Wild about March Madness
The author explains why he enjoys the crazy NCAA Hoops Tourney
The next couple of weeks always seem to be a blur for me. It isn’t the arrival of daylight savings time or the return of warmer weather for mowing and related yard work. No—what becomes the focus of much of my waking hours during this time period is basketball. College basketball. Lots of college basketball.
The NCAA College Men’s Basketball Tournament has been a distraction/passion of mine for quite sometime. The event’s exact details is a bit of a foggy dating back to my high school days in the 1970s, when NBC ruled the tournament broadcast roost. Players like Artis Gilmore of Jacksonville, David Thompson of North Carolina State, and Bill Walton of UCLA were in the mix in that era. And then, there was the 1979 title game between Michigan State and Indiana State.
That ‘79 telecast gave most of the nation their first glimpse of Earvin “Magic” Johnson from Michigan State and Larry Bird of Indiana State in a game won by the deeper MSU squad. The two men some sports experts have credited with pushing the NBA to new heights in the professional basketball world showed off their skills to fans who had only seen them in the briefest of highlight video clips previously. That game still holds the record for most viewers for a single game, with 35 million people tuned in.
The tournament itself continued to flourish after Magic and Bird had moved on. The brackets were expanded from 53 to 64 teams in 1985. A shot clock was added to all NCAA games in 1986. After 2001, an admittedly annoying “pig tail” set of two games were added in for teams right on the brink of qualifying for the tournament—with the winners moving on to the main bracket.
For me, the emotional link to March Madness came in 1987. That was when CBS—which purchased the rights to the tournament in the 1980s—first shared its musical prologue to the tournament called “One Shining Moment.” You can listen to it here. The anthem is shared shortly after the conclusion of the national championship game, featuring a video collection of the best moments of that tournament, from every buzzer beater and major upset to reactions of both the players and the fans. Being the hardened man that I am, I felt my eyes fill with tears and I sobbed for a moment. Although there have a few different performers for the song 🎶, the lyrics penned by author David Barrett tugged at my heart strings the first time I heard it performed. They still do.
My daughters can attest that I have recorded the One Shining Moment presentation every year, only to watch it repeatedly until it no longer pierces my stone-cold heart.
Each spring, I attempt to fill out a March Madness bracket, but have been too busy to get it done at times. But the bracket is secondary to watching the games themselves. As most game watchers can attest, a perfect bracket just doesn’t happen. And every year, my bracket is busted like everyone else’s. But that is part of the fun—the joy—of watching all the tournament games. The crazy upsets are what make it so appealing.
I can’t recite an exhaustive list of Cinderella teams, but most basketball fans will recognize my list—the teams with either surprisingly decisive wins or last second victories against more highly favored opponents.
1983: North Carolina State. The late Coach Jim Valvano raced around the basketball court when the final horn sounded on the championship game, after his Wolfpack squad upset the Houston Cougars and the stars of “Phi Slamma Jamma” which included the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. A decade later, Valvano died of brain cancer and was immortalized for his emotional words of encouragement to “don’t ever give up” in an inspirational speech given just months before his death.
1990: Loyola Marymount. The Lions were an 11-seed that year, advancing all the way to the elite eight. The team had dedicated its season to star Hank Gathers, who had passed away due to a heart condition. LMU was an offensive machine, averaging over 122 points a game. They were fun to watch.
2006: George Mason. The Patriots were not expected to do much in the NCAA tournament. Some experts were upset that the team was seeded at all after losing in their conference title game, but they proved those experts wrong with a long list of upsets, starting with Michigan State and ending with #1 ranked Connecticut. In the final four, George Mason’s dream season ended with a loss to eventual national champion Florida.
2018: University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This is the mother of all upsets—the #16 seeded Retrievers didn’t just win, they trounced top-seeded Virginia, 74-54. They overcame long odds just to get to the NCAA Tournament, winning their conference tournament to advance. They ended up losing in round two to Kansas State. I was impressed by the win and impulsively purchased a ball cap of the UMBC Retrievers. Mine looks much like the one pictured.
2022: St. Peter’s. A number 15 seed, the Peacocks backed their way into the tournament, but posted a series of upsets to back into the elite eight, where they were finally dispatched by North Carolina.
There is one other team that has stuck in my head over many years because they seemed to pop up every few years in the tourney. Valparaiso University is a private school in Indiana—also known by the locals as Valpo. I worked with a teacher who attended school there, so it always sticks in my head when I hear the name. In 1998, Coach Homer Drew and his Crusaders (now Beacons) team won on a last second shot by star guard Bryce Drew (the coach’s son) to upset Mississippi in the opening round of the tournament. The team, which went on to the sweet 16, was later inducted into the school’s hall of fame. Of note: Homer Drew’s sons, Scott and Bryce are now coaches themselves—Scott at Baylor, and Bryce at Grand Canyon. Thinking I should buy myself some Valpo swag.
Watching this year’s edition of March Madness, I have already lamented my bracket choices—second guessing the upsets that didn’t happen, and softly kicking myself for not choosing the lower seeded team that squeaked out a victory. And even with social media, basketball lovers can sense the cathartic nature of this annual hardcourt adventure, signaling their understanding with gifs and emojis.
I, for one, will continue to relive the sum total of the NCAA tournament at its conclusion, watching and listening to the three minutes of One Shining Moment, complete with a catchy tune, as well as emotional players and fans, and broadcasters. March Madness.
I never cared that much about the Madness until 1979. I was stationed with the Air Force in Mass. and took a static post in a portion of a two-story building that USAF cops were assigned to secure. I requested it because I could place a TV in a side room that was near the security points.
I watched much of the game between Magic and Bird and made my rounds amongst the floors in the building where the laser was initially developed (Hanscom Field, near Bedford). In the 80s soon became enamored with the annual Hoop Trek to the Final 4.
Some years my bracket predictions are pretty good, other times they’re like anyone else’s: losers before or soon after the Sweet 16 tips off. But the research and challenge of doing it and wagering a free lunch to friends (like Gilman and Spivey) and oldest son Casey indicated that I could choose more winners than they can, is an annual thing.
I still have hope that Gonzaga and Marquette will make it to the Elite 8 and Houston and Purdue earn Final 4 spots in 2023.
What are my chances? God knows, but it’s fun.