Saturday, March 23, 2013

More Than Madness: Why March Matters

Author's Note: since my last post in this blog, I've changed scenery, leaving Texas for a job in Sports Information at Amherst College. It's been a major lifestyle shift, one on which I hope to reflect and write more this summer, once my days are no longer filled with tennis recaps and hockey box scores. For now, I'm valuing the chance to write professionally, even if these entries have become few and far between. If you want to know what I'm really up to, just visit Cheers!

There are many days when I’m more than ready to throw in the towel on sportswriting as a career – when the late nights writing tennis recaps and the weekends spent running from one event to the next seem like a big fat waste of time compared to the work I could be doing in, you know, helping save the planet or something. But then the month of March, specifically the NCAA basketball tournaments, come around and have to remind me of all of the reasons why I still love sports.

Harvard has us remembering that even the Ivies can get caught up in March.
Consider this: after the first round of the men’s Division I tournament (I refuse to call the Round of 64 the “Second Round”), the two biggest Cinderella stories are the nation’s oldest university (Harvard, est. 1636) and one of its youngest (Florida Gulf Coast, est. 1991). There must be some value in that storyline, some lesson about how you can never be too venerated and haughty, nor too inexperienced and headstrong, to get carried away with the emotions caused by a group of kids working hard together to do something nobody thought they could. As somewhat of a New Mexican at heart, my bracket and I howled in agony when the Crimson upset the Lobos, but once I saw this picture of the Harvard band, I couldn’t help but smile along with the rest of Massachusetts.

Speaking of Bay State smart guys, here’s the other great thing that happened in college basketball yesterday: the Amherst College men advanced to the D-III Final Four, and they did so by scoring more points against Cabrini College (last year’s national runner-up) than any D-I team put up in the first round. The Jeffs ran away with a 101-82 win, putting on an offensive clinic that’s hard to imagine coming from a bunch of liberal arts students. I’ve had the privilege of entering the three-pointers, blocks and dunks that these guys have produced all year into a stats computer as they’ve happened, and being around the team regularly has led to a couple of reflections. First, despite what the cookie-cutter commentators might say on the webcast, you can forget the nerdy stereotypes of D-III student-athletes from top schools. These young men are basketball players and cold-blooded winners, even if they don’t have the tattoos. Sports Illustrated legend Jack McCallum puts it far better than I in his column about the NESCAC’s Elite Three, so I’ll let him say the rest.

The second reflection is another one of those why-we-care-about-sports odes. Spike Lee wrote the line for He Got Game, “basketball is like poetry in motion.” You can say the same about a precision touchdown pass, a home run robbery or an ultimate player channeling his inner Usain Bolt, but we’ll stick with basketball since it’s March. There’s a pure aesthetic joy to watching an athlete do extraordinary things with the human body, one that transcends and mitigates the noise of sophomoric celebrations and off-the-deep-end media. Along with the irresistible drama of great games, “poetry in motion” should be enough to turn even the snootiest artiste’s eyes toward the television come tourney time, albeit with the mute button close at hand.

Finally – and this is honestly the biggest one for me – there’s regional pride at stake. Although conference realignment (a.k.a corporate greed) is threatening it at the D-I level, college sports (and even the pros, at their best) are deeply rooted in a sense of place. I won’t get all nature writer-y now, but it’s this connection that has made me realize that sports and environmentalism aren’t necessarily so far apart. This winter, I also had the privilege of periodically covering Amherst’s dynastic women’s basketball team, which reached its fifth straight Final Four last weekend. Even though the general student body hardly seemed to notice their incredible achievements (a rant for another day), the loyal group of family, friends and townies that doggedly supported this team all year made me proud to call myself an Amherst native for the first time in a long time. Inevitably, it brought me back to the Final Four Run of the Calipari/Camby UMass team in 1996, an historic time for our town which captured the hearts of more than just a six-year old me (I still have the shirt which a couple of walk-on benchwarmers signed at our elementary school pep rally, and one of my greater claims to fame is that Coach Cal read children’s books to me at the South Amherst library). Where am I going with this? Here’s where: sports, like few other things, have the power to connect us deeply with both the places from which we hail and the people with whom we cheer. In our partisan, often roots-less age, I see great potential for progress in that unity.

When people talk about how to fix our broken political system, my first answer is often, “make all of the congressmen and women go on a backpacking trip.” Maybe it would be just as powerful if every state with a team still playing made its senators and representatives sit down and watch the tourney together.