There exists in my country and possibly elsewhere a rather strange but nevertheless popular game called basketball, the object of which is to throw a ball through a hoop hung on the wall at either end of a circumscribed rectangle of floor called a court. In "good" games, two teams trade these point-scoring "baskets" more or less one-for-one until the last few minutes of the game, at which point the rules are deliberately broken in order to stretch out the conclusion interminably. All other games are bad games.
There are other refinements of rules and strategies, but here my comprehension goes soft.
I admit to a certain antagonism toward this game, because I got tall quite early when I was young, leading all grownups to be required to say to me, "I'll bet you're good at basketball!" This set up what is called an inferiority complex in self, because, in fact, I sucked very badly at playing this particular game. Apparently this was congenital, because attempts to improve me did not. Despite this, I was always picked early for teams in gym class and was frequently forced to play a central position called center, the fine points of which I was hazy about—for instance that it is important to contend for other people's missed shots. Which didn't seem worth bothering about, on the face of it, to me.
Evidently my height induced a certain amnesia on the part of those picking the teams. Seeing me standing there next to my classmates, they forgot that I sucked, and optimistically got the idea that my height predicted an aptitude. Each game was therefore, for my teammates, a process of gradually being reminded of something they already knew, but had forgotten. This—or, I should more accurately say, I—was a great disappointment for them, each time.
The only time I was "good" at the game of basketball—very relatively speaking—was when I played one-on-one with my little brother during the time period when he was a foot shorter than me and considerably weaker on account of the five-year disparity in our ages. He did develop a very good outside shot during this time; I developed nothing but further weakness of character.
But I perceive I am gassing on, as I am wont to do on occasion. Forgive me.
I wanted to pass along for the benefit of our international friends, who might be ignorant of customs in the United States, that every year during this month there is a long tournament in which all the college basketball teams in the country contend for a championship. (When I say "all" I mean all save approximately six of the very most hopeless of them, which are eliminated during the long and arduous "regular season"; the other six hundred and forty-three teams are all invited into the tournament. I think these numbers are correct, but you might want to check before passing that information along.) Now, we Americans do not bet money on the progress of this tournament—of course!—because that would not be legal—or right. But we care about the outcomes in the same way the players care about the games: not because there is any tangible reward, but out of local civic pride and as an expression of school, state, or regional loyalties.
For instance, last year Butler did well, causing my cousin Linda, who went to Butler, to temporarily lose her mind. I can be frank about that because she is not reading this; she is watching basketball, and possibly "The Batchelor."
Washington Huskies junior guard Isaiah Thomas in practice.
Photo by Dean Rutz of The Seattle Times.
Anyway the interesting point about March Madness is that the productivity of American workers declines radically during this time period (I'm not making that up; it's really true). It is estimated that as many as 70% of American office workers, for instance, continue to be, or become, basketball fans during March, and that the average basketball fan spends between two and four hours of the working day—at work, I mean—following basketball.
Speaking as someone who never, ever causes anyone to waste time during work hours (because of course you only ever read TOP on your own time), I find this shocking, and of course I disapprove and so forth and so on, etc., etc.
So anyway, if you live elsewhere in the world and your American friends, colleagues, and business associates suddenly and inexplicably seem distracted and unable to do simple things like answer emails and send faxes and pay attention to matters pertaining to business, well, now you know why.
—Mike, ex post facto liason from the Midwest to the world
ADDENDUM: I can't resist promoting again my systematic fixes for the game of basketball: 1. Keep the 12-minute period, but decide the game on a best-3-of-5 period basis; and 2. anyone who fouls in the final two minutes of any period has to leave the game until the period ends. Voilà: up to five exciting endings instead of one, and none of that absurd strategic trading of fouls that slows the endings of games to a frustrating crawl.
If you agree, please elect me Commissioner and I will institute the necessary changes.
UPDATE (Saturday night): Butler beat #1 seeded Pittsburgh in a thriller, 71-70. Hours later, my cousin Linda emailed, "I still can't breathe."
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Marc Rochkind: "I believe the 643 was increased this year to 646."
Featured [partial] Comment by Martin Bennett: "You may want to reconsider whether your cousin Linda is reading this column. 'The Batchelor' concluded on Monday this week. Just sayin'."
Mike replies: Uh-oh.
Featured Comment by Jed: "I was raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Every single LDS church I've ever been in has a basketball court connected to the chapel, seperated by a removable partition. This partition is almost always open during Sacrament Meeting (Mormon Mass) to serve as an overflow area. I've never traveled outside of the country, but I've heard stories of these basketball-court-chapels being built in Mexico, much to the befuddlement of the local members."
Featured Comment by Craig Arnold: "Well at the moment the Cricket World Cup is on, which, after Association Football, is the second most popular sport in the world. Because the way Americans feel about basketball, well, that's the way the Indian Subcontinent feels about cricket.
"Between India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka that accounts for significantly more than a billion people. Of course there are other countries that quite like cricket too; it's Australia's favourite sport of course, and South Africa, England, New Zealand and the West Indies also quite enjoy it.
"Cricket has the unique distinction of being the only sport that's actually better to listen to on the radio than to watch, and so there are many millions of people, possibly even up in the hundreds of millions, who are glued to their radio sets and internet streams this month.
"March madness indeed!"
christian kurmann replies: "I went to school in New Zealand. During cricket test matches we always had lots of tests and important 'do it on your own' style quiet work. The reason was that our teacher was busy sitting at his desk listening to cricket on his little brown transistor radio. How's that for two to four work hours spent being a sports fan?"