Dropping (Three) Jewels: The FreeDarko Guide to NCAA Enlightenment
In light of the recent inquisitionative comments about the ethnicity of various Masters of the Klondike, I am going to come clean about my own ethnic heritage. When I fill out the census form, I check the box that says some shit about Pacific islands. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm only half Japanese, but I love sashimi and drive a Civic, so I deem myself Asian enough to speak knowledgeably about Buddhism. For the rest of this post, just know that when I talk about "the right way," I'm thinking more about the Noble Eightfold Path than Multiple Offense and Defense.
In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha's first discourse after reaching Enlightenment, he advocated a Middle Way between the extremes of the "addiction to indulgence of self-pleasures" and the "addiction to self-mortification." Applied to the world of basketball, the NBA, with its superstars and flashy play, clearly represents the former, while college basketball, with its emphasis on sacrificing for the team, represents the latter. Some roundeyed roundball observers, such as my colleague Shoals, will take a mutually exclusive "this or that" approach, praising the empyrean splendor of the NBA at the expense of pedestrian college hoops, but I'm here to tell you that there is a happy medium between the two: the NCAA Tournament.
In attempting to define FreeDarko-ness, esteemed scholar Silverbird 5000 has theorized about the notion of "liberated fandom," the capacity to watch basketball with an eye toward individual narratives that is not bound to allegiance to a particular team. By its nature, a tournament featuring 65 teams shouldn't offer much to the conventional fan, who cheers for his favorite team and against one or two primary rivals. At max, that's three teams out of 65 that confan can really give a shit about. It's no accident that March Madness is now inextricably linked to the innumerable brackets we all fill out for various pools. That mostly arbitrary decision to pick Winthrop over Notre Dame instantaneously provides a rooting interest in the outcome of a game where there previously was none. This is the artificial construct that gets affixed to the tournament so that the conventional form of fandom can be maintained.
By contrast, the liberated fan approaches the tourney with no team allegiances, or at least none that mean anything (more on that later). What matters instead are familiar concepts to anyone who's taken more than a casual glance at this site: style, singular individual performances, and most importantly, narrative. By narrative, I don't mean the typical Cinderella stories that surface every March, but the birthing of legends. Think Bird vs. Magic, the Fab Five making back to back title games, Melo putting the Orangemen on his back, and of course, Jordan hitting that jumper in '82. Style, yes, outstanding individual achievements, as well, but those things mean nothing without context. Removed from the championship game, these events become footnotes rather than the text itself.
This year's bracket is ripe for this kind of legend-birthing narrative. Thanks to David Stern, we have the perfect storm of one of the greatest high school classes of all time coinciding with the year the age limit is first instituted. The excitement surrounding Oden and Durant has overshadowed what would in other years be the dominant storyline: last year's golden boy Joakim Noah and his team of buddies trying for the first repeat in 15 years. We would also be remiss if we failed to mention the rosters full of future pros at Kansas and North Carolina or Trip Thompson attempting to fill Big Papa's shoes at Georgetown. This year's tournament features some once-in-a-generation talent, so relying on the seeds and office pools to create fake drama is doing everyone a disservice. THIS IS A TOURNAMENT OF STARS. This is basketball nirvana.
[That's Randy Foye.]
Addendum: Earlier, I mentioned something about meaningless team allegiances. This year, in an attempt to find something to believe in, Shoals has agreed to join Dr. LIC, Billups, and me in a thought experiment where we each pick a team to ride for this March. Watch out for our confabulated confan dispatches throughout this inaugural weekend and perhaps beyond, depending on how our teams do and whether we get tired of it. Me, I'm rolling with the dude whose jersey says LAW IV on the back. That's right........GO AGGIES!!!!!!!!!!!!