Every year on Selection Sunday in mid-March, college basketball fans across the nation gaze at their television sets like children staring at packages under the 6-foot spruce on Christmas morning, or the ruffled Playboy they found in Uncle Jim’s bathroom during a July 4 barbecue.
They lean in to hear the announcement of the brackets, scramble to fill in every pairing in frantic penmanship, jeer the unfavorable seed of their favorite team, and begin plotting their office pool strategy. And most start fluttering like hummingbirds for the next four days until the NCAA tournament begins, bringing with it a dependable flood of endless emotion, excitement and - most importantly - Bryant Gumble’s gorgeous brother Greg.
Every year, I am among the hoard of revelers in this tradition that borders on religiosity. And that doesn’t bother me.
What does bother me is that a few weeks later - this Tuesday, to be precise - I will be sobbing like Dick Vermeil. Because now, the only basketball left to watch lies within the medicinal stench and fading upholstery of the retirement home for former outstanding college players - the NBA. And it seems I always cry alone.
Sure, the influx of players from Europe and elsewhere has quickened the tempo of the league, re-emphasized basketball fundamentals and twisted tongues of the best PA announcers in the land.
Yes, the dire predictability of the Western Conference champion winning the league finals may be fleeting, if Detroit’s title run last year was as legit as it looked from the 13-inch television in my bedroom that I could hardly see from the pillows I snoozed upon.
And thank goodness, by April the ridiculous 82-game regular season has been whittled to a couple meaningful match-ups for teams on the playoff fringe, and a couple scrimmages for everyone else before either the real stuff - the playoffs or pro-am golf tournaments, depending on who you play for - begins.
Still, I just don’t feel it. How could I feel it? How could I feel anything like the out-of-body experience that comes from watching some kid my age with loads more talent, desire and commitment than me live out his dream?
Just how can I cry for multimillionaire, Tyra Banks-dating, NBA veteran Chris Webber choking in the clutch in the same way I mourned when the tenacious, gifted collegiate Chris Webber had a temporary lapse of judgment and called a timeout his team didn’t have, costing it the game?
And how can I pull for celebrity fan Jack Nicholson, who lounges in courtside seats smoking a cigar and wearing shades in the arena, when I can root for celebrity fan Bill Murray, who has somehow squirmed into his old Illinois college sweatshirt, only to rip its seams further by jumping around like a member of the current student body after every big play?
I can’t. And, though I might have been five years ago, I’m not an NBA hater. The level of play and entertainment value has skyrocketed in the new millennium, and the league should be proud of being the most globally aware of any major American sports enterprise.
But the timing of the season’s conclusion sucks. And the series postseason format can not rival the NCAA’s one-and-done for drama, though perhaps it makes up for it in fairness.
Most importantly, after I’ve spent a month living vicariously through triumphs and failures that mean little more financially to the players than they would in an outdoor summer league, I just can’t do it again for the professionals.
The MLB and NFL playoffs grip me every fall and early winter with ease, partly because of the tradition associated with baseball and the drama allied with football. But the MLB is helped by the reality that the College World Series is hardly a national spectacle, while the NFL is sheltered by the feudalism that is the college bowl system.
The NBA has no such luck. And though I understand how hard it must be for the NBA to compete with March madness, I can’t empathize, because my basketball emotions run empty.
And, for the first time this year, I miss hockey.