Soon after two scintillating semifinals (which followed four pulse-pounding Elite Eight games), two stories were posted in the national press bemoaning the matchup in the college basketball national championship game. The authors of the stories will go unnamed, but the stories appeared in the Wall Street Journal and at Yahoo!Sports.com.
With the Texas Tech-Virginia contest – the biggest game in either school’s history – at least 40 hours away, these two writers decided to sling trash.
The WSJ story recounted an incident from 12 – twelve – years ago at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds where a bull got loose and marauded (harmlessly) through fairgoers before dying when it rammed a fire hydrant. The second paragraph of the story said: “This is the type of gruesome spectacle that we could be in for in Monday night’s national championship… actually, the bull incident might be preferable.”
The Yahoo story included the phrases “get ready for a meat grinder moonlighting as a basketball game… on paper, this game is the least sexy national title game of the past generation… College basketball’s shining moment on Monday night promises to be a tractor pull masquerading as a basketball showcase.”
For the first time in 11 seasons, the national championship required extra time. If you were not entertained by Virginia 85, Texas Tech 77, please hang up and dial 9-1-1. Monday night, the Cavaliers went from the worst loss in NCAA Tournament history last season to winning the school’s first national championship.
The Red Raiders winning the title in their first Final Four trip would have been a great story, but Virginia pulled out its third consecutive heartbreaker (for its opponent). The Cavaliers trailed by three with 22 seconds left but forced overtime and closed out the final three minutes with a 15-4 run.
Helluva tractor pull, huh? No bull.
“It doesn’t matter what people wanted to see. It’s sports. You play the game and best team wins. Sports is probably the most level playing field in the world. In a lot of jobs, it’s who you know. Shout out to these two teams. What a game.”
That was Charles Barkley on the postgame show. Sometimes a blowhard, the Round Mound of Rebound was spot on.
The end of another college basketball season brings sadness to the hoop heads. The FBI wiretaps, the fraud and the cheating are off-the-court scandals. Five years ago, the game was in crisis for stylistic reasons. It’s healthier now. We should celebrate that.
We should also celebrate that there is more than one shining moment in college basketball. Your Veteran Scribe wants to pump some sunshine and recognize that sports are the greatest unscripted reality series we’ll ever binge watch.
How many of us have threaded a perfect bounce pass through traffic to a cutting teammate for a layup?
How many of us have backhanded a short hop in the hole at shortstop and thrown out a runner at first (even if it was just slow-pitch softball)?
How many of us had had that euphoria of a hole-in-one or holing out a wedge shot from the fairway?
Those of us who at one time played sports understand those rare moments when the nerves, the vision, the reflexes, and the muscles joined together to do something athletic. What is rare for the weekend warrior is a regular occurrence for the serious athlete who competes at the high school, college or pro level.
With our playing days a memory, we watch and marvel as the march of players rolls on. What often gets lost is understanding the difficulty and challenge of accomplishing athletic feats. Highlight packages features the big hit, the dunk, the amazing catch. Those replays fail to scratch the surface and ignore both the work it required to achieve those memorable moments, in addition to the thousands of mundane plays that would humble and embarrass 99 percent of the population.
Look, Your Veteran Scribe gets it. Writing that glorifies athletes and their achievements is passed off as rah-rah pom-pom shaking. Often those who are glorified typically turn out to have clay feet. At all levels of sports, there are dark sides that often eclipse the performers, the achievements and the championships. As Master Yoda might say, “Brings balance to the force it does.”
Probably there was just as much snark in the media 100 years ago; H.L. Mencken, were he around today, would have millions of followers retweeting his witty and sarcastic barbs. Instead, he was available only in the print edition. Instead, we have the cynical posturing of Skip Bayless. We have Stephen A. Smith becoming a $10 million man because he screams opinions based on incorrect information.
Hence, stories must be wrapped in barbed wire with hot takes that draw clicks. Those who cover sports have become as judgmental and mean-spirited as New York theater critics. The failure often gets more attention than the success. The character based on Mencken in the play/movie “Inherit the Wind” is accused of searching for stories because they’re “grist for the mill.”
Writers should be honest brokers when writing about the human drama of athletic competition (thanks, Jim McKay). We fail to marvel at the fact that an athletic competition is unpredictable and capricious. Any endeavor taken on by Homo sapiens fits those descriptions.
An invisible gust of wind moves a game-winning field goal outside the goal post, so reporters ask the kicker, “How could you miss that kick?”
An errant golf shot hits a spectator and bounds back into the short grass. Some editors would want their on-scene reporter to ask the fan if he had bet money on the golfer who hit the shot and hence decided to serve as a backboard.
Perhaps we’ve been jaded, spoiled and over-served by our thirst for sports. YVS (that’s me!) remembers “the old days” when the only baseball game he could watch was the CBS Saturday “Game of the Week” telecast which almost always featured the New York Yankees. It was a marvelous experience to watch pro baseball men playing on a grainy black and white screen.
Now, it’s all about the inventory (games), the production (telecast) and the penetration (ratings). If any of those grade out below an A-plus, there’s hell to pay.
This is about not seeing the trees for the forest. The noise of all the bells and whistles has made us deaf. The lights have gotten brighter (gotta make those HD screens pop) and have blinded us. In the last decade, social media creates a never-ending vacuum that demands to be filled.
We should appreciate the nuances of carbon-based life forms just a few years out of high school trying to compete in high-pressure situations. Maximus Decimus Meridius asks us if we’re entertained and if not, Twitter becomes a bitch-fest. Despite the predictions, Monday night delivered.
Sports are about working on mysteries without any clues. The margin of victory can be as small as a single digit, but how those victories come about are often smoky and fateful. Balls – footballs in particular – bounce funny. The games are decided often by a clock tick or -nths of an inch.
This is the 40th anniversary of the seminal national championship game with Magic Johnson (Michigan State) and Larry Bird (Indiana State). The Sycamores reached the Elite Eight by overcoming Arkansas in the Midwest Regional final. Bob Heaton, a reserve, tossed up a lefty (off hand) half hook in the lane that bounced around the rim before falling through for the game winner.
Arkansas won its only national championship in 1994. Duke’s Antonio Lang came within a trimmed finger nail of deflecting Scotty Thurman’s rainbow, beat-the-shot-clock three that sealed the victory.
Virginia’s Elite Eight defeat of Purdue was made possible by an amazing last-second shot. Mamadi Diakite tipped a missed free throw into the backcourt, where teammate Kihei Clark chased it down. His 50-foot pass found Diakite for his buzzer-beating shot. What if Diakite had tipped the miss a bit harder and Clark had required another step to chase it down? Purdue would have reached the Final Four.
Sunday night, Baylor won its third women’s national championship. Lady Bears junior forward Lauren Cox suffered a knee injury late in the third quarter. She was in the lane, moving on defense, and collided with teammate Kalani Brown. Had Cox planted her foot three inches either way or had been half a second earlier or later, no contact, no game-ending injury.
Baylor was leading by 12 when Cox went out. Notre Dame, the defending national champion, rallied and the game was tied in the final minute. Baylor senior point guard Chloe Jackson drove from the right side and her layup attempt was nearly blocked by the Irish’s Brianna Turner. Turner had tried to cut off Jackson’s drive, and that brief hesitation made her half a step late. Jackson’s scoop layup with 3.9 seconds remaining provided the winning points.
Monday night in overtime, trailing by two, Texas Tech’s Davide Moretti chased down a loose ball into the frontcourt. De’Andre Hunter knocked the ball away from Moretti. It appeared clear it would be Tech’s ball. But an instant replay review overturned the call. Was the video conclusive? Show it to 100 people and it would probably be 50-50. Nonetheless, that turned the final 66 seconds into a rout.
Those are just a few instances of fate lending a hand. In the NCAA Tournament’s history, there have been thousands of others.
Parents tell their children that life isn’t fair. If their children play sports, the lesson is the same. It’s often not fair. That doesn’t mean the perspiring arts aren’t beautiful. They just need to be appreciated.
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