National underdog days

The first 48 hours of the NCAA Tournament symbolize everything that's right about America. They ought to be national holidays.

Published March 15, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

One Thursday morning in March a few years back, when my daughter was barely 6 months old and I was a freelance writer working out of my home, I spread a blanket on the floor in front of our television set. On it I placed every toy the little girl had been known to enjoy -- rattles, squeaky balls, blocks and stuffed animals. I made sure a bottle with breast milk was chilling in the fridge. I had the Swingomatic rocking chair ready to jump into action at her slightest sound of discomfort. And then I proceeded to initiate her into the joys of the first round of the NCAA basketball Tournament.

I can't say I've been totally successful. At age 6, my daughter knows the difference between a "brick" and a "swish" and she understands that any televised sporting event involving the Michigan Wolverines (my alma mater) or the Florida Gators (my hometown team) is an occasion of not-to-be-blasphemed-against holy sanctity. But she'd still rather watch "Scooby Doo" or "Dexter's Laboratory" than a classic matchup between an unknown 14th seed and a haughty-yet-doomed third seed.

As for me, no longer a freelancer, I now find myself miserably chained to a computer during the Tourney's glorious early days. The best I can do is check updated scores online, and since I'm on the West Coast, by the time I get out of work most of the action is already completed.

This is why I am campaigning to have a national holiday declared for the first two days of the NCAA Tournament. It's an insult to working men and women to have one of the most exciting 48-hour stretches of sports off-limits to us poor sods who have to pay fealty to evil capitalist overlords.

Think about it. All the other major playoffs and championships occur during prime time or on the weekends (give or take a few rounds of golf, but you will never get me to admit that golf is a real sport, no matter how hard you hit me with Tiger Woods' driver). American civilization is built on the principle that the people have an inalienable right to wild-card games and sudden-death elimination match-ups. When the NBA playoffs roll along, you're not going to see the Lakers tipping off against the Kings at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday. Never mind the ratings hit that such scheduling would entail -- we, the people, wouldn't tolerate such felonious sporting behavior. It would be wrong.

What makes the tragedy of having to work during the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament even more gut-wrenching is that none of the other big-time TV sports events can hold a candle to it in terms of excitement. I know that some sourpusses have complained that there are too many teams in the Tournament and that most of them don't have a chance to win it all. But you know what? Most of us don't give a damn who wins the whole thing, unless one of our favorite teams has a shot.

The true joys of the Tournament often come on the very first day, when some squad of scrawny, undersized hoopsters -- all of whom were either overlooked or rejected by major colleges -- start hitting their open jump shots, make their free throws down the stretch, and then knock down a three at the buzzer to topple a Kansas or a Syracuse or an Arizona, or, if the gods are truly just and beneficent, Duke.

Of course, Duke will probably win its first game by 40 points, and maybe all the rest -- a possibility that is almost as fun to imagine as getting your molars yanked without anesthetic by a cranked-up Mike Krzyzewski. And I will concede that some years go by with hardly a whisper of an upset in the first or second round. But that just makes the great years all the better; the years when upsets rain down like manna from basketball heaven, when a Gonzaga or a Miami of Ohio comes out of nowhere and charges toward the Sweet 16.

Upsets are what it's all about, and it doesn't matter if a team wins magnificently in the first round and then is gone in the second. It's that moment at the buzzer that counts -- every single time -- when the unexpected happens and pandemonium reigns.

The first Thursday and Friday of the Tournament should be a federal holiday, not just because forcing us to go to work on those days is a crime against nature, but because upsets are a lesson in American civic values. Every time a Princeton upends a UCLA, it's like dumping tea in Boston Harbor all over again. Each time a low seed triumphs against some gang of All-Americans from the ACC or the Big Ten, it's a rare victory in the annals of class warfare, a spit-in-the-face to entrenched aristocracies everywhere (OK, ignoring the fact that in the real world the low seed might be an elite Ivy League school and the powerhouse a scruffy public university), a reminder that ultimately, we have nothing to lose but our Nike logos, every time we hurl a behind-the-back no-look-pass with two seconds left on the shot clock.

In fact, not only should we get a paid holiday for the first round of the Tournament, but those of us who are parents also have a moral duty to sit our children down before the television with us. We have so much to teach them, and I don't mean just the simple things like why announcers Billy Packer and Dick Vitale are oafs who should be mocked at every opportunity, or even how to stand the pain of watching some freshman for your favorite team have a great streak of clutch performances, and thus ensure that he will go pro too early.

I don't even mean some of the more basic lessons -- like the way you demonstrate to your spawn how you can exert self-control over the homicidal rage that surges through your body when a Chris Webber calls a timeout when he has none remaining, or anyone, ever, from Duke hits a basket with time running out.

No, the first round of the NCAA Tournament is a time to inculcate in your children something much greater -- something called, for better or worse, the American Way. It ain't perfect, but in the Tournament, the little guy has a chance. And it's our duty to root for him.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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