I was a witness to the middle of the country defeating the two coasts yesterday (Saturday). It was the day of the NCAA Final Four basketball semifinals here in San Antonio. The four Number One teams from the four regions of the country played in the two games. In other words, two teams had to win, and two teams had to lose. Memphis beat UCLA, and Kansas beat the University of North Carolina. The games weren't exactly upsets, but in each one, the schools with the stylish, refined traditions lost to the faster, stronger competitors.
So, Kansas and Memphis will face each other in the championship game Monday night. Both teams are speedy, confident, and they even wear the same colors -- red and blue. It should be a great game, but you never know. Before the semifinals, the "experts" predicted very close games. UCLA lost 78-63, and North Carolina lost 84-66.
Unpredictability is one of the most exciting things about college sports in general, and basketball in particular. The games are played by "kids," predominantly teenagers. They make mistakes. They're emotional. They do things that defy logic.
The fact that the games are played by people so young makes the enormous emotional involvement of the adults who watch them all the more interesting. So many people tie their moods, their ups, their downs, to what a bunch of kids do with a ball. Otherwise normal adults cry when "their" team loses. Or they hug and kiss perfect strangers when they win.
More than 500,000 people attended tournament games this year. 43,719 fans showed up for the semifinal games on Saturday. Millions of people spend hours at work trying to predict who'll win the NCAA tournament games. In fact, surveys estimate that the amount of money that American businesses lose to lost productivity because of the games is in the billions of dollars. And countless more dollars are wagered on the outcome of these games. It's crazy. Every parent knows that the behavior of a teenager is unpredictable. Why do sports fans forget about this?
The emotional involvement of fans and alumni with their schools' athletic teams is unique. You rarely hear about two guys in a bar who got into a fight, arguing about whose college has a better biology program. When someone from your college or university wins a Nobel Prize, you may feel proud, but I doubt that you go out into the streets, looking for a party to celebrate.
Despite the elevated status that sports fans give to college athletes, the fans are not above booing and cursing players. Sometimes they can be incredibly cruel. They wouldn't yell at kids like that in any other situation. It wouldn't hurt for someone to remind them that these are kids that they are verbally abusing. They're somebody's neighbors, somebody's children.
I remember going into the Duke locker room one year after they lost their game by one point. Reporters were asking questions of disappointed athletes who were undressing or had a towel wrapped around themselves. Then I heard a sound coming from the shower. It was the sound of one of the players crying. I never went into a losing locker room again.
One of the most amusing things when you're at a game is that every fan seems to consider himself or herself an expert. They don't just applaud when their team scores or boo when the other team does. They call out specific instructions. "Don't dribble so much," "Slow it down," "Double-team him," are among the instructions that fans feel that the players could not do without. This, of course, makes absolutely no sense. If these players are so great that fans tie their emotional state to them, why do they assume that the players need their advice?
I don't think that if they witnessed a top surgeon from their university doing his work, they'd call out, "No, no, no. Make that cut two inches to the left." Would they shout to a mathematician, "Cube root, not square root, you jerk?" Or would they yell,"proton, not neutron" to the best physicist from their school?
So, these overly hyped, well attended games are unpredictable and the reverence with which so many people regard them is completely illogical. And that's what makes them so much fun, and that's why I'll be there Monday night.