One Blurred, Shining Moment: Watching March Madness From A Sports Bar

The first few days of the NCAA Tournament are overwhelming and pretty much non-stop. It's a lot to take, but that's the fun of it.

by David Roth
Mar 17 2017, 3:55pm

Photo by James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

There are bars all over the city in which I live, and also in every other city, that cater to specific fan communities and collections of like-minded alumni. This only begins to seem weird when the bigger question of how many of those bars and how many of those fan communities there are comes into play; of all the instances of New York's relentless polyglot everything-all-the-time diversity, nothing has surprised me more than discovering that I live around the corner from a Texas Tech bar. This is a big city, too big to be effectively understood or even comprehensively surveyed, which is another way of saying that it's certainly big enough to be home to secret societies of Red Raiders loyalists. And yet there is still something jarring about being reminded that it is big enough for them to get their own bar on Saturday afternoons. But there they are on Saturdays: pie-eyed, in jerseys, smoking or barfing on the sidewalk.

A sports bar the size of Standings cannot afford to be monogamous, or even anything but promiscuous. Standings is a little walk-in closet of a place on East Seventh Street in Manhattan's East Village, and about as good a sports bar as the city has to offer. It has 12 taps and eight small to medium-sized televisions, a paper plate autographed by former Virginia star Joe Harris ("Go Hoos"), and a bathroom that I will not speak about here or anywhere else, ever; it is small enough that a four-year-old could easily throw a basketball from one side of it to the other. As a friend and regular described it on college game days, "it seems to attract alumni who have never been good enough to have a central bar."

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As identities go, this is inarguably an identity. The bar's website notes that when Rice played in the 2006 New Orleans Bowl, alums gathered at Standings to watch their Owls lose to Troy, 41-17. It's the bar where Albany fans watch their team play in the America East Tournament, and if you look you will see that there's a little UAlbany pennant hanging from the shelf behind the bar supporting the top two cable boxes, a little to the southeast of the dust-topped bottle of Johan Santana Merlot. It's one of many chunks of memorabilia you'll find in the rafters or on the walls: VCU, Drexel, Missouri, UMass and UConn, Marquette and Xavier, Boston University and Boston College; there's a sun-damaged LaSalle sign by the window, between the Temple and Vermont banners.

As a general rule, any sports bar that you do not go to regularly is a miserable place, combining everything that's lame about a lame bar while also offering many more televisions and an air of open, posturing partisanship. As an even more general rule, a bad sports bar is worse than a bad bar of any other kind. You have been here before. The beers all cost a dollar more than they should; they are all, in some deeper spiritual or vibological sense, in Boston. Close your eyes and these places will loom up at you unbidden out of your memory, all of them at once and somehow during a Cowboys game.

You have been in these honking, dude-dense rooms, their floors boggy with foam and every surface wan and defeated in the light of infinite blinking flat screens; the audio from the TV is playing through the speakers and it's a commercial break and Bob of Bob's Discount Furniture is rather heatedly making the case for a particular sectional sofa. Everyone in the place has a fucking hat on. It is bleak. Unless it is the one you like. Standings is the one I like, so it's where I went to for the first day of the NCAA Tournament.

Sir you uh left your magazine here, literally one decade ago. Photo by David Roth

There's something about the first few afternoon hours of the first day of the tournament that feels unreal; the first and perhaps still only day that I was really and truly home sick watching the games, when I was in middle school and when TruTV was not yet even a looming intimation of dread on the cultural horizon, the volume of action precisely matched the nervous drift of my feverish brain. Even if you are only watching to see your bracket implode, the first days are a lot to take.

That overage is the best case that can be made for the tournament's first few frantic days, and in general. It's not that the constant churn somehow instantly absolves all the back-rimmed free throws and palpably jittered players and long stretches of clammy pack-zone boredom; even if you are inclined to forgive all that, it is still only precisely what it is. But because everything is in concert with everything else, because of the ways in which the games tend to spill into and over each other once things really get going, the little individual outrages against the game or longstanding norms regarding what constitutes Fun Sports To Watch are a part of a broader collective experience. It is all one big long rebound, one single uphill attempt to solve a 1-3-1 zone, one brave and doomed effort to control wild nerves and get the game to do what it should. The players change, the coaches are in slightly different suits and slightly different stages of physical collapse, teams come and go, but the whole of it hums along. The whole of it, especially over the first wall-to-wall hours of it, is what we're watching, as much as any specific single game. It's all one big moment.

Standings is not full by the time the tournament reaches its proper four-games-at-a-time stride, but there isn't exactly a place to sit, either. If there is invariably something unreal about meaningful basketball games being played during the fat part of weekday afternoons, it is not made any more legible or less strange by being in a bar during the day. The sun is still high in the afternoon sky, the place flirts with fullness even as it empties and refills around the edges—people in work clothes come and go on hooky sessions stretched to the absolute limits of respectability; others, in traditional young man's day-drinking attire, are clearly there for the duration. Someone has left a 2007 NFL Draft Guide on a table, somehow; Brady Quinn, JaMarcus Russell, Allan Branch, Calvin Johnson, and Adrian Peterson are on the cover. For most of the afternoon session, the ratio of West Virginia Fans Wearing Coonskin Caps to women oscillates between 1:1 and 1:2.

The fun of being in a bar during the daytime exists right up against what's wrong about it—there is definitely always at least one other place you are supposed to be, even with the ace excuse of there being a bunch of basketball games on television. The daytime fan groups that come and go, by themselves or in pairs, are subdued and sober-ish and serious; the two twentysomething dudes watching Butler boring Winthrop to death get their check with a little under five minutes left and the Bulldogs clamped down on a 17-point lead. When the West Virginia fans sing "Country Roads" after the Mountaineers finish off Bucknell, they are a little bashful about it. They still sing, but there is still something church-y about the space at that hour; it is not nearly as full as it will get for the evening session, which means there is still some private space to be had. The guy at the next table takes out a computer and begins working on a play that he's writing.

People take advantage of that privacy; groups empty pitchers and turn inward and up in volume, but a number of singletons watch the games in reverie. When Northwestern scores the first two NCAA Tournament points in the history of its basketball program, a little over a minute into the game, a bearded man in a flannel shirt gives a silent, low fist-pump and someone on the other end of the bar claps once, vigorously. That could have been because West Virginia's Nathan Adrian was fouled in the game happening on the next television, though. It's the bleeding edge of happy hour and the overlap is just beginning to take hold. It's not yet 5 PM when someone in the place first "whoo-hoos" along with Blur's "Song 2" when it's featured in a BMW commercial.

All up in it. Photo by David Roth

Nighttime is unmanageable, we're just about all the way into it now. The room is drunker and shoulder-to-shoulder and the crowd is somehow both less homogenous in its composition and more heavily, overwhelmingly dude-dominated. It's a cacophony, the few holdovers I recognize from the day session are variously unreachable, because they are too far away or have had so much to drink that they're stuck in a conversational lock groove; at the edge of my hearing, a man I recognized from the afternoon is recommending Showtime's Billions, repeatedly.

Once you hear the gamblers, it's all you can hear. An invisible booth in the corner is authentically cheering for Xavier and a downcast pod by the bathrooms is authentically cheering for Maryland, but what I'd taken as ardent Vermont fans—one made a ferocious rawr-ing sound after a gutsy Catamount stop, it wasn't a complicated inference—reveal themselves as Vermont +9 fans. They're loud when Vermont is pushing Purdue early in the second half, but louder and more desperate in their cheering when a late Caleb Swanigan free-throw pushes the Boilermakers' lead into double digits. In the bits of conversation that drift up out of the din—"too much length, too much finesse;" "he's the kind of asshole that's required in that situation;" puzzlingly, "your whole life's a fable"—the thing that rings through cleanest are the words "plus 13-and-a-half."

The gambling is a part of all this; it has been for as long as anyone has ever cared about college basketball. But the thrill of the first days of the tournament, at this bar and everywhere else, this year and every year, is watching all those component parts dissolve into the bigger boiling whole. There is more to notice and care about than anyone could count or comprehend, and the pace and design of it all is such that new ones emerge all the time. They all share space with each other and they wink out, they empty and fill back up, it all comes and goes.

It is possible, if you pick the right place, to turn from one screen to another and see it all happen without ever quite seeing it stop. There's no need to do this, really, but you could do it. Or you could just slip into it, trust it to keep on in the way that it does, and let the insistent goofball current of it carry you; you do not, yourself, even need to turn. There's no wrong way, but that one is the one I recommend.

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