|Young and old, all across the country, sports fans fall in love with this month for the first time and all over again. (AP)|
By Matt Norlander
This month hums and shakes like a '67 Chevy.
If you stop right now and let those years gone by, those buoyant memories that you have of them fill your brain, you'll get a pang of anxiety. Maybe it's more than a pang. Maybe, for you, it's an explosion in your gut, one that yelps, "I WANT THIS ALL AT ONCE RIGHT NOW." That's one of the best feelings a sports fan can have.
Imagine how the coaches and players feel. The slow march that starts March is all part of the fun for us and is just as much excitable torture for them. You have to wait for the best part, but there are so many other best parts that come before it, remember.
I’m already on edge. Aren’t you? Once February expires, all the lights inside me turn on instantly and I’m now ready. So ready I’ll find a hoop and shoot a basketball for two hours straight just to use up some of my constantly recharging battery that’s generated solely by the sport of college basketball. It makes me young again. It does that frequently, but never as markedly as now. This is about more than just the NCAA tournament, a behemoth with so much tonnage it rightfully hogs up most of this month, even though the world’s greatest sporting even doesn’t start annually until March 15, 16, 17, 18 — somewhere around then.
There’s much to be decided before the 68-team grid spits out 67 squads and hands us a champion. There is so much more basketball to go before we get to the ultimate stage. Small guys and big guys win and lose, small ways and big, all across the country, all in different formulas but with the same results. They happen in the World’s Most Famous Arena and in gymnasiums so small it’s possible your high school had a larger room to play its games in. Before we get to the Big Bracket, there's all the tiny league championships to parse through and so many channels to follow to watch apexes of happiness and nadirs of sadness converge with each other. Almost every night on television, another team's season ends. Four months gone and now it’s goodbye, all that fast and really just a blip of an existence for more than 70 percent of college basketball's rent-paying tenants. Those none-and-done teams pop into disintegration. Think about what those players went through and how it’s over with almost no one noticing. That’s the forgotten pain of early March. Dozens of teams' seasons are already over and we’re not even 24 hours into this greatest month of the year.
Eventually, the math holds form like it always has and always will and players who've largely played in obscurity get their moment. Their next one to come: so much bigger, with NCAA-embroidered patches and their names on bracket lines in newspapers from Miami to Anchorage. All others continue on before inevitably not continuing on, save for four — the national champion, the NIT champion, the CIT winner and the CBI’s final team. The latter two shouldn’t even exist, though. Everyone knows that.
I remember when this all swept me up. In middle school, I fell in love with the sport first, then the month, then I realized why they were fused. It was by pure accident (I swear!) I wound up getting sick in, I believe it was 1995. (In the following years, this would become an annual phony bout with my immune system.) The concept of conference tournaments weren’t familiar to me. But I remember seeing the Big East and ACC tournaments on television. I can remember how good Wake Forest and North Carolina looked. I remember Villanova seeming like it was the smoothest team in college basketball, and UMass being the one I wish I could play for.
It was great basketball during the day. Something about that makes us love college basketball even more. Daytime NBA playoff games don’t feel special, but the college ones do. Games happening and sunshine spreading in your household. Wake up, turn the corner: college basketball is waiting for you, and it's college basketball with consequence behind it and drama right in front. There’s an urgency and special occasion to afternoon hoop. So I was hooked, just as you were at one point and still are now. Why do we love the first weekend of the NCAA tournament so much? Those upsets, of course — but also those day games. It's an amazing mood-setter.
After I graduated high school, I spent three years going to college, essentially part-time while deciding what I was going to do with my life. I lived at home during that time. This afforded me the opportunity to never miss the NCAAs during the day. My younger brothers, all three of them, came to love this time as I did years before. Back at the start of the last decade, they were still in middle or high school. Without fail for three straight years on the third Thursday and Friday of March around 2:15 p.m., I’d check the front window and see six legs bounding down our road (the bus stop was a good 200 yards from our house) while hands clasped to backpack straps, desperately racing. My brothers were trying to catch the end of first-session games. I'd swing the door open, yell out the teams and the score. They'd run faster. Fly up the wooden steps, into the leaving room, glimpse the TV, which had a volume level loud enough to be heard by the neighbors. Their backpacks still on, sweat trickling out of their brows.
It keeps me young. Something as simple as games played by 19-year-olds on TV, watching with friends -- how much is the college experience enhanced by an afternoon of March basketball in your buddy's dorm room? -- and family is a cycle I'll look forward to every year until I die.
That is March to me. So many things are March to you. Things I can understand, even if I could never see them the way you did. But other things, we share them. All of us. We take in the pageantry and unexpected finishes that accompany expected drama. We love the way conference tournaments are our way of stretching before the big game that is the Big Bracket. This month never lets us down because we know it can't. Even if we don't know what's going to happen, we know what can happen. It often does, all to our continual disbelief. We let ourselves be surprised and that's essential to staying young and loving year after year.
It is here again, the most dramatic epoch on the sports calendar.
It is March.