My dad introduced me to March Madness when I was about six or seven years old. I watched him swirl little pieces of paper around in a baseball cap, each holding the name of a basketball team. All four of us kids took turns drawing team names out of the hat, and he helped us read the names aloud—team names like Wake Forest, Butler, Xavier, and Duke. I thought “Wake Forest” was a beautiful name.
Dad would color code our different teams, and we kept track of their progress through the championship. The child with the winning team got to pick a nice restaurant for a celebratory family dinner. We always hoped the baby of the family, Johnny, wouldn’t win—he always picked McDonald’s.
All of us, from age four on up, watched our teams compete with rapt attention. My younger brother told me recently that this was one of his earliest (and favorite) memories. Even though I previously had little to no interest in sports, I suddenly became a sincere basketball fan. And after years of watching March Madness, it’s become one of the highlights of my spring. Though my family loves football, baseball, and even golf, this is the one game that unites us and fosters camaraderie in a unique way—indeed, I think it’s American sports at their finest.
The March Madness tournament usually takes about a couple weeks—two days each for the rounds of 64, 32, 16, and eight, and then two days for the semi-final and final games of the competition. Each day brings new surprises and upsets. American sports are all about the Cinderella stories: we all love a good underdog. And that’s one of the primary reasons we love March Madness—you never know what might happen.
In the heat of the tournament, teams don’t always follow with their statistical chances. Each game is only 40 minutes: as the buzzer winds down and enthusiasm escalates, one or two players can change the entire outcome of a game. All it takes is the right matchup, the right pass, the right defensive moves.
Back in 2008, no. 10 seed Davidson surpassed everyone’s expectations and made it to the Elite Eight in tournament play. Watching Davidson smash my (and everyone else’s) bracket was an irksome yet exciting experience. Most of us had dismal scores by the end of the tournament, but we couldn’t help loving Davidson for their brilliant Cinderella story. Even last year, No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast beat No. 2 Georgetown—and became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16. I’m still waiting for the day a No. 16 takes the whole championship by storm. You never know.
Unlike the Super Bowl, which experiences a lot of buildup and then is over in a day, March Madness is a multiple-week affair, jam-packed with basketball games. There’s always a new surprise around the corner, and fans constantly share their results and disappointments with each other. In college, fellow March Madness fans watched the matchups with me while doing homework and writing papers. Some of us (ahem, maybe me, but I’m not admitting to anything) watched the live games on our computers during Physics class. At work, fellow employees talked about their alma maters’ prospects for the championships, and competed with each other for gift cards and prizes.
Though there’s always commercialism involved in today’s sports, this tournament is about the teams: their tenacity, their togetherness, and their ability to transcend circumstance. Professional sports often fixate on one or two all-star players—Peyton Manning, LeBron James, Derek Jeter—rather than cheering for a team as a whole. While college sports still highlights a few players who rise to the top, the game is primarily focused on teams as a whole, and their ability to work in cohesion. Basketball is a fluid and fast-paced sport. The players’ pace, intuition, and ability to communicate always rise to the forefront in the tournament.
Team players change with every year—it’s harder to follow a specific player, but in a sense, seems to help convey the overall spirit and ethos of a team. My sister always cheers for Duke, no matter their place in the tournament. They’re her team. In March Madness, almost everyone has a team they’ve followed and cheered for throughout the years. Like other college sports, this championship encourages a fierce loyalty.
Though coordinating bracket pools and game-watching parties around the frenzy of work and commutes also requires some teamwork, fans flock together every year for March Madness. In this sense, too, the tournament is a team event. We band together, and wait excitedly for history to be made.
Now grown up, married, and living on the opposite side of the country, I still participate in tournament competitions with my family. My husband may have been a bit puzzled when he saw my growing enthusiasm through February (and even before), as we counted down to March Madness. I signed us up for two separate bracket competitions—and then, if that wasn’t enough, I began slicing up team names into little strips of paper, and sticking them into his Green Bay Packers baseball cap.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
I was carrying on a tradition, one I’ve proudly participated in for the past 17 years. We drew our teams—I got Villanova, another one of my favorite names. When we have children someday, they’re going to join in the fun, too. Because March Madness, for me, isn’t really about winning—it’s about family, Cinderella stories, and the joy of a wonderful tradition.
Gracy Olmstead is TAC‘s senior writer.