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weak in review

David Roth's Weak In Review: March Madness, And The Tao Of Blowing It

The NCAA Tournament is already kind of a mess, and will definitely continue to be a mess. It's both bigger and smaller than basketball, and the mess is the point.

by David Roth
Mar 18 2016, 7:52pm

Illustration by J.O. Applegate

The bottom of Manhattan is a series of overlaid and interlocking failures of imagination. It's more interesting for this, and also more legible. By the time you get into the reasonable gridded streets uptown, you're already in a city firmly in its imperial mode, projecting reasonable rectangles all the way to the horizon. Further down, though, the streets are echoes of the city's founding panic. The streets down there are the oldest in the city; a bafflement of alleys and little bunkered warrens. New York was as much an accident as any other city, and that manic youth is there on the map.

The other misconception reflected down there are the oversized buildings that tower over those streets—heavy, grandiose showpieces built by companies that could never imagine a future in which giant buildings like these went unfilled. The buildings are so high, and the old streets so narrow, that the sidewalks seem to have a faintly different climate—quieter, a little colder, lit dimly by straggling gray light. I worked down there for some time, about ten years ago, and I remember how desolate it could be if you turned the right corner, even in the middle of some workday afternoon. There were parts of the neighborhood that were, for all its swaggering proportion, simply without any use at that moment. When the economy hit the shits, many of the heroic future-defying office towers were turned into apartment buildings. People live in old customs houses and corporate headquarters now. When the New York Stock Exchange finishes the process of moving out of 20 Broad Street in August of this year, people may wind up living in there, too. It may no longer be a difficult place to find a college basketball game on the first two days of the NCAA Tournament, but I can tell you that it was when I was the one looking, in the middle of a work day, back then.

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It was not a question of whether I would leave work for as long as I justifiably could. (Here it should be noted that my definition of "justifiable" in this case was "for a duration not exceeding the time required to drink two beers, or not exceeding that time by like an excessive amount"). The place I finally found was a purgatorial would-be lounge whose aspirations and pervasive smell were in serious conflict. It was called B4, and its general vibe suggested that was short for Where You Go B4 You Get On The Staten Island Ferry, Defeatedly.

That was where I watched that year's controlled demolition of my bracket, early in the afternoon; one person came in the whole time I was there, a trader in his stock exchange bib who paid the bartender to pour shots of Malibu into his coffee thermos. It was the most disjunctive game-watching experience I've had—the scream-spiral of a first-round upset happening on a small television behind the bar, thousands of people luridly and loudly losing their minds, some talented kids experiencing the largest emotions of their lives on a basketball court far from home, and everywhere around me nothing but business as usual and in proportions that do not so much dwarf the game but subsume it. There were bigger mistakes to make, all around.

When the altitude is not, strictly speaking, helping you out. — Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

That was not the first time I've wondered why I care so much about all this, or the first time I wondered whether I would ever be able to function effectively in an office environment. Ethically, college basketball is difficult to support—it's less destructive than college football, but no less feudal or exploitive, and equally shot through with weird and rancid politics. I've always known this, and my annual struggle with it grows more abstracted by the year. It's indefensible, pretty much, and the indignities and exploitations and criminally self-important administrative evasions that make it all happen are also indefensible.

My response to this is to give up trying to defend it. The games are lousy with misses and mistakes, they are played at the heart of a ripe swamp of clamoring brands, and heir playing enriches the least redeemable pink-faced rentiers imaginable—all true, all more than I could argue with if I were looking to take up that argument. The players are unfinished and often plainly terrified, and there is no way to watch a game and not be reminded of this, over and over. I know this, because I watch the games. I ordered a second beer in the Bar Of The Financial District Damned, while on the clock, to watch the games, and while I should mention in the interest of disclosure that I am an idiot, I will also say that it didn't even feel that stupid to do it.

There is no secret to this, and no advice I can give you on how to feel about it so that you can enjoy the tournament the way that I do. I can only tell you what I get out of it, which is a chance to visit where I would not ordinarily visit. Not just grim bars adjacent to the stock exchange, but to visit the places and people in these games, all these imperfect players—the ones that are growing up, the ones that are refining themselves towards adult greatness, the ones that are facing the end of a childhood dream, and also of childhood. It's a chance to see teams huge and alight with crazed self-belief, and who might even be right to believe so crazily.

It is true that these players and these teams do not play basketball with the zipless efficiency and virtuosity of NBA teams, and that the games in the NCAA Tournament are strictly speaking a total fucking mess of post-teenage overage and under-qualification. They are earnest and open and exhaustingly human, too, and that human pulse is the unpredictable thing that animates March. You're either tenderhearted about this or you're not; neither is wrong. We live amid mistakes, big and little ones, and in them; it's reasonable to seek out something more sublime than that. It is also reasonable, this week and in others, to see something both sublime and human in those mistakes—in the towering attempt and also in its failure, along the border of bravery and plain panic, and wherever you can find it.