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March Madness, The Big Dance, and the Meaning of Sport

“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 fellow 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 – looking for a way to channel the energies of young men between baseball and football seasons. He had no idea what he had started.

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.

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. Thirty-one teams receive automatic bids due to conference championships and the remaining thirty-four teams are selected by a committee. With stakes so high, the selection process is itself a matter of controversy. This year, controversy has centered on the omission of schools such as the University of Michigan, and Missouri State – all of which held higher RPI ratings than schools such as Air Force and Utah State, which received at-large selections. CBS, the NCAA’s $6-billion dollar broadcast partner, expressed frustration through analyst Billy Packer. After all, a bad tournament selection can hurt ratings for the tournament. In reality, CBS has little to fear. March Madness is contagious.

Among players and coaches, the twenty-day tournament is often known as the “Big Dance,” the culmination of every player and coach’s obsessive dream. At the end of the tournament lies the greatest dance of all – the Final Four.

As Gary Williams, coach of the 2002 National Champion University of Maryland Terrapins, acknowledged, “the Final Four is the Holy Grail. We all talk about how we shouldn’t judge our careers on making the Final Four or on winning it, but every single one of us wants to be there.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has coached his team to no less than ten Final Four appearances since 1986, explains, “I’m not sure you have to be a great coach to get to the Final Four. Probably you have to be a good one who catches a few good breaks – during the tournament, during the season, during your career.” Krzyzewski is not known for false humility. 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.

Speaking of the Final Four, Krzyzewski expanded his comments: “To get to one, you have to have a number of ingredients. You have to have been able to recruit very good players, you have to have a very patient family, you need excellent assistants, and you need luck. You need to keep key players healthy and, most of the time, you need to win at least one game that you probably deserve to lose.”

For the coaches, the Big Dance is making the big time. For many of the players, it is the biggest experience of their lives – win or lose. John Feinstein, one of the great sports writers of our time, brings all this to life in Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four. Feinstein, author of best-sellers such as A Good Walk Spoiled and A Season on the Brink, spent over a year talking to coaches, officials, players, and veterans of the sport. He brings it all to life and, with a rare power of description, can convince even someone who didn’t think basketball was all that important that the Big Dance is truly a big story.

Coaches go to the tournament hoping to reach the Final Four and to seal their future in collegiate athletics. Making the Final Four is a virtual ticket to a lifetime career as a head coach – if not at the same school, then at any number of the hungry athletic programs looking for a winner.

Of course, this serves as something of a two-edged sword. Coaches who fail to lead their teams to the Big Dance can find themselves stripped of a big job. Beyond this, coaches who get their teams repeatedly to the Big Dance, but never to the Final Four, are often dismissed as simply lacking what it takes – “round of sixteen coaches” and the like. 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. Feinstein quotes Jay Bilas, starting center for Duke when it faced Louisville in the 1986 championship game, who lamented: “What I can’t possibly forget is the feeling right after the game was over. To sit there and realize you’d been so close and you hadn’t closed the deal. There were all sorts of reasons why we didn’t win that game, but none of them really mattered. We lost. There aren’t many days that go by when I don’t think about that night.” In other words, he still can’t get over it – even as he is now a popular analyst for CBS and ESPN. He still wants to go back and replay that championship game, just to walk off the court as a champion.

“Every year, when the championship game ends, I find myself looking at the players on the losing team,” Bilas 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.”

Feinstein’s book is a fascinating read – taking readers behind the scenes, on the court, inside the locker room, and inside the minds of players and coaches. Of course, there are a host of others involved in the Big Dance. The broadcasters and analysts are there in droves. And, of course, there are the officials. Feinstein offers keen insights into the work of the “refs” and the difficulty of their split-second decisions that can alter the outcome of a game – and a career. He tells the story of Hank Nichols, a sixty-six year old official who has been working college games since 1969. As with the coaches, basketball has been a major part of his life from childhood until the present. The job of the referees is incredibly difficult and controversial. Being an expert in the rules of basketball is a necessity, and being humble often helps. As Feinstein recounts an incident involving Nichols: Like most good officials, Nichols always told coaches when he realized he had blown a call. “One year, I had LSU-Kentucky in the regionals,” he said. “There was a block/charge and I called it for Kentucky, and as soon as I had signaled the foul I knew I’d gotten it wrong. A minute later Dale Brown called time and said, ‘Hank, can I talk to you?’ I knew what it was about. I said, ‘send your captain.’ He didn’t bother. Next time by the bench, I said what I always said in these situations: ‘I owe you one, but I’ll never pay.’” The only thing worse than a bad call is two bad calls.

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. When college basketball was dominated in the 1970s by point guards Earvin (Magic) Johnson of Michigan State and North Carolina’s Phil Ford, sportswriter Frank Barrows explained that coaches like North Carolina’s famed Dean Smith didn’t like hotshots. “It would be impossible for a player at North Carolina to be nicknamed Magic. It simply wouldn’t be allowed,” Barrows observed.

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.

Christians should look to the Big Dance, March Madness, and the entire world of athletics with a mixture of admiration and concern. As many faithful Christians have argued, athletic endeavor and the contest of sport can bring out the very best and most masculine qualities in young men. There is something noble about the millions of boys shooting 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. Christians 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. Just don’t allow yourself to be fooled into thinking that this is what life is all about, or that life is over when the tournament ends. We are called to a much greater contest than this.