla will be crowned this year’s champion and I will be out of it by Sunday. This despite hours of research into rebound efficiency, future NBA prospects, and strength of schedule for my secret regression algorithms. I can hear my inner Pops now:“If only I had expended a fraction of the time, energy, and enthusiasm that I’ve wasted over the years researching the field of 64, and instead focused it on, say, my studies – I’m pretty sure I’d be operating on some brains right now, or at the very least characterizing subatomic particles.”
And when push comes to shove (which conveniently won’t be whistled if it’s a Colorado opponent), losing to Marla will not detract one bit from my enjoyment of the experience. Nor will sharing a pint with her at my favorite bar down the street because that’s what this event is all about.
So welcome everyone to this spectator’s nirvana, and as an added bonus, please enjoy my three golden rules of Bracketology, (dear God, someone stop me now before I start to type diaper dand…GAAH!), as well as my 2015 tournament prediction.
1) Don’t be afraid to go with your heart. Unlike “real” betting you can get away with a couple of emotional selections. Go ahead and pick against “Looa-vull” just because Rick Pitino is a bucket of smarm (restaurant sex with “randos” aside, what kind of sociopath ends up at Louisville after making his name coaching their archrival?); Your ex-girlfriend cheated on you with a firefighter in a UNM Lobos sweatshirt? Don’t worry, everyone will support your lifetime boycott of mid-majors. Intolerable fans? I can’t tell you how many Final Four slots I’ve gladly sacrificed letting this guide my selections.
2) Pick an awesome pool name. You’ll need something to make you smile after going 0 for 4 on the 8-9 matchups. If ever in doubt, go with a subtle character name somehow associated with Will Ferrell. (Don’t believe me? Roger Karvin, Arnold Darkshner, Deangelo Vickers, Gene Frenkle, Dodge Stratus Dad, Turd Ferguson, Dorothy Mantooth. I swear it will make you laugh when you see it randomly pop up in the standings, despite the fact it’s in the bottom third.)
3) Never get so drunk that you can’t encode important details of the experience. You never know when you might get to witness one of those magically memorable Tourney moments and you’ll never forgive yourself if you’re “that guy” passed out in the corner booth on your plate of potato skins donning your 1985 popped polo collar. If you keep your wits about you, then you too can regale countless dinner parties to come with how you recall watching Lorenzo Charles’ dunk at the buzzer that sent the Phi Slamma Jamma packing and Jimmy V on his iconic wide-eyed sprint around the court, all on your black-and-white RCA in the kitchen while you ate Cheez Whiz on Saltines. (Even if you were 12 at the time and pissed that your Dad wouldn’t let you watch Square Pegs.)
2015 Champions: The Pistol Shrimps
This piece was originally published on FlipCollective on March, 21, 2013