T.S. Eliot once said “April is the cruelest month.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that March is one of the best months there is. We have Spring Break vacations, St. Patrick’s Day, and, most importantly, the NCAA Basketball Tournament. For college basketball fans, March is one big, energy-filled party. It’s madness. And hopefully this year it’ll be Jayhawk madness.
The NCAA tournament is three weeks of raw, “expect the unexpected” amateur athletics at its best. Rankings, hype, politics, bracketology, office pools, endless ads for sucky CBS sitcoms … it all means little during the glorious processional of 64, then 32, 16, 8, and finally four teams giving it all to feel the inexplicable joy of being on top.
What does it mean that so many people go absolutely nuts for this tournament? Congregating around TVs, packing into sweaty auditoriums, cheering on ten players running back and forth throwing a ball around? Why do we schedule our lives—and often our discretionary incomes—around what all of us would probably willingly refer to as “just a game?” Sure, we could write it off as mere entertainment, but that is an empty term in referring to what something “entertaining” actually means in our lives. Why are sports like basketball so attractive as activities to fill our diminishing spare time?
All of our choices of entertainment are, I think, on one level an attempt to escape “everyday life” but also an attempt to reinforce it. It’s an interesting dichotomy actually. Seeing a movie, for example, is obviously “escapism,” but think about the movies you like the best and why… They are the ones that reinforce what you know of the world, of reality, of existence. Not the ones that seem alien or ring false.
Likewise, attending a basketball game is a fun escape and diversion from our everyday lives. But we wouldn’t go—we wouldn’t pay hundreds of dollars for two hours of spectatorship—if mere diversion is all it was. No, I think basketball is so popular, so intensely followed, because it reflects things about our own lives and existence on this planet that we don’t often think about or correlate. I know this sounds extremely convoluted, but follow me here…
Basketball, and all sports, are competitions. That is the first and most basic point of connection with real life. We live lives of competition—in the workplace, in the dating world, in everything we buy or sell, etc… And basketball is one example of a heightened form of competition where the stakes are lower for us but the instincts are still as strong. We resonate with and cheer so hard for our team to win because, quite frankly, fighting to win is what life is all about.
The thrill of victory is worth the price of admission, but what about the agony of defeat? When this is an all-too-ready option in any given sporting event, why do we still attend, game after game? Well, this is where the uniqueness of sport vs. life comes in to play. Losing in sports is tough, don’t get me wrong, but it is part of the game. Losing in life is a lot more unforgiving. Basketball is 50% losing in point of fact (all games everywhere have exactly one winner and one loser), but the heart of the game is in winning. In our real lives we also relate to both winning and losing, but losing seems to get all the attention. Thus, we are attracted to something that focuses our minds and hearts on that still-small reality of life that is within everyone’s grasp—the transcendent glory.
You know the moment in a basketball game when your team is down by a dozen or so points, but makes a run and brings it to within two? And then the crowd rises to its feet, loudly cheering, and the team gets a new bounce in its step, hitting a long three to take the lead? That moment, with the deafening noise and dispirited opponents losing control—is a moment when you can touch the glory, where you glimpse—dare I say it—the divine. You get goosebumps, you slap a stranger’s hand, and you raise your voice to the rafters for the glory to continue.
In these moments I envision God smiling at us humans and thinking, they are feeling it in small doses—the wholeness, purity, redemption, and triumph that is My gift. Unfortunately, many of us leave these sporting “highs” without thinking that maybe they point to something greater that surrounds us. What if sport really is a gift from God? What if the blessings of sport are only a fraction of what is available to us? I think it probably saddens God when the good things in life—sports, natural beauty, art, etc—are cheapened and seen only as ends unto themselves; not as the signposts to a greater grace that exists in the world.
And so we should not cheapen basketball by writing off its “trivial” place in the grand scheme of things. Instead we should realize that the small wonders and momentary blessings matter in life. Why? Because the existence of rays of light implies a vast sun, and if we ever want to comprehend something that vivid, we should start by taking the light in small doses, wherever we can find it.
So amid the frenzied bracketology of this year’s March Madness, don’t expect God to favor one team over another. Because even though 64 teams will leave defeated and only one will carry the trophy, there will still be plenty of “holy moments” to go around. The upsets, the clutch three-pointers, the roar of a crowd brought to their feet by a showy dunk, the nasally exclamation of a Dick Vitale baby!!!… these are the moments that can enliven our weary souls. Fun to watch? You bet. ... And so much more.