Thursday, March 19, 2009

March Madness - Can You Pick A Winner?

Another Spring approaches, bringing with it so many fond memories. Of budding leaves, green grass (remember that?), little hopping bunnies ... and hours and hours of college basketball on TV. Those of you that know me well would probably be surprised at my interest in March Madness. I am NOT a girl that likes sports, be it the actual DOING of sports, or just the whole "being a fan" aspect. But picture it: March of 2000, in Baltimore, MD. A young, impressionable graduate student is steadfastly oblivious to all things sports-related, particularly those sports involving lots of sweat, time-outs, grand-standing, butt slaps and other jock-ish behavior. She has trouble determining WHY exactly these men/boys make quite SO much money in professional sports, and why normal, otherwise reasonable guys make such a big deal over it.

This was before she (OK, I, we can stop using the third person here) was introduced to the concept of "brackets." And March Madness. Yes, at the ripe age of 22, I had never really heard of the March Madness tournament. My father is more of a baseball and football fan than a basketball fan, and he doesn't follow any college teams at all. I went to a fairly small state university, and I'm pretty sure they've never made it to the tournament. But here I was at graduate school, with classmates that had attended undergrad in several of the usual contending schools. March Madness, apparently, is a huge deal to many of them. Because I was social and wanted "join in," I coughed up $5 to enter the department pool, and set about filling out my first ever set of brackets.

It was not easy. There were plenty of schools I had never heard of before. Gonzaga? Iona? Creighton? Valparaiso (sorry, Matt and Val, before I met you I was not aware of the awesomeness that is Valpo)? Dude, where are all these schools? I went with a very ignorant approach based entirely on who I knew and what my thoughts were about particular places. Do I pick Texas or Louisville? Well, my mom refused to move the family to Texas when I was in middle school because "there are no trees there," and we have good friends of the family that live in Louisville, so I guess I'll pick Louisville. Xavier or Mississippi? Hmm, I've always liked the name Xavier, I once had a very pretty fish named Xavier, I'll go with that one.

Rankings played into it very little, unless I had to make hard choices. Florida or UConn? Tough one - my grandparents live in Florida, but my uncle lives in Connecticut. In that kind of situation, I usually went by the higher ranked team.

Apparently, the act of putting a little money down, though it was indeed such a tiny investment, was enough to allow me to actually sit through the games. With large quantities of beer, of course. And in the first few heady days of the tournament, I actually had some success! As always happens (I know now), there were upsets left and right. And somehow, my wacky method for choosing winners allowed me to predict a fair number of them. I had hope that the final pot of money would be mine!

Of course, I didn't win (in fact, I think M. may have won the pool that first year). I did well, but I didn't win. Mainly because I don't win things, it's just not what I do. But I was hooked! And since then, I have faithfully filled out at least one bracket (M. usually makes me fill out two, though I feel this is cheating) every year. And every year since that first year, I have failed miserably at predicting upsets, and done horribly over all. Indeed, there have been several years where I had not one team in the Final Four. But I persevere anyway, always hoping that my initial success will be matched or surpassed.

I should note that I did lie a little bit above. $5 and beer were not the only reasons I allowed myself to sit through many a basketball game that first year of graduate school. There was a boy behind my motivation, too. Not just a boy, THE boy, it turns out. M., of course. I dated a little bit here and there in grad school that first year, nothing serious. I spent most of my time hanging out with my classmates. As grad students, our main activities outside the lab involved pursuing free food where ever we could find it, and drinking at bars. M. and I were friends, drinking buddies. In fact, we spent a fair amount of time giving each other advice on our love lives. But right around the time of March Madness, I began to realize that the reason WHY I was reluctant to throw myself into a serious dating relationship was because I really much preferred hanging out with M.

And so, I found myself on a weeknight down at ESPN Zone, sitting at a bar, drinking beer and watching basketball games with M. This, after begging off from a date because I had too much work to do (and I did have work I should have been doing, I just wasn't doing it). SO NOT ME. And two nights later, we were back there again, this time with a few other friends (Hi, Wendy and Jon!). Wisconsin (M.'s alma mater) was in the Final Four. Which explains, perhaps, why M. managed to win the department pool that year - he is always the only one to predict Wisconsin to win several games (and usually one of his two brackets has them winning the whole thing, though this year not even he was that optimistic). We were, of course, drinking beer and trying to score free food. And watching TV. Lots more fun than I ever imagined sports watching could be - who knew!?

Wisconsin lost, unfortunately. But I guess M. "drowning his sorrows" so to speak, and my sympathy sorrow-drowning, allowed us to get the courage somehow to awkwardly convey the "Hey, I kind of like you, like, you know, like you" sentiment we had both been feeling. And from then on, we were together. Not a fantastic, romantic first date experience. Not the story I pictured telling my future kids when they would ask how Mommy and Daddy met. But it gives me a special fondness for this time of year, and I always look forward to March Madness, no matter how awful my bracket picks are.

I guess it's kind of sweet, right? We were friends first, and then we watched basketball together, and fell in love. I think I'll downplay the role beer played, of course, when I tell Finn all about it one day ;-).

T minus 2 hours or so until the first game starts - wish me luck!


  1. I am floored. I had NO idea - it is like you have a secret identity or something! And yes, it was a very sweet story, but I would definitely leave out all the beer in the story when it is told to your two young 'uns (notice I put TWO).

  2. I remember bugging you all the time about your "friend" M - I mean there is no way guys and girls can just be friends. I KNEW you liked each other and glad you finally found the courage to admit it to each other.

  3. Beautiful! I remember when your crushy feelings made you lose your appetite and you couldn't even finish an apple. BTW, I made you a Raffi-free mix CD for your commute. I just need to make it to the P.O. xo-Jen