Why We’re Hooked on Hoops

Illustration by Kyle Raetz

In recent years, Detroit has become quite the in-vogue sports venue. We had a Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills Country Club in 2004, an All-Star Game at Comerica Park in 2005, and the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills last summer. Motown next welcomes the NCAA Final Four basketball championship to Ford Field next month as the culmination of a 65-team NCAA tournament that goes by the moniker March Madness. The tournament is so riveting that it probably draws more casual fans than any event apart from the Super Bowl. It manages this for reasons that are both tangible and abstract — and, dare I say, even spiritual. Ten such explanations come readily to mind.

1. Michigan and Michigan State.

The two not-so-good friends could be making a joint appearance
for the first time since both cracked the bracket in 1998. The Wolverines have been on an 11-year NCAA tournament hiatus after some misbehavior in the early ’90s led to NCAA probation and a fumigation of Crisler Arena. The Spartans, meanwhile, have been on a lovely ride since Tom Izzo began assembling a mini-dynasty in 1995. Now, John Beilein has repaired U-M and Izzo has another nationally ranked team.

2. Goodbye, Billy Packer. Hello, Clark Kellogg.

Packer’s fans, and everyone in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), will experience March Sadness with  Packer dropped as CBS-TV’s game analyst. Others who viewed Packer as a cheerleader for the ACC will welcome the polished Kellogg, who brings objectivity to courtside, not to mention substance to telecasts otherwise made antiseptic and superficial by lead announcer Jim Nantz.

3. Office pools are a hoot.

Every workplace has an NCAA-bracket contest. Basketball knowledge is non-essential. That’s fine. Just fill out the bracket, lay down your money, and know that, because of upsets, you probably have as much of a shot at winning the pool as that basketball geek in the next cubicle.

4. One and done is deliciously cruel.

In professional sports (apart from the NFL), you have those interminable stretches known as the playoff series. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace faster than a typical year’s NBA champion is decided. The NCAA tournament, by contrast, is like an Old West showdown. One lives, one dies, and it’s on to the next shootout. Sixty-five teams get pared to a Final Four in just two weekends. A basketball team’s season is thus reduced to a rapid-fire series of do-or-die games.

5. Detroit gets a publicity boost.

We’re tired of being America’s symbol for tough times. Detroit, in fact, is more than automobiles. That’s why the NCAA Final Four is being played at Ford Field. We’re a major city with elite facilities. Bask in the attention as CBS sportscasters repeatedly mention “The Road to Detroit” during their ongoing analyses of the 2009 tournament. Nation, take note.

6. Winter is history.

Two sports interludes signal an end to Michigan’s lone lousy season: baseball spring training and the NCAA tournament. By the time the NCAA pairings are announced, winter’s most miserable days are on the wane. Daylight has overpowered darkness. Robins are landing on the lawn. Three weekends later, it’s time for the Final Four and the first days of April. Basketball season might usher in winter, but it compensates by accompanying us to spring’s ribbon cutting.

7. Sunday night’s pairings.

Nothing in sports matches the spontaneity of NCAA tournament scheduling. After holing up for one long, often-contentious day, an NCAA panel arbitrarily decides where, and against whom, 65 teams will play their tournament games. All the sites and seedings are unveiled on CBS-TV in an extraordinary few minutes of theater. Who makes the bracket, and who doesn’t, produces its share of debate. But so did the 2000 presidential election. This is more fun.

8. Thursday and Friday day games.

The NCAA tournament has 65 teams and dozens of games that need to be processed in a blur during the first round’s winnowing. It turns the first two days of the tournament, Thursday and Friday, into a kind of basketball Cuisinart. Fans can begin tuning in late in the morning and watch basketball deep into the night — all while CBS shifts from game to game to game. This is fabulous forage for basketball junkies. Dissenting views come from employers, who — productivity studies reveal — experience a mysterious slowdown during March.

9. We further appreciate 1979.

This is the 30th anniversary of the most widely watched NCAA championship game in history. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, also known as MSU against Indiana State. Amazing, how the sports world has been super-sized in just about all shapes and forms since then. The media have exploded in tandem with the NCAA tournament’s size and scope. But, during that pre-ESPN era, there was sheer mystery as to who certain basketball superstars were, and how they played the game. It explains why the whole nation seemed to watch that night’s starry show at Salt Lake City when two emerging basketball deities met.

10. Giants fall, Cinderella lives.

We love upsets. We’re genetically wired to embrace underdogs. Among the NCAA tournament’s virtues is its capacity to humble the haughty. It might be Gonzaga or George Mason that knocks off a big, fierce, top-seeded squad and thereby grabs our hearts. Or we may simply delight in a near-death experience encountered by Duke or North Carolina against a school so small no one is quite sure what state it calls home. In the end, however, we love the NCAA tournament because it reminds us of our own lives, that we’re here for a period of time that’s grand and yet fleeting.