Every spring 68 collegiate teams square off in an exhibition like no other. In a matter of three short weeks an epic tale unfolds. Lifetimes of hard work and dedication pay off, boys become men, dreams come true, hearts are broken, a David slays a Goliath, great players become legends, and a buzzer beater makes immortals.
In an age where athletics have become big business and the boundaries between competition and the bottom line have been blurred – The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is the last pure, unspoiled, uncorrupted sporting event in America.
Sure, the top level coaches are making millions, the schools are raking it in on ticket sales, TV contracts and merchandise, and there’s nary a college team in the country not somehow incestuously intertwined with a big sneaker company. The competitors, however, remain pure. No agents, no entourage, no handlers, no reality shows, no record breaking pay days. Unpaid and undaunted, these student athletes chase their hoop dreams on the hardwood floors of arenas around the country.
The Tournament provides kids, from schools both big and small, traditional powerhouses to relatively unknowns, the opportunity to capture their one shining moment. For most players, their lifetime commitment to the game of basketball, will manifest in March. Many will play their last big game on their last big stage. Their competitive careers will culminate before our eyes, but not before they lay it all on the line in one last, thrilling, pursuit of glory. For the very few, top level athletes bound for the NBA, the NCAA Tournament is not only an audition for prospective employers, it’s the end of innocence. It’s the last time they’ll play solely for the love of the game; the last time they’ll be motivated solely by the desire to compete; and for many, the last time they’ll look at the game as just a game.
No other sporting event in the world can, consistently, year in and year out, deliver this type of white knuckled, adrenaline pumping, edge of your seat ride. Where else can you be sure to see a game winning shot at the buzzer, an underdog defy all odds, a Cinderella story, the start of a legend? Not even the Super Bowl, with all its hype can PROMISE a single one of these things. March Madness GUARANTEES all of this and more!
In my lifetime, the Big Dance has been a roller coaster ride of excitement, anticipation, inspiration, and emotions. It still brings a tear to my eye remembering Loyola Marymount’s Bo Kimble shooting his 1990 NCAA Tournament free throws, left handed, in honor of his fallen teammate Hank “The Bank” Gathers, the nation’s leading scorer who died of a heart attack on the court just a few weeks earlier. I saw the start of a legendary career when a North Carolina freshman by the name of Michael Jordan knocked down a 17 footer from the wing to put a nail in Georgetown’s coffin in 1982. I’ve seen players rise to the occasion in the face of adversity, like when Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson, who had been ICE COLD the entire game, hit two free throws with no time left on the clock to give his team a 1 point victory and a championship in 1989. I’ve seen giants slayed: when little know Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew streaked down the right side of the court, stopped, and popped a 3 pointer from 20 feet out to give the #13 seed a stunning 1 point victory over #4 seeded Ole Miss in 1998; and again in 2006 when mid-major George Mason upset perennial powerhouses Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn on their way to the school’s first and only final four.
I also witnessed three miracles. The first was when Arkansas Guard U.S. Reed launched a 49 foot, half court Hail Mary to knock off defending champs Louisville in 1981; the second was when Derek Whittenburg heaved a last second shot to be slammed home by Lorenzo Charles as NC State upset Houston and Phi-Slamma-Jamma in 1983; and a third was when Duke’s Grant Hill, with 2.1 seconds left on the clock, threw an 81 foot, full court pass to Christian Laettner, who turned, pump faked and drilled a 15 footer, from the elbow, to beat Kentucky in 1992 in what is widely considered the greatest basketball game ever played.
This is sport at its best. Amateur athletes from all over the country and the globe come together, competing for their place in history and for the chance to be a champion. It doesn’t matter where you came from, where you’ve been, or where you’re going. It’s about your teammates, it’s about representing your school, representing your hometown; it’s about all the other guys who never got this chance. It’s about the here and now, living in the moment. If it’s but for three short weeks, nothing else matters but the game.
The 2013 NCAA Tournament is sure to create all the madness that the month of March can handle. With its once and done format, it’s impossible, even for the savvy Las Vegas odds makers, to predict a winner. But some things are for certain: ordinaries will become legendaries, and dreams will become realities. There will be tears and triumphs, and in the end a king will be crowned and the memories will last a lifetime.
Eric Hall owns Red Star Bar (37 Greenpoint Avenue). The sports bar will carry every game of the tournament beginning Thursday, March 21st.
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