By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
The dance began with 68 participants. Four are left.
My bracket is perfect. Warren Buffet, courtesy his billion-dollar challenge, is sweating. I’m starting to count my 10-figure payoff. Early retirement. New car. New home. Vacation home. Or two. Maybe three. I will shamelessly indulge my hobbies. My mom will never work again. My dad…well…he’s a professional retiree. He hasn’t worked in years. But I’ll float him a new set of golf clubs and personalized balls branded with my adorable likeness. My palate will only know the world’s finest beer; my music collection will be epic. I’ll move my cousin into a guesthouse. He has no fixed address anyway, and I’ll need a wingman for my life of leisure – and he masters in leisure. And of course there would be much philanthropy (food for the soul).
That paragraph contains more madness than the tournament itself. My bracket is trashed. The billion dollars remain in Mr. Buffet’s massive account. I remain employed and the holder of a single mortgage. My mother still works; my dad is playing generic, off-the-shelf balls. My cousin continues to wander and my philanthropy remains meager. My bracket dream is over. I’m the same guy today that I was before the tournament – not that there’s anything wrong with that. My wife would agree…I think.
The reason I didn’t find my wonderland, get bequeathed a chocolate factory, or end up with a enough of Mr. Buffet’s money to buy a private island isn’t the result of lack of knowledge or overall ability. Oh no, I have skills. The problem, one that thwarts so many brackets that coulda been contenders, was this: the occurrence of the unforeseen, the illogical and maybe even the impossible. Stephen F. Austin beat VCU – stone cold. Harvard whipped Cincinnati - not in a math-a-thon – on the basketball court. Dayton defeated perennial powers Ohio State and Syracuse. Stanford sent Kansas home early – no ruby slippers required. And of course, Mercer, the pride of Macon, Georgia, bounced Duke in the first round.
Upsets are part of single-elimination tournament basketball. Always have been. But David’s beating Goliath so often now, it’s fair to question if they’ve been cast correctly. Upstarts – small schools from non-descript conferences - are winning regularly and are even making runs to the Final Four (see George Mason in 2006, Butler in 2010 and 2011, VCU in 2011 and Wichita State last year).
So what has changed? Well, a lot. Early entrants to the NBA are robbing major programs of elite talent while smaller schools with less decorated recruits build teams – real teams – over several seasons. But it’s more than that. The kids from Butler, Dayton and Mercer, and nearly every school like them, act like they belong now. A national T.V. audience, cavernous arenas and blue blood opponents engender not a trace of intimidation, cowardice or inferiority. The tournament’s grand stage, the opportunity to win and to chase the sports’ greatest prize is as much theirs as it is their more ballyhooed opponent. Mercer isn’t less than Duke; Mercer equals Duke.
I watched a re-run of Rocky III recently. In Rocky’s first fight with Clubber Lang (Mr. T), defeat was in his eyes. He wanted no part of the hungry challenger. Of course, as Rocky so often did, he came back with vengeance and defeated Lang in the rematch. In the climatic fight Rocky defiantly implored Lang to hit him while proclaiming, “you ain’t so bad…you ain’t nothing.” Rocky had absorbed the champ’s best punch and found him to be no greater, no stronger than he was. The kids from Mercer, Dayton and insert-any-instant-Cinderella-here, routinely compete with the same fearlessness as Philadelphia’s beloved boxing hero. Goliath is mighty and strong, but David is a highly skilled with his slingshot.
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