My bracket is in shambles. I can’t recall a more volatile NCAA basketball tournament in my lifetime. League parity is self evident in 2013 as March Madness turned into March Mayhem. The Final Four will tipoff April 6 with No. 1 Louisville playing No. 9 Wichita State and No. 4 Michigan taking on No. 4 Syracuse. That’s right, 13 of the 16 top-seeded teams in the country are gone. Little schools like Florida Gulf Coast, La Salle and Harvard showed the world they can play ball too, as they sent the big boys packing in the first and second rounds.
The Big Ten in all of their haughty arrogance boasted it would put four teams in the Final Four. Yet when the Regional Championship nets came down, their lowest-seeded team Michigan was the only one left standing. While all the upsets have proved brutal for us playing the brackets, it has been thrilling to witness great basketball teams from across the country, large and small, prove a point all Conference Big Wigs and the NCAA needs to learn — no matter how many computers, writers, selection committees, coaches and rankings you have, and no matter what their data and opinions may be, “You Have to Play the Game!”
On any given night, anything can happen — including No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast beating No. 2 Georgetown by 10 points, and No. 14 Harvard beating No. 3 New Mexico by six. Too bad the BCS and those running college football cannot learn this simple concept. The “human element” exists by playing the game. The BCS removes that factor by simply not providing a playoff system. By removing the human element, the BCS can control the outcome, which keeps the money and power within the designated conferences and schools. The human element is uncontrollable, which is why the NCAA basketball tournament is the greatest sporting event on earth.
March Madness also showcases another trait that is often overlooked — the profound effects of the human spirit. Many think the human spirit is a component of spiritual or mental humanity. I see it as a universal or higher component of human nature where the spiritual qualities of purpose and meaning transcend the individual human element. True greatness in an athlete comes from this human spirit — where they rise up and conquer adversity and knock at the door of immortality.
Louisville’s sophomore guard, Kevin Ware flirted with it in Sunday’s Midwest Regional Final game against Duke. Late in the first half, Ware tried to block a 3-point shot from Duke’s Tyler Thornton. Launching high in the air, Ware missed the block. Upon landing his foot went one way while his body went another. His leg snapped and split in half between his ankle and his knee toppling him to the floor with a gruesome compound fracture. Players dropped to their knees and covered their faces — tears filled every shocked eye in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Not since Joe Theismann’s horrific career-ending broken leg seen on NFL’s Monday Night Football against the New York Giants in 1985 has anything this ghastly happened on primetime television. While the crowd stood in stunned silence, the trainers and emergency personnel frantically working on Ware’s mangled leg, the young guard, between grimaces repeatedly tried to comfort his teammates with little regard for himself.
Transcending above his human element, as they wheeled him off the floor on a stretcher, you could hear Ware repeatedly urging his Cardinal teammates to “just go win the game.” The Cardinals did, beating the Blue Devils 85-63 to reach their second straight Final Four. During the second half, Louisville dominated Duke in every aspect of the game — there was no way these Cardinal players were going to let their fallen teammate down — not now — not ever.
And so it is within the universal drama of success and failure we call sport. This annual spring basketball tournament showcases the basic principles of life that when practiced brings great rewards to both winners and losers alike. Where else in life do we find the building blocks for personal achievement so readily available? Industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, enthusiasm, ambition, self-control, alertness, initiative, intentness, sincerity, adaptability, condition, skill, team spirit, honesty, resourcefulness, poise, confidence, integrity, fight, reliability, competitive greatness, patience and faith are all played out before us game after game.
Will we ever learn from this example? Will we ever rise and meet our own challenges like these young men do on the courts of competition each spring? These young athletes come and go every year, as we remain and watch the miracle — where the diminutive conquers the colossal, and the humble prevails over the self-important. That is why we play the game! I’ll see you from the sidelines.