Ever since my third grade teacher, Mr. Campbell, awarded packs of sports cards for answering math questions correctly, basketball has been my great passion. I slept with a basketball throughout high school. I played at the local park during conditions when the mailman (a uniformed federal employee, not Karl Malone) wouldn’t deliver. I’ve been known to park my car while driving by a pickup game and call “next” on sight. Recently, I lent a friend David Halberstam’s book on Michael Jordan, “Playing for Keeps” and won’t let him return it because I read it more often than Eric Massa gets into tickle fights. Though I no longer have illusions of owning a professional team, I intend to play for one someday.
March is a time when everyone is as excited about basketball as I am. There is little in modern society comparable to the NCAA-tournament trash-talking as basketball junkies and casual fans alike fill out brackets. Those who successfully predicted Ohio would topple Georgetown taunt those who, sadly, have Vanderbilt in the Final Four.
March is also a depressing time for me. Despite knowing more about college basketball than most people, despite researching my picks more with more rigor than some research a doctoral dissertation, I invariably finish last in pools of middle-aged white men and ones that include my 17-year-old sister.
I’m not alone.
If you’re a sports fan, you’ve had the experience of losing a pool to someone who thinks a pick and roll is an hors d’oeuvre at Miya’s.
We can’t pick brackets because we research and treat people like statistics rather than characters. And we allow our biases to influence our choices.
I start off scientifically. Like the NCAA’s selection committee, I think about things like a team’s wins against top 25 teams, defensive three-point field goal percentage, record in opening round games, strength of its conference and height of its front line. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I concoct a formula for success until my bracket comes alive, (ALIVE!!!).
I lose sight of the big picture — the storylines, the trends throughout the bracket. Like the devotees of sabermetrics, I tend to treat the players not as individuals hungry for glory, scared of defeat, and suffering a whole array of emotions common to college students, but as numeric automatons.
I overvalue point guards. I ran the point growing up, and I want them to succeed. So I pick teams with quick, agile, pass-first point guards.
I prefer teams that have high graduation rates although nothing suggests that a high percentage of a team’s players leaving college with a degree correlates with tournament success. I value the ideal of the student-athlete. I respect coaches that force their kids to attend class and feel contempt for those that graduate one out of every 10 players that enter the program. I am disappointed by a system that allows the Bob Huggins to jump from team to team, betray students, erode the value of education and diminish the quality of college basketball. My bracket, however, doesn’t appreciate my morals.
It doesn’t like it when I ignore them either — I can be a (basketball) bigot. I like or dislike teams out of blind, knee-jerk prejudice. I hate Duke, the number one team in the Southern region of this year’s tournament and have since the Fuqua School of Business stole my dad for two weeks for “executive training” when I was in the fifth grade. I pick them to lose early in the tournament each year. They rarely do.
The truth, I suppose, is that I care so much about the game that I am unable to separate what I think will happen from what I want to happen. I am no more rational at choosing hardwood winners than people who don’t follow basketball. I invariably root for the underdog even if I picked ’em to lose. I cheer as Ali Farokhmanesh, Stephen Curry and Cornell burn my bracket to the ground.
One could reasonably suggest that my failure to choose winners reflects our society’s muddled thinking independent of March Madness. Knowledgeable Wall Street bankers helped cause and should have predicted the recent economic problems. Washington politicians are passing health care reform, but due to the size of the bill, compromises made to (potentially) pass it through Congress, and the reconciliation process, they can’t predict whether it will decrease the deficit, cost-effectively extend coverage to the uninsured or fix the problems originally identified as plaguing our insurance system.
We’ll have to wait until next year to pick a better bracket. But during this season of Madness, when the President picked Kansas to win the championship, we should consider the extent to which knowledge and passion obfuscates rather than clarifies the issue at hand. After all, at this year’s Seder I won’t be asking, “Why is this tournament different from all other tournaments?”
Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.