Bracket Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Upset

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The snippet is as iconic as the event itself: anyone even casually familiar with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament through the years probably looks forward to “One Shining Moment” – the sappy tear-jerking montage of highs and lows that runs following the Championship Game – almost as much as the games themselves. Call it nostalgia, or even a thirst for melodrama, but there is an unmistakable affinity that people have for the NCAAs, one that transcends gender, geography or one’s gambling tolerance. During March weekends, if there’s a flat-screen in sight, chances are it’s tuned to the tournament. So after three weeks consumed by brackets, blowouts and barnburners, what’s so compelling about three-and-a-half minutes of fluff that makes us wait with such bated breath? In a word, it’s the upsets.

How many times have you filled out your NCAA bracket thinking “This is THE YEAR!” – having done all your “homework,” earning a crack degree in Bracketology in the process – only to have said bracket look like your 9th grade math quiz by the first Friday of the tournament? (Or Internet Explorer circa 2003: Red X). Trust me, you’re not alone: there are almost 6 million entrants to the ESPN Bracket Challenge each year, and lord knows how many finish disappointed, ever in pursuit of the mythical ‘perfect bracket.’ No matter how promising a mid-major looks, or how hot a so-so power conference team is come tourney time, it’s just so hard to ignore the chalk and account for party crashers, yet every year these upstarts wreck our printouts and wreak havoc on our sleep cycles. Logically then, isn’t it high time we at least make it to the ball, by finally embracing Cinderella?

Take Norfolk State: it was this tiny liberal arts HBCU’s first appearance in The Big Dance, and even after steamrolling through the regular season and MEAC tournament, America gave the Spartans exactly a snowball’s chance in hell of upending the 2nd-seeded Missouri Tigers in the Round of 64 last Friday. So naturally they did. Led by outstanding big man and MEAC Player of the Year Kyle O’Quinn, Norfolk did what only three teams had done prior to this game – solve Mizzou’s vaunted four-guard starting rotation. Almost as miraculous as the outcome was this: Norfolk actually looked like they’d been there before! Throughout the waning minutes of Friday’s hectic 2nd half, Spartans coach Anthony Evans was astoundingly calm as he perched in front of his bench, absorbing the ebb and flow of a tense contest along with millions watching on CBS. Of course there was an attendant storm: Evans was authoritative and convincing in his pregame speech, as every command was met by the disciplined “Yes, Sir!” of his charges. So impressive were Norfolk’s grit and guile down the stretch that any feelings of sorrow for the untimely end to Missouri’s dream season were instantly trumped by pure giddiness – at the sight of the Spartan pep band dancing with delight at what ten men had accomplished. Now THAT, my friends, was a moment.

As fate would have it, Friday night’s Duke/Lehigh tilt was not for the faint of heart either. Sure, the Devils didn’t enter this year’s tourney as the strongest No. 2 seed in memory, but the spectre of Coach K (and the satchel that super-frosh Austin Rivers presumably needs to tote his giant stones) loomed large for the Mountain Hawks (now there’s a mascot for ya). Entering as Patriot League tournament champs, Lehigh didn’t exactly strike fear into the heart of perennial power Duke, but the Hawks sure took the floor like they meant business. While the game was never quite on upset alert during the 1st half, Lehigh hung around just close enough to make you wonder if Duke’s spotty defense and over-reliance on the three-pointer might be its undoing. Sadly for Blue Devil Nation, intermission did nothing to dispel those concerns as the Hawks, behind the heady play (and volume shooting) of CJ McCollum, broke Duke’s resolve before imposing their own will. After Lehigh went ahead 38-37 four minutes into the 2nd half, the sides traded haymakers as the enormity of the stakes grew with the passing of the game clock. On a cold-shooting night for the Devils, Rivers tried valiantly to keep them in the game, but Duke’s lack of timely playmaking and Lehigh’s dogged persistence were the Devils’ downfall. In the aftermath, Mountain Hawks coach Brett Reed played it cool, yet you know somewhere deep down he had a remarkable sense of satisfaction that just screamed, “What Can Brown Do For You?”

Suffice it to say the first weekend of the tournament was peppered with other upsets of varying degree:

  • Scrappy Pac-12 entrant Colorado withstood a 2nd half charge to hold off UNLV in the South Region’s 6 vs. 11 game
  • No. 11 was charmed in the Midwest as well, with NC State dismantling 6th-seeded San Diego State: the Wolfpack are now on to the Sweet 16
  • No. 12 also prevailed in the Midwest Region, as South Florida rolled Temple behind former Kent State darling Stan Heath
  • Not to be outdone, Virginia Commonwealth validated last year’s run to the Final Four, toppling Missouri Valley Conference champs Wichita St. in the South’s 5 vs. 12 matchup with the incomparable Shaka Smart leading the way
  • Finally, this Ohio struck a blow for the Buckeye State, closing the book on Tim Hardaway Jr. and the Michigan Wolverines in the process: the Bobcats are likewise thru to the Sweet 16, where the UNC Tarheels await

No matter your favorite team (or bracket ‘lock’), it’s inevitable to experience disappointment this time of year, be it sooner or later. After years of agonizing over poor picks, I’ve finally learned to bury the disappointment found in brackets gone bust and root for these Cinderellas and the simple joy of the game they exude. It sure beats wondering what might have been, because if there’s one thing I know about the NCAA Tournament, it’s this: Nobody knows anything.

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LeBron, have a Snickers…

You’ve seen those Snickers commercials — the ones where Betty White and Aretha Franklin portray the prima donna sides of two guys (one playing tackle football, the other complaining about the AC on a long car ride)…if not, click below:

“Game” http://youtu.be/GkAnLtqWDhc

“Road Trip” http://youtu.be/_-qZOZa1y6c

Besides the fact that I derive endless comedy from them, every time I see the one with Aretha Franklin, I am instantly reminded of basketball’s biggest prima donna, Roc-A-Fella mascot, faux photographer extraordinaire, Global Icon, Spring sweater model, random Cowboys and Yankees fan, and “Chosen One” – LeBron “King” James.

As background of sorts, Atlanta’s my birthplace, so I bleed at least four shades of red (Falcons, Hawks, Braves, Bulldogs). Be that as it may, over time I have rooted for other teams in all of the major sports, and for various players on those teams, so I recognize and am willing to acknowledge greatness when it is displayed on the field or court. And I’m certainly not saying LeBron isn’t a great player, however I’ve reached my wit’s end with his primping and preening self-obsession.

One of my biggest problems with LeBron is that he was anointed “King” while still at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High — his mug plastered on SI and ESPN the Magazine — before he played a minute in the NBA. Beyond that, or maybe because of it, he has always acted as if greatness is his birthright, attributable to him (and his admittedly formidable game) by acclamation rather than actualization. Exhibits A and B: he was given a multi-million dollar Nike endorsement contract before he ever stepped foot on the court, and given a starting roster spot nearly as quickly. On the other hand, Kobe Bryant — against whom LeBron is most often measured for Best in Basketball — didn’t enter the league to anywhere near the deference given LeBron, despite a high school career arguably as celebrated as James’.

As a result, en route to four NBA titles, league Alpha Dog status and unanimity as the game’s “best closer,” Kobe has played with a remarkable chip on his shoulder, and has earned every bit of the respect he enjoys today. Despite being arguably the league’s best player since ’00-’01, his fifth season, Kobe didn’t win league MVP honors until ’07-’08, his TWELFTH season — by which time he was already a three-time champion. On the other hand, despite only one Finals APPEARANCE, LeBron has just collected his second MVP trophy in only his seventh NBA season. Which is, of course, a continuation of this theme of him being given the keys before passing his driver’s test.

Despite the schoolyard antics he routinely enjoys with his Cavs teammates, “King” James is arguably the most self-absorbed, self-conscious superstar in recent memory. How do we know this? His disturbing pre-occupation with putting himself above the team. How did he respond after the Celtics eliminated his Cavs in a tightly-contested Game 7 in the ’08 Eastern Conference Semis? LeBron went on at length in the postgame interview room about how he and Paul Pierce had given the fans a duel to rival Dominique’s and Bird’s Game 7 twenty years prior — as if this detachment from the outcome would deflect any blame that may accrue to his broad shoulders. After being rudely dismissed by the Orlando Magic in last year’s Eastern Finals (and failing to congratulate the victors)? He spent his summer largely in seclusion, emerging just long enough for conspicuous photo ops sporting t-shirts that read “LBJ|MVP” and “Check My $tats”. As if to say, “It wasn’t my fault we lost, I did my part — blame it on The Supporting Cast…”

Which is another massive problem I have with the “MVP”: after a victory during one of last year’s early-round playoff games, LeBron gave cursory credit to what he termed his “supporting cast.” Now, virtually every championship team in all of the major sports has had one or more superstars, surrounded by complementary talent at key positions. Never before, however, had I heard the best player on any of those teams refer to his teammates as “the supporting cast”: not only would that serve to marginalize and alienate them (his teammates), it would also figuratively place him (the superstar) above them, and would not bode well for the team’s championship prospects. Even if that is the pecking order — and, on championship teams, it almost always is — you NEVER verbalize that. Ever. You let your game do the talking, and your passion serve to elevate the surrounding talent and propel the entire team to glory. “King” James has yet to make this essential connection, thus he has yet to hoist championship hardware.

During his MVP acceptance speech last week, LeBron said that his goal is always “to be the best player on the court,” and that every time he steps foot on it, he basically wants the fans to acknowledge that he was such. The immortal Michael Jordan had a similar thought each game, however it was to give his greatest effort every time out, so as to provide that fan seeing him play for the first time his or her full money’s worth. That, to me, illuminates the fundamental difference in the two as players: in other words, Jordan primarily sought to *give* the fans a singular experience, whereas LeBron primarily seeks acclaim *from* his Witnesses, and until he reconciles the two, will never maximize his prodigious gifts.

Toward the end of the ’09-’10 regular season, when it became clear Kevin Durant would most likely win the scoring title, LeBron snapped, somewhat angrily:

“If I really wanted to,” James said, “if I really wanted to be the scoring [champion] every single year — every single year — I could really do it. But it doesn’t matter.”

By virtue of the fact that you acknowledged it, Bron, it must. Let’s let MJ sum up the difference between individual and team accomplishments:

“There are plenty of teams in every sport that have great players and never win titles. Most of the time, those players aren’t willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. The funny thing is, in the end, their unwillingness to sacrifice only makes individual goals more difficult to achieve. One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” -Michael Jordan

As for this season, it remains to be seen whether “King” James can overcome his nagging elbow injury and lead the Cavs over the hump to their long-awaited championship, or if he’ll use the injury as an excuse should they fall short of the finish line yet again. Either way, the next time he grimaces after a play, implying the elbow hindered him, I’ll feel justified in saying “LeBron, you’re playing like Betty White out there…”

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