Basketball is hell

War metaphors are only natural in sports, which always mimic war, and sometimes distract us from it.

Published March 24, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Dave Anderson of the New York Times is the latest big-time typist to argue that we shouldn't be using war metaphors for sports, because war is war, and sports are only sports. Or something like that.

"How often have you heard football and basketball teams and boxers say, 'It's going to be a war' when it's just a game or a fight?" Anderson wrote Sunday. "How often have you heard an athlete described as a 'warrior' when that athlete is merely a determined and successful competitor?" And so on. Near the end of the column, Anderson writes, "No matter what might slip out in conversation, most athletes understand the difference between sports and war," which leads to the question: Dave, is your hat too tight? What's your point?

OK, that's two questions, but watching the NCAA Tournament over the weekend, with the war raging on several competing stations, I found myself thinking that Anderson didn't go far enough.

"There's no celebrating," said Kentucky guard Gerald Fitch after the Wildcats' 95-64 rout of IUPUI in the opening round Thursday. "It's all business right now."

Business? Why, this isn't business. It's a game! Does a ballplayer have to suck up to some slimy district manager or cut back on photocopying because of budget cuts? Does he have to be nice when the CEO's irritating trophy wife corners him at the Christmas party and bores him with the details of her Victorian rehab? Does he have to waste a perfectly good spring weekend at a stupid "team-building retreat" in the Catskills, playing capture the flag with sales people half his age? Business, indeed.

And we'll have no talk about that Arizona-Gonzaga second-round game Saturday being a classic. "That was definitely an ESPN Classic," said Jason Gardner of the Wildcats. A classic? Just because it was a hard-fought -- oops, I mean, closely played -- game? Just because the underdog Zags, who have made such a habit of Cinderella runs in recent years that maybe we should stop calling them Cinderella runs, tied it with a put-back at the buzzer? Just because Gonzaga, with two starters having fouled out, hung in there through one overtime, then had a chance to win in the second overtime, only to have a makeable shot by Blake Stepp miss as time expired, leaving Gonzaga players lying face-down in grief and exhaustion on the hardwood?

Hey, "A Tale of Two Cities" was a classic.

I don't want to step on any toes here, but there really have been some, how shall I say it, peachy games in the first two rounds. Swell moments. There were the Butler Bulldogs, last year's left-behinds, celebrating like lunatics after Brandon Miller's game-winner to upset Mississippi State in the first round, then dispatching Louisville in the second. There was Wisconsin's Freddie Owens swishing a game-winning 3-pointer with one second left against Tulsa in the second round.

There was Notre Dame escaping an upset in the first round when a layup by Dylan Page of Wisconsin-Milwaukee hung tantalizingly on the rim, then fell off as time expired, and then the Irish taking care of Illinois in the second round.

There was Drew Nicholas dribbling the length of the floor and hitting an off-balance 3-pointer at the horn as defending champion Maryland escaped a first-round upset at the hands of North Carolina-Wilmington, which shocked USC in last year's first round, and then the Terrapins dismantling Xavier, the third seed in the South.

There was Utah State flinging up desperate 3-pointers to try to tie Kansas at the end of their first-round game, the Jayhawks escaping with a 64-61 win. There was Utah holding on to beat Oregon, East Tennessee State giving Wake Forest a scare, Auburn -- a bubble team many thought shouldn't have even been invited -- getting to the Sweet 16 by beating St. Joe's and then finishing the job on Wake that East Tennessee State couldn't. There was Missouri, advancing to the second round on a horrible foul call against Southern Illinois, then taking Marquette to overtime, only to be overwhelmed as the Golden Eagles scored a jaw-dropping 21 points in the extra period.

It's silly to think that we shouldn't use battle metaphors to describe any of this because the games we play and watch are themselves metaphors for war. What is war if not the ultimate competition? Sports are a benign version of war, but a version all the same.

It's also silly because most of us out here in the real world are pretty smart, and we're able to use similar words to describe very different things. By calling a close, physical, exciting basketball game a "war," we really aren't confusing it with the real thing, just as we can call both the neighbor's new puppy and our own true love "cute" without meaning that we're sharing our lives with someone who looks like a schnauzer.

Still, this Tournament is different precisely because the war metaphors that roll unself-consciously off the tongues of players and coaches snap our minds back to the very subject that we're trying to escape for a few hours by watching it: a very real war.

When Kansas coach Roy Williams says, "I really loved the way we attacked" after his team's win over Arizona State, or Notre Dame swing man Dan Miller says, "They were playing off me so I just pulled the trigger on them" after hitting five 3-pointers against Illinois, or Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser says, "They died hard" after his Demon Deacons' win over East Tennessee State, we reach for the remote to check on the progress of the invasion.

This Tournament hasn't been lacking in thrilling finishes, great performances, improbable upsets or narrow escapes, and while the crowds have been good and the play intense, the TV ratings have been down. No doubt a lot of the usual customers are over on the news channels, squinting at the night-vision shots and chewing their nails. My advice is to check back in when the Tournament resumes Thursday. We don't need a war to remind us that games are only games. But we do need games to remind us that war isn't everything.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Things are heating up in the national office pool I'm running, with an interesting pattern emerging: All of the Sporting News' experts are beating all of Sports Illustrated's wise guys. The bracket published in Sports Illustrated, compiled by two of the wise guys, remains near the bottom of the pack, leading only my son Buster, whose bracket was filled out by flipping a coin 63 times, not counting the times I dropped it and it rolled under the couch, thus adding to his college fund.

The Sporting News' Mike DeCourcey and Tim Brando, S.I.'s Grant Wahl and Seth Davis, and yours truly all have their entire Final Four still alive. Everyone else has lost one Final Four team except Alexander Wolff of S.I. and my kid, who have each lost three.

Thanks to an excellent suggestion by reader Don Fossgreen, I've added the NCAA Selection Committee to the pool, with the assumption that the committee always picks the higher seed to win a game. The committee's success will show you what would have happened if you'd just chosen the higher seed every time this year, like you always say you're going to do someday but never do.

Here are the standings after the first two rounds, with each correct first-round pick worth 10 points, and each second-round pick worth 20:

Mike DeCourcey, Sporting News (460 points)
Kyle Veltrop, Sporting News (450)
NCAA Selection Committee (420)
Tim Brando, Sporting News (390)
King Kaufman, Salon (390)
Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated (370)
Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated (360)
Stewart Mandel, Sports Illustrated (360)
Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated (310)
Sports Illustrated (280)
Buster, Coin Flip Quarterly (210)

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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