Regular readers of Motherese may recall that I am a big basketball fan. I grew up playing basketball and even coached it for awhile. As a basketball fan, there are no weeks I like more than the ones that are upon us: the three weeks in March known to college athletes and couch-potatoes everywhere as March Madness.
For the uninitiated: During March Madness, 65 NCAA men’s Division I college basketball teams and 64 women’s teams engage in single-elimination tournaments. Among the teams that are invited are perennial powerhouses like Kentucky and Duke and conference champions from across the country. Also given a ticket to the “Big Dance” are lesser-known teams who either won one of the so-called mid-major conference tournaments or earned an at-large bid to try their luck against one of the traditional elite.
The beauty of the tournament – and one of the reasons it is so popular among both die-hard sports fans and casual participants in the ubiquitous office pools that spring up at this time of year – comes in part through the Cinderella story that seems to be written each year during the weeks of the dance.
Like David over Goliath, the Hobbit Frodo over the Dark Lord Sauron, and even Erin Brokovich over Pacific Gas and Electric before them, some under-sized and lesser-talented team always manages to knock off one of the favorites. In 1985, 8th seeded Villanova defeated the No. 1 ranked defending national champions, Georgetown, to win the title. More recently, in 2006, George Mason became the first mid-major to reach the Final Four in nearly 30 years. Each year several lesser-regarded programs earn a single victory in the opening round, but celebrate as though they’ve won the whole tournament. Clearly, they are no strangers to the tale of David and Goliath.
And this Cinderella phenomenon, while not unique in literature or Hollywood, is relatively uncommon in the world of professional sports, where large market teams and their corresponding payrolls (hello, New York Yankees) dominate on a playing field that is often decidedly uneven. And this idea that the little guy can win? It’s exciting. It’s heartwarming. It’s reassuring. And it’s among the many elements that set amateur athletics – and especially these tournaments – apart from so much that is wrong with professional sports.
And who doesn’t want a Cinderella story right about now? With nest-eggs shrinking and joblessness mounting, aren’t we all ready for a story of the little guy taking out the big one? For a glass-slippered Cinderella to win the hand of the prince instead of one of the wicked step-sisters sweeping him off his feet? For a skinny kid with a ball and a dream to shoot his way over the big guy with his NBA contract all but signed?
So I tip my hat to all of the Davids (and Davidsons) out there.* Thank you for all that you will do this week and next to restore my faith in long shots – in basketball, and in life.
* Please note that, as much as I love an underdog, I will not be celebrating if a female David knocks off my own beloved Goliath, the UConn women’s basketball team, currently on a record-setting 72-game win streak. I’m all about the Davids in the men’s tournament, but leave my lady Huskies alone! (Please.)
Do you usually root for the underdog or the favorite? What is your favorite underdog story?
Who’s your pick to win this year’s Big Dance? Any sentimental sleepers you think might have a chance to win it all?