How to fall in love with March Madness
Here's the thing about college sports: They suck you in with feelings instead of flash
I succumbed to madness Sunday.
The waiting might have been the worst part. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Breathing was hard. Speaking in coherent sentences was impossible. By the time Northwestern's name was called — half an hour and three other No. 8 seeds into CBS's Selection Sunday show — I had effectively lost all motor control.
It was just a few words from CBS broadcaster Greg Gumbel that sent me over the edge: "No. 8 seed, out of the West. There they are, the Northwestern Wildcats! Seventy-eight years in the making." I felt euphoric, and I couldn't stop shaking. I wondered whether I was having an out-of-body experience. (I'm still not certain I'm not.)
I'm normally a pragmatist — and one who grew up spoiled rotten on professional basketball. I love that the NBA gives its finalists seven tries to ensure the best team wins. I love the guilt-free indignation NBA fans have when multimillionaires complain about minor work obligations, because it's easy to demand more from people when they see more zeroes on a check than you could ever dream of. I love the NBA's clarity: two conferences, plain-as-day standings, and concrete postseason criteria.
But here's the thing about college sports: They suck you in with feelings instead of flash.
College athletes dedicate their time, energy, and bodies for nothing other than pure love of the game. There are no mind-boggling sums of money attached to college ball — even for the best players — and very, very few of these athletes will ever make the pros and stay long enough to cash in. At a school like Northwestern in particular, most players have at most four playing years to achieve their sports dreams before snapping back to reality after graduation and settling into professional life. (Northwestern hasn't sent a basketball player to the NBA since 1999.)
The NCAA men's basketball tournament — which pits 68 teams against one another in a single-elimination bracket — is the pinnacle of college sports. It's about unlikely heroes and unthinkable upsets and the unbridled joy of victory. It's about one shot changing everything. Single-elimination all the way to the top means the winner is the team that wants it more right now, not the one that can prove more effective for four games out of seven. There's a reason they call it March Madness.
Despite hosting the first-ever NCAA tournament in 1939, Northwestern had never earned a bid to the Big Dance in 78 years. More telling than that, even, is just how far the Wildcats had been from the tournament: Since 1939, there have been 41 seasons in which Northwestern won fewer than 10 games.
This year, the Wildcats won a school-record 21 games in the regular season and posted a winning record in Big Ten play for the first time in almost 40 years. They beat then-No. 7 Wisconsin at the Kohl Center without junior guard Scottie Lindsey, their leading scorer. Against a streaking Michigan team, they executed The Play, easily the most significant sequence in Northwestern basketball history.
It's a Northwestern fan's nature to assume the worst, after years and years of heartbreak. But that's what makes this year so great, and it's why I've been wooed by the tournament I once scorned. As proud as I am to root for my hometown NBA team, geography bore me into that allegiance. I chose to go to Northwestern. I went to classes with team members, interviewed them at open practices, high-fived them on the court. I've fallen for our shared history.
But the heart is a fickle thing, and what won me over may not be what does it for you. Maybe it will be the office pool, and the prospect of bonding with coworkers and maybe winning a couple bucks at the end, that lures you into filling out a "why not" bracket — until suddenly your "why not" bracket is your personal constitution throughout early spring. Maybe you'll swoon over March Madness' passion, as players sprint across hardwood until their shoes squeak and their bodies ache and their coaches fall face-first on the floor after a game-winning shot. You might be taken with the tangible energy of the crowd, even through a TV screen, as thousands of fans pack neutral arenas clad in matching shirts and armed with common chants, cheers, and jeers. You might buy into the idea of community pride and be swayed by the urgency of the people around you every spring, even if you care little for basketball at all.
You might not even realize you're in so deep until it comes to net-cutting time, a tradition for the March Madness victors. Watching a series of people climb a ladder while holding a pair of scissors should, at most, only trigger some anxiety at the minor danger of it all. It shouldn't be anything remarkable. But when each triumphant team member comes away with an innocuous inch or two of twine and holds it in the air, maybe you'll shed a tear. Maybe you'll realize you're grinning like an idiot. But when your emotions spike over watching strangers successfully use scissors, you'll know you've found something special, and you won't want to let go.
Shakespeare once wrote, "Love is merely a madness." But when it comes to March, I think he was being a little dismissive. Love is not merely a madness; the madness is what makes you fall in love in the first place. The unreasonable levels of passion, the crushing uncertainty, the knowledge that one moment can change everything — that's the crux of college basketball.
Right after Northwestern's name was called Sunday night, I popped a bottle of champagne and let the moment wash over me. It's been a long road for my beloved Wildcats just to get near the ballroom. Let's dance.