DAYTON, OH - MARCH 13: (R) Brock Zylstra #13 and Matt Carlino #10 of the Brigham Young Cougars react late in the second half while taking on the Iona Gaels in the first round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at UD Arena on March 13, 2012 in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
What makes the NCAA Tournament so incredibly captivating? Dan Grunfeld has experienced the Big Dance as a fan, fanatic and player, so he definitely has a thing or two to say about it.
The year was 1999. The month was March. Cruel Intentions was killing it at the box office, Eminem had just dropped The Slim Shady LP, and images of Britney Spears in a school-girl outfit were making adolescent dudes everywhere feel confused in their trousers. Set against the backdrop of this important moment in our nation's history, there was me, as a freshman in high school, in biology class, on the first day of the 1999 NCAA Tournament.
As my teacher expounded upon the wondrous world of cytoplasm and chlorophyll, I was sitting attentively in my seat, taking notes with my right hand, resting my left elbow on my desk, and casually leaning my head onto my left palm to assume a very common and comfortable note-taking position. I was listening closely to the information that my teacher was disseminating, but only with my right ear. With my left one, I was monitoring the hotly-contested action that always defines the first day of March Madness.
You see, I was a very serious student who always put academics first, but as a hoops junkie, I just couldn't stay away from the Big Dance. Because I grew up in an era without Facebook, Twitter, iPads, smartphones or Ryan Seacrest, my only option to stay connected to the tourney during the school day was to place a little transistor radio in the left front pocket of my jeans, turned to a low volume and set to whatever station was broadcasting the games. The wire from the radio's earbud headphones ran under my long-sleeved shirt, with the left bud traveling the length of my left arm so that it poked ever so slightly out of my sleeve. When I leaned onto my left palm, I got live NCAA action during class.
I realize that this may seem a little extreme, but I was a basketball fanatic, and I also had an unquenchable thirst for danger, so it pretty much made sense. More than anything, though, I think it's a great illustration of just how amazing the NCAA Tournament really is, and also the ridiculous actions it can sometimes inspire.
The Big Dance is the purest, greatest, most exciting month of sports that our country has to offer. To be sure, it's a tour de force in the world of sporting spectacles, an epic multi-week event that never disappoints and that organically delivers a winning combination of fast and furious play peppered with random doses of intrigue, suspense, drama, jubilation, camaraderie, heartbreak, heroics and triumph, in varied proportions that always make perfect sense.
If it seems like I have a romantic notion of the NCAA Tournament, it's because I do, Jackhole, and I simply cannot help it. To use terminology that I just invented eight seconds ago while waiting for my Britney Spears YouTube video to load, the "micro-awesomeness" and "macro-awesomeness" of March Madness are equally and incredibly spellbinding to me, and it's impossible not to appreciate that.
On the micro-awesomeness level, which I casually define as the day-to-day excitement and joy that a specific sporting event provides, nothing can touch the Dance. There is just too much going on as far as awesomeness is concerned. First and foremost, the play is intense and meaningful, with the one-and-done format making every possession truly matter. If there's a ball on the floor, someone's diving on it. If there's an extra pass to be made, someone's swinging the rock. If there's a hand to be slapped, someone's getting a hearty high-five! It's basketball the way it should be played, devoid of the ugly elements that sometimes cloud up this beautiful game, such as selfishness, lack of effort or negativity.
It's good ball, for sure, but that's just the tip of the awesome-berg, and only part of the reason why the Dance is so fun on a day-to-day basis. Let's not forget about all the buzzer-beaters, shots that save seasons, lift up communities, and create moments that live forever. Or the upsets, where small schools and unlikely underdogs show that if you believe, anything is possible, and that if you keep trucking, anyone can become a Cinderella. Or the filling out of brackets, where the thrill of rooting for your picks can turn even the most casual hoops fan into a rabid, bracket-obsessed beast. Or the viewing parties, where friends and family can get together around a platter of wings and some top-notch beverages (No. 1 seed: Pellegrino) in order to cheer on their favorites and appreciate the action together. Or even the enjoyable tournament shenanigans, where idiots like me will stop at nothing to follow the madness, whether that means sneaking radios into class, checking iPhones compulsively during work, or contracting a mystery illnesses of questionable severity and legitimacy that nonetheless kept me home from school and allowed me to watch with eyes peeled as Bryce Drew lifted Valparaiso to a shocking win over Ole Miss with a stone-cold three at the buzzer. (That was the year before the radio thing.)
Every day that tournament games are played, these moments of micro-awesomeness are plentiful, but when they end, the Big Dance is still important on the macro scale, and that's why it's such a special event. When I say macro, I'm referring to how the tournament as a whole finds significance within the greater framework of the world in which we live, and for me, March Madness does that on an impressive level. Simply put, the tourney matters.
In many ways, experiencing the essence of the NCAA Tournament is like observing a journey of mythological-ish proportions (yes, that's another technical term I invented), not because of the importance of the results, certainly, but because of the themes that are represented by the journey. It seems like the stories that March Madness tells, of individuals and of groups of people, are universal and timeless in nature, the kinds that are prominent in ancient mythology, classic adventure tales and Disney movies alike. David vs. Goliath (Villanova versus Georgetown, 1985), the journey of the hero (Tyus Edny, UCLA, 1995), and of course, the story of Cinderella (George Mason University, 2006) are all classic archetypes that define the Dance, and the stories from the tournament that personify them live on forever.
How will the world ever forget the birth of Michael Jordan's legend the day he hit the shot to win the 1982 national championship for the Tar Heels? What about Christian Laettner's dagger to lift Duke over Kentucky in 1992, one that moved his teammate Thomas Hill to cry tears of joy on the court? Bo Kimble shooting the first free throw in each of his 1991 tournament games lefty, in honor of his fallen teammate Hank Gathers, and making every one of them? Magic versus Larry in '79? Jimmy V sprinting across the floor in '83? Texas Western in '66? Walton's 21-22? Chris Webber's timeout? Keith Smart? Tate George? Mario Chalmers? Butler University?
To me, these uniquely powerful NCAA Tournament moments feel like a page out of a comparative mythology textbook -- an academic subject based on the notion that the most important tales from cultures around the world all have common elements that define them -- because the themes of the Dance are that universal. It's a compelling competition rife with the age-old characteristics that have resonated with mankind for centuries, such as sacrifice, struggle, friendship, virtue, perseverance and becoming a hero by achieving some ultimate goal. In certain times and places, that goal has been slaying the ill-tempered, halitosis-breathing dragon. In others, it's been rescuing the slammin' hot yet oddly insecure princess. And in the U.S.A., at the beginning of every April, it's cutting down the nets after winning it all.
Again, I speak very romantically about the NCAA Tournament, but only because I have been a part of it, not only as a radio-smuggling and malady-feigning fan, but also as a player. My college team made the Dance three out of my four years at Stanford, and in 2004, my sophomore year, we were the No. 1 seed in the West, entering the NCAA's with a record of 29-1. In our second round game against Alabama, we found ourselves trailing by three with the clock winding down, on the verge of falling victim to a huge upset, and the ball swung to me on the wing with time about to expire. I rose up in an instant and shot the potential game-tying three with confidence, but it didn't go in. It hit the rim as time ran out, and we were eliminated from the tournament.
It was awesome! Just kidding, it wasn't. Far from it. For some of my teammates, it was the end of illustrious careers at Stanford. For all of us, it was a huge disappointment, because we'd fought hard all year, had high hopes for our team, and genuinely cared about each other as people. The loss hurt everyone, especially me, the guy who missed that last shot. It was a bummer, without a doubt, but looking back, I've realized that it was also a great blessing. I was on a stage that kids can only dream of when they're younger, just like I did, and I was part of the timeless narrative of March Madness. Even though the bounce didn't go my way, I wouldn't take it back. To be able to have that in my bank of experiences is priceless, and there's no shame in it, because as we know, things don't always work out as we'd like, and at the end of the day, only one team can successfully complete that NCAA hero's journey.
It's been years since I competed on that stage, but clearly, I'm still a lover of March Madness. I always have been --even before I got to experience the triumph and heartbreak firsthand -- and I always will be. The micro- and macro-awesomeness of the event are simply too potent a combination, and that is why I am far from alone in my devotion to the Dance. It just makes sense to us, it seems, as sports enthusiasts and as human beings. We can appreciate all that the journey entails, because when the road from preseason practice to the Final Four is so long, the pressure so high, the challenges so great, the end goal so clear, and the reward so incredible, to be the last team standing is really the stuff that legends are made of. All in all, the beautiful struggle of March Madness that we witness (and sometimes are lucky enough to partake in) is a tale as old as time, one that is intense, allegorical and entertainingly awesome every step of the way.