What’s It All About?

Photo by Victoria Graff

Photo by Victoria Graff

“Bobby Thomson up there swinging. Branca throws. There’s a long drive to left. I believe –

“– the Giants win a bye in the first round and have home field advantage in the second round against the winner of the Phillies-Cubs series!”

It doesn’t have quite the same dramatic ring as Russ Hodges’ famous “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!” radio call, does it?

In fact, I guess, those days are largely gone forever. Ever since Major League Baseball went to four divisions in 1969 and extended the postseason to a playoff round. Ever since baseball added a wild card in 1994, and the wild-card Florida Marlins won the 1997 World Series. Ever since pro football added a wild card in 1970 and the wild-card Kansas City Chiefs won that Super Bowl.

And ever since the NCAA extended beyond 16 teams in its annual title tournament to include everyone who won a major Saturday afternoon TV game in February.

I suppose there’s a bit of sour grapes in seeing South Carolina advance to the Final Four while SEC champion Kentucky sits at home. South Carolina, whom Kentucky dispatched by 16 points in January. South Carolina, who lost to Alabama by 11 in the quarter-finals of the SEC tournament.

I know, that’s part of the unpredictability and excitement of the whole thing. And Kentucky has benefited from that as well. Twice recently – in 2011 and 2014.

But I wonder what we’re measuring anymore. A whole season of accomplishment? Or an ability to catch fire at just the right time and ride a series of last-second (Aaron Harrison) heroics to the championship round?

I think what Frank Martin did is spectacular. His team’s Saturday night unwillingness to bend to Gonzaga was pretty special stuff. But why couldn’t they have accomplished all that in January and February? What exactly does it say about the entire college basketball season? What do we want it to say?

Time was when only the conference champions got into the tournament, plus a handful of independent teams. The entire 16-team field was resolved in two weekends. There was little ongoing drama. Not nearly all the bracket conversation that takes place today. Not nearly all the television coverage. And much less cash in the coffers of the NCAA or CBS.

But it was more pure.

There were improbable title runs then too. The famous Texas Western team of 1966. Loyola of Chicago in 1963. City College of New York in the primordial mists of 1950.

Runs to the finals by the likes of Seattle University (Elgin Baylor), Jacksonville State (Artis Gilmore), Western Kentucky (Jim McDaniel), Indiana State (Larry Bird).

Those were small schools. But they were also legitimate contenders who had had outstanding seasons. They didn’t simply catch fire in March.

I love the drama of the tournament. I admit I love it more when it favors Kentucky. But what exactly does it prove?

Kill the Refs – Really?

I also want to say something about the way some fans have lashed out at the referees of the North Carolina game – or one referee in particular.

I certainly don’t advocate mindless violence of any kind. Who does? It has become entirely too much a part of our culture.

But those who click their tongues sanctimoniously and say that something’s wrong with sports are also those who make their money on the very same passion that sports engenders.

What is organized sports, after all, but an attempt to cash in on people’s affinity for teams that represent their cities or states or schools?

It’s not an appreciation of “good job, nice try, what a lovely jump shot.” It’s an undisguised appeal to our deepest, most basic instincts. And then, when those instincts get pushed over the edge and become ugly, all those parties who’ve lit our pilot lights and pushed our buttons – the coaches, the schools, the sportswriters, the columnists, the TV provocateurs, the NCAA’s hype machine – suddenly they become embarrassed by the intensity that they themselves fueled, that in fact they live off of.

It’s sadly true that today’s social media world has made it possible to express yourself, uncensored and anonymous, reaching a nearly international audience. Many take advantage of that to spew their repulsive anger. But that’s only throwing light on a hair-trigger venomous fury that existed all along. It’s ugly and regrettable, but the referee John Higgins didn’t light the match.

So when newspaper columnists and Sports Center commentators decry the anger, they might well look inside themselves and see what part they’ve played in all of this. VT