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"As life returns, let the madness begin" - Just prior to the start of the 1977 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, the late, great Al McGuire, head coach of Marquette (formerly known as the "Warriors"), announced suddenly that he would be stepping down from his perch, effective at the end the tourney.
And it came as a shock to all.
First, the timing. Did the diabolical McGuire, who had been at the helm for Marquette the last 22 years, have something up his sleeve? He was, in fact, the only coach to ever be ejected from a Final Four game.
But McGuire had never won the coveted "National Championship," and most believed he wouldn't retire until he reached the promised land. So, a reporter proceeded to ask him this after the announcement:
"Al, is this a ploy to fire up your team so you can go out a winner?"
"Nope," McGuire bellowed. "We have no chance, but we might be like a cockroach in a plate of spaghetti. Don't be surprised if we fall in and mess it up for somebody else."
When the 14th ranked Marquette Warriors defeated Dean Smith's powerful North Carolina Tar Heels 67-59 in the championship game to win it all, it was then universally agreed that McGuire had shocked the world. The win came in McGuire's final game as head coach, and it gave the program its lone national title.
It was, in fact, Madness...
And it’s that time of the year again: "March Madness." Madness seems an apt name for the multitudes of ecstatic college hoops fans who ripple across America. In fact, it goes well beyond the United States.
I’m told that the folks in Italy spend their nights glued to the TV screen to watch the American college teams battle, despite the six-to-nine hour time difference. That’s cool for me, because, well, I’m Italian!
Ever wonder why are we so passionate about sports? Why does watching someone else compete at a high level evoke such strong feelings? Even when our team or favorite athlete is on the losing side, we crave more. Despite those negative emotions, however, we can’t wait for the next game, the next match, the next NCAA tournament. Especially if we’ve taken the time to wager a shekel or two on the affair.
We live and die on the ups and downs of March Madness, as it creates the nervous tension we’re addicted to. I've talked about this before, using baseball as an example. Every fifteen seconds, in baseball, there’s failure. The pitcher fails to throw a strike. The hitter fails to make contact. The fielder fails to make a play and the hitter fails to reach base. The vicious cycle repeats itself for 3+ hours until someone wins the game. It teaches us failure is never final, and that you can’t reach the promised land without setbacks.
Nothing exemplifies this more than March Madness:
68 teams enter. 20 gut-wrenching days ensue. 1 remains.
It all starts in our brains, too. Our brains contain mirror neurons, and these brain cells fire when we watch the players battling on the court, cutting across the defense with a no-look pass, shooting from the three-point line or blocking the shot of another player. These mirror neurons make us literally feel what the player is feeling - to a milder degree, of course - but our brains are re-enacting internally what we watch.
It's as if we are almost playing the game ourselves.
In other words, many fans are living vicariously through the players and teams.
But that’s not enough. We want more.
For a lot of us, athletics have been an integral part of our lives since elementary school. And no matter how far you advanced in your own athletic career, it’s usually never enough. Because of this, we examine how our treatment of athletes borders on hero worship and how people go from being competitors themselves to becoming spectators who project their hopes, fears and passions onto those that they watch. They even feel a kinship and unspoken fellowship with the some of the competitors on stage.
Having a bet on the game heightens the experience as well. So does filling out a bracket.
These things enhance the viewing participation of the event. It feeds our competitive spirit.
With its buzzer-beating, one-and-done format that can turn unknown college kids into larger-than-life-heroes - and celebrated programs into jealous bridesmaids - March Madness has a broad, something-for-everybody type of appeal (as anyone who has ever filled out a bracket for the office pool can attest).
Fans feel as though they’re sharing in something bigger than the games: the infectiousness of the underdog, the agony of defeat, the soul searching and the "One Shining Moment" And yet no matter how faithful their loyalty to their alma maters remain, or how close they sit to the court, these 'fanatics' will always be at least one step removed from those who are actually competing on the hardwood floor.
This will always be the primary foil of the average fan: only the athletes inside the arena can truly experience the magic, but balancing the two can be difficult for even the most well-adjusted spectator.
For some, the thrill is grounded in seeing human outliers performing athletic feats that few can replicate.
For others, nothing can top the collective high of re-joining and gathering with one’s like-minded kinfolk.
And let’s not poo-poo the David and Goliath aspect of the games.
With every underdog victory, you can bet that people use it as fuel for their own lives, their own personal endeavors, whether it's athletically speaking or otherwise. With every buzzer-beater we are reminded that anything is possible. With every vignette about the hardship of a player who never gave up, in spite of his long shot odds to get on the floor, we are retold that we, still, are the authors of our own legacy.
In the end, few things in life can match the uniqueness of the month-long phenomenon known as “March Madness” - the lure of the unscripted outcome, the bragging rights of the winners, and the constant reminders to onlookers that they are witnessing something that is far from ordinary.
It's why we watch, it’s why we’ve always cared, and it’s why we always will. That’s why year in and year out, March Madness continues to justify and elevate its own frenzy. And now, given the advent of legalized betting, it will amplify even further. That is truly the essence of the rampant fanaticism for the Big Dance.
But of course, in Las Vegas, we've known this for years - in the end it's the 149 million brackets cast coast-to-coast, the 400,000 people descending upon Sin City and a betting handle that now dwarfs the Super Bowl. It's the nationwide appeal, the fierce rivalries and the bitter defeats. It's the sensational victories that happen when it once looked like all was lost. It's simply the hope for a better day.
In the end, March Madness is life…