Timothy Amoss explains why 'March Madness' is often the most unpredictable event in American sports.
For some, the merest utterance of the word ‘basketball’ relates to far distant memories of smelly school gyms, those PE lessons where no one really knew what was going on. Half the class tried to adapt the rules of rugby, the other half couldn’t be arsed as it was too rainy for outdoor football.
For many though basketball is a way of life, perhaps nowhere more prevalent than in the good old US of A!
You can make a great case that basketball is truly America’s great pastime. It’s the oldest modern sport to be invented in the US (albeit by a Canadian - Dr James Naismith in 1891) and quickly became popular in small communities around the country as a welcome indoor activity during long, brutal winters.
Fast forward 100 years or so, and household names such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal are making millions of dollars and entertaining fans all over the world! I first discovered basketball and the NBA around this time in the mid 90’s, during a deliberate global push made by those clever foresightful yanks to expand the game overseas.
The result?! A HUGE worldwide following (Europe, South America and Asia in particular) with previously lesser known international players now ‘living the dream’ to become NBA superstars.
However, if you’re one of the lucky few that makes it to the professional level, you most likely had to go through the college system to get there (the NBA no longer lets you go straight in from high school) and most probably took part in one of the most exciting and intriguing sporting events on the planet - ‘March Madness’.
This probably doesn’t ring many bells to most of you, but ask almost any American what it means and they most certainly will smile a little as they tell you.
The premise itself is ingenious in its simplicity; 64 college basketball teams make the tournament field (give or take a few ‘play in’ games), single elimination/straight knockout games played over 3 long weekends in March (finishing now in April), win and advance, lose and get sent packing!!
The starting field is quickly whittled down to the ‘Sweet Sixteen’, the ‘Elite Eight’ and ultimately the ‘Final Four’ (wonderfully elaborate names for what is essentially quarter final, semi-final etc.). Come March, almost an entire country stops and takes note of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
One of the biggest days in the US Sporting calendar (and one of the most expensive tickets) ‘Super Saturday’ is highlighted by the ‘Final Four’ remaining teams squaring off for a shot to play for the National Championship. Often held in huge arenas more suited to hosting NFL games than basketball matches, attendances can reach the six figure mark! The event is unlike anything else in the sporting world.
The clever bit? Of the 300 plus division one college teams that compete, EVERY team is given a chance to get in!
One of the great things about the tournament is that each of the 31 conferences or leagues around the country (big or small, rich or poor, good or bad) gets an automatic entry into the ‘dance’ as it has come to be known, making for many potential ‘David vs Goliath’ style matchups! The automatic ‘bid’ is determined by a conference championship tournament (or mini-playoff if you will), with the lone exception of the Ivy League who award their title to the ‘regular season’ champion.
So in theory (unless you’re in the Ivy League) you could potentially lose every single regular season game, finish last, have some kind of Rocky-esque ‘epiphany’ moment, win your conference tournament and get in to the field!
If I had to equate it to anything else, it would probably be the FA Cup. The fun of seeing lower/non-league teams do battle against the might of the premiership elite is immensely entertaining and indeed magical on occasion. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the FA Cup as much as anyone but I would argue ’March Madness’ has a few intriguing improvements on its closest equivalent.
For starters, no replays! Once you step out on that court NOBODY leaves until one team wins, no matter how many overtime periods that may take (sometimes as many as SIX!). This ‘fight to the death’ mentality really adds to the entertaining spectacle of each game as any team, no matter how highly ranked, can potentially fall at any time.
Also, the timeframe. The FA Cup begins its initial qualifying in the late summer months, with the final taking place in May. March Madness takes place over three long weekends in (shockingly enough) March!
It’s kind of like having an Olympics every year….but just for basketball….college basketball….in America. To sum up not that much like the Olympics at all, but you get the idea. Like not having adverts in a film, you don’t lose much (if any) suspense during the tournament. Rather, it builds up perfectly with just a brief window to reflect on what has just transpired and ponder what might happen next.
Oh one more tiny little thing….erm these guys are only bloody STUDENTS!! They’re just like you and me (ya know, when we were at university….only much better basketball players…and perhaps a shade more popular….maybe). Sure a select few will go on to be superstars at the pro level, and yeah a couple more might just be good/lucky enough to make a living out of playing in Europe and around the world BUT for the vast majority this is the pinnacle of their athletic careers!
This IS their ultimate goal. And they don’t even get paid!! Well at least they’re not supposed to, but that’s another matter.
My point? These guys play the game with a love and passion rarely seen in today’s sporting world, where superstar lifestyles, fashionable haircuts, WAGs and scandalous news stories seem to take precedent over ACTUAL sporting achievement.
If you’ve ever witnessed a college basketball game in person, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. These guys work their ‘asses’ off (excuse my American) every minute of every game, and it’s awesome to watch!
Add in the fanfare of the bands, cheerleaders, crazed fans, colours and traditions and it truly becomes a spectacle to behold. Where else can you find that rare combination of passion, athleticism, hustle, suspense, excitement, drama, competitiveness and spectacle all rolled into one beautiful tournament?!
The 2010 Final Four saw tiny little Butler University (based close to downtown Indianapolis) survive where 300+ others had fallen, in making it all the way to the Championship game. In one of the greatest Finals of all time (and most watched) they came up an agonising ‘buzzer beater‘ short of a miraculous accomplishment in a true David v Goliath matchup against the much vaunted Duke University. It also just so happened to be in their hometown!
Their inspirational run is just one of countless examples of how the tournament creates stories, memories, controversies, magical moments, ‘Cinderella’s’ and superstars that become engrained in American sporting folklore. The drama, glory and despair of those 3 weeks in March never fail to capture the interest of an entire nation. It is truly sport at its finest, in its purest and most beautiful form.
And one the best hidden gems of sporting events most of the world knows nothing about.