“A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.” - Henry V. Porter, sportswriter
March Madness is upon us! If you noticed many of your colleagues happened to “get ill” last Thursday and Friday or mysteriously left the office after lunch on those days, it’s probably because they didn’t want to miss what many consider the best sporting event of the year: the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Games start around noon and wrap up close to midnight. Bars are full. Brackets are full. Dozens of teams and their fans are full of hope. Many get sucked into what’s colloquially referred to as “March Madness.” The rest seem not to understand why so many people care so much about a basketball game… or during other times of the year, why there’s so much passion for a football game, tennis match, or even a golf tournament. Sports matter to many of us. They matter a lot. The most important reason for this is that there are moments in sports that transcend sports, going well beyond a simple game to make us feel something or learn something deeply important. Basketball has had many of these moments.
Fandom and the Origin of March Madness
My brothers and I have been devoted University of Maryland Terrapins (“Terps”) basketball fans for as long as I can remember. Growing up, we had season tickets and went to most of the team’s home games. In the ’80s, the Maryland basketball program went through a very difficult period which included the tragic death of star Len Bias, the departure of longtime coach Lefty Driesell, and NCAA rules violations that led to sanctions preventing participation in post-season play. In the early ’90s, seats were cheap and the team wasn’t very good. Despite these challenges, our family enjoyed attending games and rooting for the Terps. Loyalty is the beauty of being a true fan. As ESPN columnist Bill Simmons says, “Once you choose a team, you're stuck with that team for the rest of your life.” When Maryland lost in the second round of the tournament Sunday night, I was upset. It was the end of their – very strong – season. I fall victim to the madness of March every year my team is fortunate enough to be included in the tournament. The origin of the term “March Madness” goes all the way back to a high-school basketball tournament in Illinois. In 1939, a writer for the Illinois High School Association coined the term “March Madness” when he wrote about that tournament. Henry V. Porter wrote, “A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.” Three years later, Porter wrote a poem, "Basketball Ides of March," in which he declared, "A sharp-shooting mite is king tonight/ The Madness of March is running." It wasn’t until 1982 – the year that freshman Michael Jordan sank the winning basket for the NCAA champion North Carolina Tar Heels – that the phrase “March Madness” was used during coverage of the NCAA tournament by CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger. And the rest is history.
As maddening as sports can be for fans and for those who cannot grasp why fans take sports so seriously, as Porter said, sports can be used to keep us sane and put life’s challenges into perspective. My favorite sports-related quote is from John Wooden, legendary coach of UCLA’s basketball team, who said, “Make every day your masterpiece.” Wooden didn’t just focus on athleticism or speed, he emphasized the importance of humility, learning from mistakes, and acting with strong character.
5 Basketball Moments that Show Madness in March Can Matter
1. Texas Western’s NCAA Tournament Victory
In 1966, Texas Western men’s basketball team coach Don Haskins started five black players and made it to the NCAA championship game. Their opponent was a powerhouse: the University of Kentucky. Kentucky was coached by Adolph Rupp, who had an all-white team. The game took place at Cole Field House in College Park, Maryland, home of the University of Maryland. Much of the south did not have integrated sports teams. Texas Western was victorious 72-65. The win proved that the best players weren’t always going to be white. Just a few years after the historic win, all major southern sports conferences ended segregation.
2. J-Mac’s 20 Off the Bench
Jason “J-Mac” McElwain was born with autism. He was in love with the game of basketball and served as the manager of the Greece Athena High School basketball team because he wasn’t able to make the team. In 2006, McElwain was closing out his senior year. In the last game of the season, the team had a large lead entering the final stretch. Coach Jim Johnson handed McElwain his own jersey and put him in the game with four minutes left. McElwain missed his first two shot attempts but would not miss again. He hit six three-point shots and a deep basket to score an astonishing 20 points. Fans rushed the court to celebrate his amazing play.
3. Sportsmanship in the Midwest
High school basketball arch rivals Milwaukee Madison Knights and the DeKalb Barbs were set to play yet another hotly contested game in February 2009. Sadly, Madison’s team captain Johntell Franklin watched his mother die from cancer in the hospital before the game was to start. Franklin said his mom would have wanted him to play and he was determined to do so. Franklin arrived at the game, shocking his coach and teammates. Madison’s coach assumed Franklin wouldn’t play, so he didn’t include him on the official active roster. The game was close. In order to let Franklin play, an automatic technical foul would be called, giving the rival DeKalb squad two free throws. DeKalb’s coach David Rohlman told the referees he didn’t want any such foul to be called, but the referees stuck to the rules. When Franklin came into the game, a technical was called, sending DeKalb’s David McNeal, the team’s best free throw shooter, to the line for two shots. Coach Rohlman and McNeal had a quick chat before the shots, agreeing that McNeal would intentionally miss both shots. He practically air-balled both shots. McNeal said, “I missed them because it was just the right thing to do at the time. And him losing his mom, it really got to me.” Both teams and the arena gave a standing ovation honoring the great show of sportsmanship.
4. Bo Kimble’s Tribute to Hank Gathers
Years before the “one-and-done” era, two friends played basketball together on the same Philadelphia high school team, enrolled at the University of Southern California together, and transferred after one year to Loyola Marymount… together. Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble were both gifted athletes, and they valued their close friendship. Gathers was left-handed, whereas Kimble was right-handed. Gathers led the nation in points and rebounds his senior year in college. On March 4, 1990, Gathers collapsed during a game and died from a heart-muscle disorder. Loyola Marymount made a run during that year’s tournament, reaching the Elite Eight, despite the loss of its best player. In each tournament game, when Kimble first reached the free throw line, he shot left-handed in honor of Gathers. Kimble made all three of his left-handed free throw attempts during the tournament. Even as a professional, Kimble continued to pay tribute to Gathers by shooting his first free throws left-handed.
5. Jim Valvano’s Legacy
Jim Valvano was a coach, broadcaster, and inspiration for the underdog. Whether it was taking on heavily-favored teams or battling cancer, Valvano had a strength and charisma that were unmatched. Valvano’s N.C. State University team won the 1983 NCAA tournament against all the odds. To get into the NCAA tournament, his team had to win its conference tournament. They beat Michael Jordan’s North Carolina squad and Ralph Sampson’s University of Virginia team in back-to-back games. State kept winning – in dramatic, close games, including a double overtime game in the first round, two one-point games, and a buzzer-beating dunk against top-seeded Houston to secure the championship. Despite his great success as a coach, and later as a broadcaster, Valvano is best remembered for his battle against cancer. Ten years removed from his NCAA championship, Valvano walked up the stage at the 1993 ESPY Awards event and delivered an inspirational speech. Valvano implored his audience: “Don’t give up… don’t’ ever give up.” He said, “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.” Valvano died less than two months later, but his legacy lives on through his V Foundation for Cancer Research, his family, and our memories.
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