Nothing Compares To March Madness

By Jason Keidel

If you’re a basketball junkie, you’ll find your fix starting today. March Madness begins.

The screen-in-screen splendor. Programing your remote to cruise the cluster of networks that dip their yearly beaks into the NCAA waters. When else would you pinball between CBS, TNT, TBS, ESPN and TruTV in one day?

The template titans still seem to have their mail forwarded to the Final Four. If Duke and Kentucky aren’t the chalk, then Kansas and Michigan State will pick up the slack. And while we love a Butler, George Washington or VCU breaking the group hug of aristocrats, empires are good for sports.

There’s a reason the 2015 tourney was the highest rated in 22 years. Kentucky and Duke were there, Coach K and Coach Cal pacing and cussing their way to April. Kentucky won its first 38 games, and seemed destined to supplant Bobby Knight’s 1976 Hoosiers as the last team to go undefeated from whistle to gun.

We want the underdog to make that yearly cameo, as long as they’re gone before the trophy is hoisted. When Butler heaved that ball from half court, as the nanoseconds dripped off the clock, and rolled around the rim, it was a pristine ending to a perfect final. Those who loved and loathed the Blue Devils’ basketball monolith got everything they wanted, challenged to the end. And order was ultimately preserved. We pretend to abhor dynasties. But if there were no Wildcats, Jayhawks, Tar Heels, Bruins and Blue Devils, there would be no beacon in the storms of spring.

March Madness still keeps its emotional authority and drains your adrenal gland because there’s nothing like it. Baseball has the occasional pennant chaos, a few vital swings in the same hour. But that only leads to the playoffs, where teams are bogged down in the best-of-seven series, which only lead to another.

The preeminent NFL weekend is the divisional round, when the eight best teams play four games, to be distilled into the semifinals. But there isn’t the mayhem of hundreds of blows traded every hour.

The NBA, like the NCAA, has a largely soporific regular season, which flowers into a maniacal postseason. But even the Association sinks into the quicksand of long series, with the favorites inevitably rising to the top.

Does anyone doubt that there are basically three teams — Cleveland, San Antonio and Golden State — ultimately competing for the Larry O’Brien Trophy? As divine as LeBron James has been for a decade, Stephen Curry has turned the hardwood into his personal playground, launching threes from NASA range. When you’re 61-6, it drains the drama from the playoffs.

No, there’s only one March Madness, with it’s sudden-death finality. And hat keeps it on top of our calendar.

There’s a three-pronged appeal to the whole thing.

First, there’s school spirit. More than a few alumni cut class (work) to wrap themselves in school sweaters that are a bit too tight 10+ years later, hit the local pub and act the fool before a wall of flat screens.

Otherwise normal, genteel people of blue and white collars, go from the Ides of March to Eyes on March. No matter your alma mater, no matter your place in the office pool, no matter how many teams have been eliminated after the first day, it’s impossible to take your wide eyes off the screen.

Second, the action, which speaks for itself.

And last, there’s another kind of action, sponsored by your local casino and your cluster of cubicles.

Gambling.

It speaks more loudly than any of us care to concede. To be king or queen of the cubicles gives you office cred for months, even if you did little more than hurl a dart at the chart.

If you find this hyperbolic, consider that the American Gaming Association estimates that a record $9.2 billion will be wagered on this year’s NCAA (men’s) tournament. That’s up $200 million from the record set — you guessed it — last year. Gambling has helped turn the NFL into America’s game. Fantasy football — which is gambling by any logical mind — has turned pro football into a rolling bolder of commerce, flattening all sports in its path.

So it is with the NCAA, where you don’t have to be Charles Barkley, Seth Davis or Dick Vitale to be juiced up every spring.

Not to be tainted by brush of vice, by the stacks of cash exchanging hands every March, there still is a teen purity to the whole thing. For the most part, these are still kids, not yet stained by the filthy hands of agents, scouts, sneaker behemoths. Sure, there’s an inherent injustice that kids who make millions for a school can’t even afford to take their girlfriends to the movies, can’t accept rent or even meal money, lest they break the sprawling chain of legislation.

The NCAA, as a governing body, is the Orwellian nightmare, Big Brother at its worst. They think for the kids, for you, for me, with the appalling presupposition that they know what’s best for all of us.

But no misguided laws or bylaws can ruin the perfection of March Madness. Sometimes a product is so good it’s too good to be compromised by big business.

Whether you started with Lew Alcindor and John Wooden in Westwood, Bird and Magic mesmerizing you from the midwest, Hoya Paranoia shocked by the proletarians in Villanova or the long shorts and black socks of the Fab Five, everyone has a story, a start. Everyone has a time when March Madness not only bogarted the bold ink but also commandeered your heart.

Not even the one-and-done kids, who use the classroom as a chalkboard funnel for their first sneaker deal, can ruin this experience. March Madness is not only the perfect fuel for our ADD lifestyle, but it also represents life, and renewal.

By the time the Final Four rolls around, the first buds of spring flower in a rainbow of flora. Like the start of baseball, the NCAA tournament reminds us why we love athletes and athletics. Hard as we try to ruin a perfect experience, March Madness won’t let us.

Let the games begin.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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