Mistakes, Meaning, And March Madness

The madness of March has a way of washing away everything that's dirty, flubby, and bad about college basketball. Who would really want it any other way?

Apr 6 2015, 4:00pm

Photo by Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

There is something about the weather condition known as "wintry mix" that clarifies, and also there is something in us that loves a stromboli. This is the best explanation I can offer for why I walked into a place that I knew full well was named STUFF YER FACE. It had an unfortunate mascot that looked like Woody from Toy Story, had Woody been bloated in a way that suggested simultaneous dependencies on oxycontin, amber liquors, and (yes) stromboli. I saw him, too, as I walked in.

I saw all this and I went in anyway, because [Restaurant Name Redacted] had beer and stromboli and because the restaurant was indoors and I was outdoors, where there was slush falling out of the sky, efficiently and horrifically splutting to earth as the same dense gray misery-slurry that would fill the sidewalks and avenues and gutters of New Brunswick, New Jersey. I was hungry, thirsty, and in wet socks, back in the state where I grew up and not quite myself. I walked past autographed photos of a jarringly young Woody Paige and "Man Vs. Food" host Adam Richman and one of those faux-antique "Free Beer Tomorrow" signs you see at flea markets. I sat at the bar.

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From that seat, I tried to figure out who else in the place had come out on this dreariest of wintry mix-afflicted nights to watch a Rutgers basketball team that had lost 12 straight games likely bump that figure to an appropriately haunted 13. The opponent that night was Maryland which was then ranked 12th in the nation and, like Rutgers, was playing its first season of basketball in the Big Ten. Rutgers would lose that night, Senior Night, and then lose again at Michigan, and then see its season end in Chicago, at mid-afternoon, on the first day of the Big Ten Tournament, and that was how a disastrous first season—Rutgers' team managers lost all eight of the games they played against other teams' managers—in a new conference ended. It was already ending when I walked into The Restaurant I'd Rather Not Name. Anything can happen on Senior Night, but also there are some things that cannot happen.

There were already games on the television behind the bar, above a refrigerator with a yellowed, Clinton-era sign on it reading "imports and micro-brews." A kid in a Maryland jersey with Steve Blake's number 25 on the back ordered Jaegermeister. It was Tuesday: a dirty gray night in New Jersey, anonymous, shitty and slush-splashed and forbidding. It was no night to leave your home and travel to watch a basketball game, even a meaningful one, which this was not. "Am I stupid," I asked the bartender, "if I don't get a stromboli?"

She asked if I'd been there before; I hadn't. She nodded without any apparent judgment. "It's what we're known for," she said. "So: yes." It was delicious, but not an answer to the most obvious question in the room. Why do this, and why for this game?

Life is suffering. But also consider the alternative. — Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sport

Even very good things look and sound and mostly are terrible during the time in which everyone is screaming about them. Everyone senses this and no one can really do very much about it. This is true of the NCAA Tournament and the Super Bowl or any other macro-scale multi-platform mega-leveraged sports thing, and seems to have a lot to do with why the broader conversation surrounding those events converges on hair-trigger pissiness. It is all just too much, everyone feels kicked around and shouted at and hustled, but also this is the only way any of the parties involved know how to do this particular thing. The cycle of hype serves itself much more than it serves those consuming or producing it, who are mostly just swamped and sad about it.

This is the risk when the relationship between the brand-forward spectacle and the smaller thing on which it's leveraged exceeds a safe ratio, and here as everywhere else in the culture that leverage is a problem—that is, everywhere else in the culture—the idea of doing it smaller, or even backing off on the throttle a bit, is a non-starter. The result is a sort of locked-in dread. If even a minor controversy emerges—a kid saying a dumb thing into a hot mic, for instance—it is invariably and instantly kicked to death by people who'd rather be doing something else.

And so the games themselves, which are basically the last things that anyone watches on television as they happen, arrive not just as enjoyable sportsthings to anticipate, but also as sweet relief from their clammy, thirsty, desperate, and relentless run-up. This doesn't seem like the best way for these games to be, and it certainly isn't much fun to watch (or participate in!), but it produces an interesting side effect—a sort of tenderness towards the poor overwhelmed games themselves, dwarfed as they are by all that hype and noise, and the only reason anyone puts up with all the exhausting bullshit that surrounds them.

Basketball aesthetes do not think much of the quality of college basketball games, which are indeed luridly imperfect, warped by nerves and overcoaching and stuffed with mistakes. This season, especially, was a grinding, grunting eyesore in terms of aesthetics; even Kentucky's season-spanning domination was more Glacier Flattening Continent than Fireworks Display, and its conclusion in the Final Four came via the anticlimax of a halting, mistake-choked college basketball game. The tournament nevertheless exceeds all this, transcends it utterly, not because the basketball gets better but because the emotional throw-weight of the games is so amplified.

There is a canard that college basketball is somehow more pure in its intent because the kids playing the games are not paid; this canard has been roasted and carved thoroughly; a rich stock has been made from its bones. There is no such thing as purity of intent this close to the NCAA. But college basketball is somehow more pure in its expression, not because the kids involved are not being paid—and they absolutely fucking should be paid, given the riches that the tournament generates for everyone but them—but because they are kids, still, and because the games are shot through and defined by the volatility and intensity and moment-to-moment insanity that people of that age bring to things. It is not polished, but the people making it are not polished. They are unfinished, wild-eyed, overwhelmed; the tournament is, too. The meaning in the games is absolutely and finally something that the players and the players alone bring to it.

Two young people who will soon be very rich, but presently are very sad. — Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

There will always be people who choose college basketball for its abhorrences, who actively prefer their players interchangeable and unpaid, their coaches imperial and absolute, their athletic departments gold-plated and booster-based and feudal, their governing bodies unaccountable and smugly rapacious. This is sad and shitty, but also seems to offers a very limited range of satisfaction.

To enjoy college basketball, I've come to think, you have to love it, and not in a rhetorical sense, but in an actual loving, open-hearted, empathetic one. The emotion is the thing, much more so than the basketball, and the more we accept and embrace that—the more we can watch these imperfect, noised-over, oversold and hype-beset games as we look at art or listen to music, with an eye on how they show us raw, trembling humanity in action—the more we'll get in return.

In some sense, you have to want all of the kids involved to make it, to get what they want out there, to grow up better and stronger and happier for the experience. The contrast between the comparatively small human-played games and the gargantuan brand-armed money-vacuuming monstrosity selling it tends to play up this tenderness. The games are valuable and fragile and fraught, and everything around them is all crashing unshameable crassness; picture a bunch of puffy drunks playing keep-away with a Faberge egg.

This tension is palpable in the games, at a subtextual level. You watch young people play their souls raw in the center of all this heedless greedheadedness and it is hard not to worry about something important getting broken, about kids getting crushed and lost under some annihilating avalanche of money and misplaced priorities.

No easy buckets. — Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The Rutgers players celebrating their Senior Night during the slushstorm had played, over four years, in three different athletic conferences, for two head coaches, and never enjoyed a season in which they won as many games as they lost. Rutgers has not had a winning season since '05-06, when Gary Waters' team won 19 games and lost in the first round of the NIT. Waters, who replaced a coach that was fired in part for making his players run sprints in the nude, was gone the next year. The program is on its third coach since then. The last, Mike Rice, was fired after video emerged of him winging basketballs at his players and calling them faggots; he was most recently seen getting kicked out of a high school game on the Jersey shore for abusing the refs.

During Rutgers' last run of near-competence, the Louis Brown Athletic Center, which everyone calls the RAC, was a very difficult place to play. It was loud and weird in the necessary ways, and even in the program's last troughed-out decade, Rutgers occasionally beat much better teams there. This is more or less what home courts are for: to put a bunch of weird shouting people right on top of things, until the team that the weird shouting people support derives some advantage from it.

The RAC is 38 years old, and heavy and graceless in the painted-cinderblock way of old gyms. It's also perfectly The Place Where New Jersey's College Basketball Team Plays, down to the fact that half the arena is dedicated to North Jersey concessions (Premio sausage-and-pepper sandwiches) and the other to South Jersey concessions (Rita's Water Ice, which whatever). It is not a state-of-the-art college basketball venue, which is 1) absolutely what makes it as effective as it is and 2) a gross and weird thing to be anyway, and anywhere.

It is doomed. State politicians make noises about tearing the RAC down and replacing it with something expensive and less stubbornly small-time, or supplementing it with a $50 million practice facility. C. Vivian Stringer, the coach of Rutgers' (much more successful) women's team, has made a similar case. "When I walk into the Tennessee place I see a waterfall," Stringer said. "I see granite. I'm not looking for all that. I'm just saying." A State Senator spent part of the winter bitching about the basketball program not being "Big Ten-ready" on Twitter, and Rutgers' president responded to him as politely as he could. These are the adults, and the gold-dipped neoliberal barfworld of college basketball is their reality.

There is something strange about seeing the banners of Rutgers' ostensible Big Ten rivals—Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, and other schools mostly not even in the same time zone—hanging in the RAC's rafters. The only reason that Rutgers is in the Big Ten is that various people who make money off college sports—pink-faced men in the Big Ten offices eager to (ugh) penetrate the New York market; flubby Jersey pols dedicated to growing Rutgers' brand and their own, not necessarily in that order—thought that it might be profitable. College sports routinely tears itself apart and contorts into impossible gerrymandered MC Escher shapes for just these reasons. It's cynical and unlovely, but not unique in that, or in the way that it most benefits those who deserve it least and stiffs the unpaid 19-year-olds with Tuesday night red-eye flights home from Lincoln or Iowa City.

There are practical reasons why Rutgers has not succeeded in building a winning program in a generation, and the absence of that glossy practice facility or insufficient waterfalls/granite in the RAC may be part of that. But there are also bigger reasons. Start with the sense that no one trustable is in charge, that nothing really works as it should or is likely to start working that way anytime soon. Here as everywhere else in college basketball there is the sense of something very valuable—not just these kids and their rare talents, but the bigger thing they make real on the court through their churning, chaotic, uniquely moving process of becoming—being handed over to people who don't deserve it or care about it, and can be trusted to prove as much, over and over.

These two are the ones that actually sort of give a shit, somehow. — Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

But there is also the basketball, always: ugly and wrong, but also precious and primal and different from any other basketball we watch. Even on the night of the slushstorm, there was that. Rutgers surged twice, closing a big deficit and then nearly erasing a smaller one, and the RAC's soaring eaves filled with noise. If everyone knew what was coming, which they assuredly did, they sang and screamed through it in the way that people at college basketball games do. There is always somehow some reason to believe that the unworkable might work, for no reason other than that enough people wanted it to, that it was that loud, that who knows/things happen.

And then the wave crested, too low and too soon. Rutgers did not have enough good players, or good enough players. Before time ran out, the RAC's long aisles had filled with fans—parents orbited by pods of skronking kids, middle-aged partisans whose red sweatshirts made their loyalties tough to determine—trudging towards the logistical impossibility of the parking lot, a bowl of melted ice cream awash in late-model sedans.

So what about this is worth the trip? It's not a question of seeing a team win, really. It was not a question of high-grade basketball or regional rivalry or (lord knows) national-picture importance. This was a bunch of young people, most unlikely to play basketball at the highest level, doing their utmost, in a scenario thrust upon them by people who did not necessarily have their best interests at heart. It was not made for them, but they remade and dignified it through their labors; they took a small thing sold cheaply and willed and worked it towards meaning.

There is a small miracle, there, that's no less miraculous for how regularly we see it. The miracle is how insistently college basketball redeems itself, despite all the attempts to shape and tame and sell it. If you love college basketball, that is what you love—the love that animates it, that somehow rescues it from the shabby cynicism that envelops it. You love a miracle that refuses to be buried by every other familiar thing.

Myles Mack's parents arrived too late for the pre-game ceremony, due to the weather. When the game ended, Rutgers hurriedly recreated the ceremony at half court, and Mack was presented with his own framed jersey. The band played. One young person, no drunker than any other but also no less drunk, sang along with Rutgers' school song without looking at the lyrics scrolling up the scoreboard. "By the banks of the old Rar-i-tan, my friend," he yelled, clapping both hands down on his friend's shoulders beefily. We were all walking out, by that point, back onto the shining and slippery concrete, towards the slurpee-bogs at every corner. He was not singing quietly, and he was not the only person singing.

His buddy laughed. "Do you really fucking know the words to this song?" he asked. The guy singing for Myles Mack, for reasons of his own, did not stop to answer. He just kept singing. What else is there to do, if you know the words?