Of all the events which dot the sports landscape, only the Super Bowl and March Madness possess the sort of cultural cache usually reserved for such gaudy ceremonies as the Oscars, the Grammys, the Tonys, and Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Bill Walton’s near-perfect game; MJ’s clutch jumper; Jim Valvano’s celebratory dash; Christian Laettner’s miraculous game-winner; C-Webb’s timeout; Bryce Drew’s last-second three; all of these, and a number of other unforgettable tourney moments, have taken up permanent residence in the American consciousness. The inherent drama of the single-game elimination format, combined with the innate sentimentality of college sports, has allowed the NCAA tournament to assume a significance (for the casual fan, anyway) that far outstrips that of the NBA and NHL Finals, the BCS title game, and perhaps even the World Series.
And yet, I find myself caring not one iota about it.
I mean not to sound like an Ebenezer Cribben, nor do I wish to disparage an event as beloved and cherished as March Madness. I would, in fact, be lying if I were to say that I don’t find it to (usually) be an exciting affair, replete with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of memorable games, performances, and moments. And as a basketball fanatic, it would be tantamount to heresy to complain too bitterly about a phenomenon as important to the sport as the Tournament.
But aside from the heated (and seemingly inescapable) arguments regarding aesthetic and qualitative comparisons between the NBA and college basketball (which, contrary to popular belief, have almost always shone unfavorably upon the latter), March Madness’ less remarked upon pitfall is its relative irrelevance. Indeed, while most would undoubtedly claim to love the latter infinitely more than they do the former, and then subsequently embark on an endless diatribe decrying the deficiencies of the pro game in its modern incarnation, few could (or would) dispute the Tournament’s ultimate meaningless when placed against the greater backdrop of the basketball universe.
For what March Madness actually represents for the general public is the basketball equivalent of a carnival ride: a cheap thrill with little or no consequence outside its own occasion. Casual fans, in other words, flock to the Tournament not out of any great love for college basketball, but rather because it satiates a temporary need for thrilling upsets and last-second heroics. The moment, rather than the result, is what galvanizes the interest of the otherwise disinterested masses; whichever team ultimately captures the title typically fails to resonate historically after memories of a particular Tournament have receded, especially if the squad in question happens to constitute a ranked favorite.
Contrast this with the NBA postseason: while it may fail to capture the imagination of the country in quite the same fashion as its collegiate equivalent, few would or could dispute that result is infinitely more meaningful than moment in a sport as defined by individual (and, to a lesser extent, team) legacies as pro basketball. For instance: whereas Anthony Davis’ sterling reputation will, in all likelihood, remain intact regardless of whether or not he actually leads his school to a title this year, LeBron James has been handed the unenviable task of having to prove his worth season after season after season; anything short of a championship and his stature will endure yet another blow in the eyes of a (generally) unforgiving public.
While it’s tempting to attribute this divergence to professionalism (accompanied by a set of standards wholly different from those hoisted upon the college athlete) and/or playoff formatting (i.e. the 7-game series, which generally precludes upsets and thus burdens superstars and their teams to cash in on their considerable potential), the League is much more indebted to its temporal characteristics than for its Darwinian qualities. Bereft of restrictions to career longevity, the NBA (along with the other pro sports leagues) contains within itself an infinite capacity (and love) for narrative. LeBron’s aforementioned quest for his first ring; Kobe’s twilight battle with the exigencies of age; the respective ascents of the Bulls and Thunder; all these stories acquire added meaning as a result of having unfolded over the course of years. An NBA title (and, by extension, the NBA Playoffs) is thus infinitely more meaningful than a college championship because it has been earned through the sweat and struggle of the great through seasons full of tribulations; there is little room for freak upsets, and no tolerance for gimmickry and undeserved achievement.
Which does not, of course, always lend itself to the sort of drama and unpredictability that distinguishes March Madness from virtually every other major sporting event. Yet if that excitement comes completely divested of meaning, and utterly divorced from a greater context, than how significant or intriguing can it truly be?
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