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The Virtues of March Madness

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Mar. 12, 2015

There were a few Lents in my high school life when my dear mother decided we were all giving up TV whether we liked it or not (in case you were wondering where my distaste for Lent came from). For those paying attention, that meant some or all of March sporting events passed me by. This was very bad.

Perhaps more than any other time of the year, March presents the very best sports have to offer. I’m thinking most specifically, of course, about the NCAA basketball tournament. However, conference tournaments, the NCAA hockey tournaments, pro basketball and hockey entering the stretch runs for their regular seasons, and even high school winter sports reach their apex during this month.

But oh, that basketball tournament. How I love thee (and betting on thee). Even for an avid NBA fan like myself, there’s nothing like the passion of the players, teams, and fans in the NCAA Tournament, especially on campus. For the vast majority of the players, they won’t be playing beyond college, and that means they bring an energy, emotion, and a do-or-die attitude unique to its own that truly can be infectious.

I’ll never forget hearing the cheers coming from all of the different dorms throughout the quad when our team scored at an important time. There is something about the experience that brings everybody closer together, and there’s a unique bond you feel - even with the rival dorm that you just beat the crap out of at the annual snowball fight.

As our culture becomes seemingly more and more individualistic, as our psyches become more and more reliant upon our personal electronics, and as we struggle to find common ground on all the hot-button issues that divide us, sports are still capable of bringing people together, and perhaps more than ever. And, I’m not just talking about in victory.

One spring break my buddies and I piled into a 15-passenger van and drove five hours to the D-III national semifinal hockey game, which featured one of our dormmates as captain of the Tommies of the University of St. Thomas. Our guys, by all accounts, outplayed St. Norbert’s, the #1 ranked team in the nation, for most of the game until the bad guys scored a flukey goal in overtime to crush all of our hopes and dreams. By the end of the game, we had made friends with everybody in our section wearing purple, and I found myself wanting to hug perfect strangers on the way out of the arena.

Of course, we would have preferred to have won, but, it’s funny, I’ve found that sometimes the losses have a way of bringing people together - maybe even more so than the wins.

One of the most powerful experiences of my life was being in a losing locker room as a high school basketball coach in a March playoff game. Our best player had lost his older brother to cancer during the season, took some time away from the team, but was now back and playing at his best in the section semifinals.

With under two minutes left he had to leave the game because of severe leg cramps, then watched from the bench as our team lost in overtime  The whole team of teenaged boys bawled their eyes out in that locker room. Yes, the loss stung, but there was something about it that seemed much bigger than basketball.

In feeling the pain of losing that game - together - I have to imagine that those boys were able to mourn with their teammate in a way they weren’t able to before. A shared experience of a loss, even in something as inconsequential as a basketball game, seemed to enable them to better deal with a much greater loss.

We’ve probably all heard our fair share of tired sports cliches. My issue with most of them is that they’re so damn sugar-coated. Sometimes sports losses, and especially injuries, can be downright heartbreaking, but that’s what makes sports so powerful. They can help prepare you for failure in life as much as anything else. After all, most teams end their season with a loss.

Keeping that perspective can be the hardest part about being a sports fan, but it does provide the most rewarding experience. If you’re playing, do your best; if you’re cheering, root your hardest. Then, then let the chips fall where they may.

That means that if another team ends up on top, fair and square, not only do they deserve to win, but they deserve your congratulations as well. It can be a great experience in humility, and humility is a virtue. Which is why, in the spirit of sportsmanship, I like my opponents to have as many opportunities as possible to grow in humility, especially in March.

So whether you’re a sports fan or not, find out when the games are on, put on your team colors, and head down to the dorm lounge or local watering hole and cheer on your team. If your team is knocked out early, pick a new one to root for. That’s the fun of filling out a bracket, that you have a new favorite team to root for every game.

But whatever you do, trust me: you don’t want to let this month pass you by.

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