To see college basketball is to see a bumbling bastardization of Dr. Naismith’s invention. What is March Madness without possessions that end in turnovers, bodies falling on the ground, and coaches screaming? What is it without trite announcers that discuss Coach K’s accomplishments with glee?
March Madness, the infamous NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament that happens in late March to early April, is an American institution — in all of the capitalist and long-established ways that America has chosen to be. Players aren’t getting paid, and TV executives and the NCAA itself are making the loot on the backs of the college kids sweating and stumbling all over the court for our entertainment.
The upsets, however heartwarming, show the lack of dexterity in the tournament. St. Peter’s had a chance against Kentucky because the shooting on the Calipari’s Wildcats team is reminiscent of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly. The stories that come with those upsets are tranquilized for people who would prefer to watch enormously talented players.
The tournament has classic games; it does. Pick your favorite: The Christian Lattener game, the Mario Chalmers three-pointer, or the Illinois comeback against Arizona. There’s endless stories in them and rivalries between coaches that continue throughout decades. But it’s also cynical. Not cynical like the best works of Pauline Kael but rather an American cynicism that shadows over all great forms of art: corporate behemoths watering down a cultural game with a lesser product. “One Shining Moment” is to college basketball what “Empire State of Mind” was to music about New York. It’s authority over genius. It is coaches over players, tradition over progressivism, and exploitative vanity over individualism.
I’m less defensive over the NBA than I was during the Obama era. The work stoppage that ended in a expectedly gauche and insulting President Obama appearance where he stressed for compromise took the weight out of the NBA and it’s plastic Jesus methods. The owners in the league are full of the same parasites that exist in the NFL and Major League Baseball. This is not merely a problem of standard capitalism. Twice now, the Dallas Mavericks have had a sexual harassment scandal that gave one of the more successful organizations a visible black eye. One of the cases involved a legendary coach’s nephew as the victim. The New York Knicks remain a laughingstock because of their mentally underdeveloped owner James Dolan. The Atlanta Hawks’ owner thought that the culture and fanbase was “too Black” to be successful. The NBA, like the Obama Administration itself, the TV show “Parks and Recreation” and Chance the Rapper, feel like liberal entities that peaked in that era and have aged poorly.
Yet, I still find it two times better than the product of March Madness. Every year during March Madness I wonder if this is the time that I will be able to watch it without disgust. It doesn’t help that people who claim that March Madness is the best thing on earth often like it because of racist code like “The players play harder” and “It’s about the team in college.” The NBA — a league where Black athletes are visible, have endorsements and tattoos — is said to be inauthentic to “real basketball.” I wish I could believe them when they say it isn’t about race. It’s definitely about race.
I am a Knicks fan, but I was in Charlotte this past weekend. I had a chance to watch Luka Doncic up close. I don’t necessarily like Doncic — he’s a whiner and his mug can look like unbridled pomp — but Doncic was unbelievable to watch live. He’s as patient as a cheetah hunting his prey. Doncic is tactical on offense - picking his spot with ease as defenders don’t know if he’ll spin or hit his high-arching shot right in front of their eyes. LaMelo Ball plays with a joy reserved for the all the greatest guards in history not named Chris Paul. Miles Bridges’ inside/out athleticism matched the velocity of his rapping style. While this game was going on, college basketball was on too. The Saturday slate of games was good. St. Peter’s won again. Drew Timme was methodical and deadly for Gonzaga. After his Michigan team won, Juwan Howard comforted a player on Tennessee in an act of compassion. What could have been better than the hug from Coach Howard was if that Tennessee player got a check after playing his heart out. With March Madness, the subjugation that is the American way is prospering still.