March Madness

adapted from a column published in 2011


Since moving to Northwest Colorado, I’ve learned a second definition for March Madness: the craziness that creeps over the populace as winter battles spring and too often wins. For most of my life, however, March Madness meant the NCAA tournament and basketball at its finest.

I grew up with the game. My older brothers scuffled a patch of packed dirt beneath a basket hanging regulation height from a telephone pole. Sometimes they created secret plays with complicated passes and elaborate feints, then enlisted Carolyn and me to stop their shot anyway we could.

We couldn’t. I sulked; Carolyn exacted revenge.

During junior high and high school, I anticipated the Friday night basketball games played in the crowded gymnasium of Spanish Fork High School all week. Filled bleachers rose from the sidelines to a thronged balcony. A band blared from the stage; and my brothers—Lawrence and then Bob—started for the Spaniards.

As I grew, people assessed my height and assumed I would play basketball; I shared their assumption—until I ran into the reality of women’s sports in the 50’s.

In junior high, we crowded around side baskets to practice shooting or passing while eying the boys at the other end of the gym. Though we never played a game, we preferred the basketball drills to the calisthenics unit.

 We played actual games in high school, but with special rules that protected our fragile bodies and stifled the flow of the game.

Not robust enough to run full court, we played in two zones: each team had three offensive players on one side of the half-court line and three defensive players on the other. A player who crossed the line risked both fouling and fatigue.

We could hold the ball only three seconds and dribble only three times. If you stole the ball from another player, you were whistled for unladylike behavior.

As center, I spent half my time wandering around the half-court line, watching the action at the other end. When my team managed to get possession, I ran for the basket, as instructed, hoping the forwards would get the ball to me, but they were usually too busy counting to three.

I scored five points in my best game—my daintiness unmarred by unsightly sweat.

Despite my unhappy experience with the game, my first exposure to the NCAA tournament on a small black-and-white TV in the sixties hooked me, and I still consider it the best sporting event on TV.

I love the language of the tournament: March Madness, N-C-double-A, Selection Sunday, top seed, underdog, Cinderella team, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four.

I thrill to the possibility that at any time a player or a team could exceed expectations, stun the crowd with excellence, and send a higher-ranked team home.

A few years ago, Joel and I went to the western regional in Salt Lake City with friends. The field house was a jumble of crowded seating, blaring buzzers, dancing mascots, frantic coaches, and players leaping in victory or drooping in defeat with towels hiding their faces—all tied together by the constant, mesmerizing movement of the game and the steady rain of basketballs through a hoop.

And the fun is about to begin again.