March Madness shows college basketball’s intense grip on the American psyche

Dapper coaches and amateur players dominate US life for a month


If you want to get to the heart of “March Madness”, the sprawling month long college basketball tournament which forms the basis for conversation in bars and offices across America, it is perhaps best to look not at the stunningly gifted young ball players on the court but to the finely tailored coaches on the sidelines.

Last Sunday, two of the most revered names in American sport roamed the sideline in Indianapolis when Rick Pitino’s Louisville met Mike Kryzewski’s Duke in the Elite Eight game of the tournament.

As it turned out, the game was overshadowed by a freak injury which already ranks as one of the most ghastly in the litany of sports injuries. Kevin Ware, a guard for Louisville, landed awkwardly on his right leg after trying to block a shot and through an unfathomable concentration of physics and bad luck felt his leg just crumble beneath him.

The limb shattered and crumbled inward at a right angle; his shin bone protruded and his lower leg pointed at a grotesque 90 degree angle by the time he hit the hardwood.

It drew instant comparison to the shocking injury suffered by Joe Thiesmann, the Washington Redskins quarterback, in 1985. This was about five o’clock on Sunday evening: in America's television land, millions were slumbering in living rooms after Easter dinner, countless more were watching in bars. TV producers showed the replay twice but once they realised how graphic and upsetting it was, they did not show it again.

Ware’s team-mates fell to the floor in distress; several on the bench threw up. Pitino fought back tears and afterwards – Louisville regrouped at half time and won the match comfortably – it fell to the coach to somehow articulate what had happened. Yes, it was the worst injury he had ever witnessed or known; no, it was not the worst thing that had happened to him. That was the death of his infant son, Daniel, from a heart condition and, some years later, of his brother-in-law and best friend Billy Minardi, who was working in the Twin Towers on the morning of the 9/11 atrocity.

Pitino is handsome in an Italian TV soap actor kind of way and wears the most immaculate suits of any public Italian-American figure since Frank Sinatra haunted the nightclubs of Manhattan.

He has enjoyed an exceptional career in a profession which is more ruthlessly results driven than any Wall Street business and is handsomely rewarded: though his salary is €1.71 million per year, it was established, for instance, that he made a total of €7 million for the 2010-2011 season.

“Coach K”, a graduate of West Point and grounded in a fiercely strong Polish-emigre work ethic, earned over €5.65 million in the same year. The figures are fabulous and regarded by many as disturbingly high. But for their respective colleges, Pitino and Kryzewski not only operate as prolifically successful basketball coaches, they are walking advertisements for the ethos those establishments want to sell.

Few people on the street could name the presidents of Louisville or Duke; virtually everyone knows their basketball coaches.

Huge business
With salaries like these, the NCAA college basketball tournament is a huge business. Everyone from Barack Obama down gets involved in the “bracketology” tradition, with social and office pools based on winning picks from the original cast of 64 colleges, forming a massive – and technically illegal – gambling entity.

A recent FBI poll concluded that some €2.1 billion in illegal betting activity will be generated by this year’s tournament. Several states, observing the €156 million which Nevada (where March Madness betting is legal) secures, are keen to get in on the action. New Jersey governor Chris Christie recently passed into law a bill which legitimises gambling there. The NCAA, the ruling body of the tournament, have made their position clear: they are against any developments which associates their game with gambling.

Because at another level, the NCAA tournament espouses the ideal of amateurism. These teams are supposed to be varsity teams: the games are supposed to be an athletic distraction from the player’s primary goal of receiving an education. And for the fans who wear their college colours with manic pride, the games are just that: a chance to cut loose and chug beers and shout the chants which have been passed from generation to generation.

A few Friday nights ago, Pitino and his Louisville team were in New York for the pre-NCAA Big East tournament, a beloved warm-up tournament which helps to set the overall rankings for the main event. Outside Madison Square Garden, the touts were enjoying a busy evening.

Tickets for that evening’s semi-final were going from $400 for a standard seat. And they were going fast: touts moved through the crowds of Syracuse, Georgetown and Louisville fans all streaming towards the entrance to the arena calling a barely audible “What you lookin’ for?” and within seconds had queues form in front of them: $100 bills and tickets exchanged hands within seconds.

The eagerness was down to nostalgia: after this year, the Big East tournament is to be redesigned and the establishment schools like Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse will no longer take part. Money and television deals are the primary reason for the change and the general attitude was that the shake-up was saddening but inevitable. Money always talks.

But at some level, the aspirational ideal of the NCAA basketball tournament holds true. The players, mostly between the ages of 18 and 22, are amateur players and are under strict regulations in how they interact with NBA scouts hopeful of recruiting them.

And many of them won’t progress to professional basketball: instead, this tournament serves as the unforgettable high point of their sporting lives.

In New York, several bars are set up as alumni headquarters for Duke or Syracuse graduates living in the city who want to experience some semblance of the camaraderie which came with following their teams in college.

Duke has a name for the fans which pack its home arena throughout the winter months: the Cameron Crazies. It is a loyalty which has nothing to do with home place or state alliance: it is an enduring relationship with the college team.

And at some level, that is what makes the tournament such a wonder. There is an obvious comparison to be made with the GAA in that at its peak, the tournament pitches young amateur players into an extraordinarily pressurised environment.

Unlikely players can become national names overnight; coaches and unheralded schools come out of nowhere to make all-conquering runs. It is a March cycle which champions twin values held dearly in American life: striving to get there and, once established, perpetuating that tradition.

And after all that, the games and the players become the fascination, with the field of 64 quickly reduced in a series of knockout games. This weekend, the tournament will reach its fabled point: the Final Four. Louisville are still there.

Needless to say, winning it for Kevin Ware, their stricken team-mate, has become their mission. He will be on the bench on Saturday, fresh-faced and solemn and the owner of the most famous plaster of Paris in all of America.

What Is It: America's college basketball jamboree which is both a cocktail of big business and an exhibition of amateur sport at its very best.

Classic Moment: In 1979, Larry Bird’s Indiana State University met Magic Johnson’s Michigan State in the national final. Michigan won and Magic unleashed that magical smile of his. The final would be categorised as the official start of the Bird-Magic rivalry and friendship which came to define basketball in America for the following decade.

Best Shot: In 1991, Duke and Kentucky went toe-to-toe in the national championship game. Trailing by a point with 2.1 seconds remaining, Duke’s Grant Hill flung a court-length pass down which was caught by Christian Laettner, who turned and fired a shot which hit the net as the buzzer sounded: it remains the most famous shot in NCAA history.

Changing Times: In 1966, Texas Western went into the national final as outsiders against Kentucky, the perpetual powerhouse of college hoops. It wasn’t so much that coach Don Haskins sent out a team which won the match that made it memorable, it was that he became the first coach in the history of the tournament to start five African-American players. Adolph Rupp’s starting five for Kentucky were all white.

Low Moments: “Did you hear about the points we were shaving up in Boston?” Joe Pesci’s character asks in Goodfellas – seconds before carrying out another hit. Rick Kuhn was the only Boston College player to serve prison time for his role in the 1978 season points-shaving racket that involved the New York mafia. But points-shaving – where players manipulated their scoring in selected games and thus enable spread-betting windfalls – has dogged the NCAA throughout the history of the tournament.

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