Recently, we have been inundated with statistics, and not the good, bracket-helping kind. We have seen countless articles, reports and Sports Illustrated cover stories about how college basketball just isn’t what it used to be. It’s not as innocent, it’s a business more than a student-athlete haven of talent, and it doesn’t hold a candle to college football. The system is in disarray, the student has been taken away from the athlete and aren’t getting paid for it, and the conference commissioners and school athletic directors have become greedy, conference re-aligning money-grubbers. As a result of all this, we are being told the sport is going to hell in a hand basket, and it’s partly the public’s gambling-obsessed fault.
Well you know what? I refuse to accept all of this. Call me naive, but I think college basketball is doing just fine thank you very much. Yes, money is changing hands at an obscene rate. Yes, the conference shake-up is frustrating – I do miss Kansas beating up Missouri every year – and yes, the one-and-done rule is hurting the sport. But where some may see greed, I see joy. Where some may see apathy, I see passion. And where some may see a business, I still see a game.
I see it in Ben McLemore’s smile. Watch him go high for the dunk, and you will see child-like enthusiasm for what he’s doing. I see it in Tom Izzo’s instruction. Watch him during a timeout, and notice the players hanging on his every word. I hear it in Gus Johnson’s voice. Watch any highlight of a game he’s called and you will feel the excitement pulse through your veins.
I see the pride on the parent’s faces. Watch Barry Larkin as his son, Shane, chose a different sport but still throws 110 percent of his support behind him. I see it in the student section, where they feel their classmates every emotion from a missed shot, a huge alley-oop, and every bogus call. I see the passion in the St. Louis University team. They have taken the teachings of their late coach Rick Majerus, and turned it into a top 15 national ranking. His lasting impact is a testament to the heart of the Billiken’s success.
The bottom line is, these are kids. Kids who are criticized, taunted, and under-appreciated. Sometimes they feel taken advantage of, like when they don’t see a dime even though a jersey with their name on the back of it is being sold for 80 bucks a piece. But they take it. They learn from it. They ignore it. Because they know that what they’re doing, one way or another, matters to people. And they know that their coaches and teammates have their backs.
Fans and analysts have forgotten these things, I think. We forget to just sit back and enjoy the game. And that’s what makes the tournament so great. People stop working, or skip it entirely. Kids figure out a way to hook up multiple TVs in their living room. Friends join together to watch. Some argue this is because they have 100 bucks riding on 5 different bracket leagues. But I would argue it’s because we don’t want to miss the next great moment. The next Bryce Drew, the next Mario Chalmers, and yes, the next Christian Laettner. We want the opportunity to be able to say, “I remember where I was when…”. Brackets will be filled out, money will be gambled, and freshman will leave for the NBA next year. But the magic of the game cannot be denied. The laughter and the tears. The hope eternal and the dream dashed. The Cinderella story and David slaying Goliath.
This is why they play. This is why we watch. This, is March Madness.