Thursday, March 16, 2006


" 'Let us be able to lose gracefully and to win courteously; to accept criticism as well as praise; and to appreciate the attitude of the other [player] at all times.' That timeless advice was offered by James Naismith, a young gym instructor for the Young Men's Christian Association in Springfield, Massachusetts, who invented the sport known as basketball in 1891 – He had no idea what he had started. With March comes "March Madness," the annual festival of obsession with the round ball. The tournament began in 1939 with eight teams playing in a single elimination format. Now, the twenty-day tournament includes sixty-five teams. Basketball fans know that putting the entire season on the line for a single elimination tournament is itself a form of madness – but they glory in it. Basketball may have started with peach baskets nailed to opposing ends of an old gym, but the sport is now big business and a major cultural event. The annual NCAA tournament makes and breaks teams, players, coaches, athletic directors, and even university presidents. There is a lot more than pride riding on that bouncing ball. For players, the tournament is not likely to be a repeat experience. Those whose teams make it to the Final Four – and especially those whose teams win the championship – look back on the Big Dance as the moment of lifetime achievement. Players on losing teams often feel defeat even more acutely than the winners sense victory. "Every year, when the championship game ends, I find myself looking at the players on the losing team," Jay Bilas, starting center for Duke when it faced Louisville in the 1986 championship game, reflects. "Not the coaches – they'll have other chances – but the players. I know how they feel, especially when it's a close game decided by a play or two at the finish. I know they're going to live with the feeling they've got in their stomachs right then for the rest of their lives. It'll always be there. You can talk all you want about how great your season was, the last memory is the one you carry inside you wherever you go, whatever you do, the rest of your life." Basketball is a contest of athletic ability and brains. The game has been transformed in recent decades, moving to a higher level of athleticism and a higher level of play. A clash of philosophies has often emerged at the Big Dance, with Eastern schools often playing a more traditional game, while schools to the west have pioneered innovations – pushing the game above the rim and stretching the envelope. Now, the tournament is understood to be a display of individual and team talent, of ego and of determination, of valor and of lesser qualities. In a very real sense, the world of big sports brings out the best and worst in the American character. Genuine valor, teamwork, camaraderie, self-sacrifice, and athletic excellence are often demonstrated on and off the court. At the same time, the world of college athletics constantly risks corruption by forces within and without. In any honest analysis, it is increasingly difficult to refer to starting players as "student athletes." You can count on this – the players on the court for the Big Dance weren't chosen for their SAT scores. We can all look to the Big Dance, March Madness, and the entire world of athletics with a mixture of admiration and concern. Athletic endeavor and the contest of sport can bring out the very best and most masculine qualities in young players. There is something noble about the millions of kidsshooting hoops in back yards, dreaming of standing on the court when the Final Four meet in Indianapolis this year. The sacrifice, discipline, teamwork, and excellence demonstrated by so many teams, coaches, and players can be an inspiration. On the other hand, there is something tragic about a society that has so glamorized sport – and has grown so obsessed with victory, that the system is often perverted, lives are often warped, and virtues are too often sacrificed in vain hope of victory. Americans have turned the Big Dance into one of the largest gambling enterprises in the nation's history, with office pools multiplying from coast to coast. We all must know that athletic contest can bring out both the best and the worst in human character. In that sense, we are about to observe a massive morality tale played out in the form of March Madness. So, celebrate the good, root for your team, and learn to discern what is noble, good, and admirable in everything associated with the Big Dance." - Let the Madness begin! :)

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