Jessai Flores

Me and my living room armchair — we have been through a lot. Over the years we have seen Anthony Davis heroics, VCU’s Cinderella story, and UNC’s heartbreak-to-triumph saga between 2016 to 2017. Also, Sister Jean’s annus mirabilis, the UVA-Auburn controversy, Lonzo Ball & Co. drama. One year, I think Yale nearly upset Duke.

On its face, the whole premise may seem strange, and even a bit comically absurd: a 29.5-inch ball dragging some 28.3 million people down a month-long rollercoaster ride of euphoria and hysterics. What’s at stake is really only a wooden trophy, an impossible $1 million-per-year-for-life wager, and bragging rights that last for no more than a month. Few other tournaments can justify all the car burning, Charles Barkley ads or vasectomies.

Uncertainty is part of the appeal. We like David-Goliath dynamics that pit scrappy first-timers against blue-blood dynasties. Some things are mathematically inconceivable, such as a perfect bracket or a 14th-seed reaching the Final Four. But within these limits, the border that separates the possible from the probable is still fairly thin and porous: the laws of free-throw averages and three-point percentages momentarily cease to operate. Number-crunching helps but can only take you so far. Rules of thumb exist, but so do the exceptions. Forget the babbling sports heads or Vegas sportsbooks and FiveThirtyEight predictions. What matters here is right before you: the missed layups and scoring runs, wrong calls and botched free throws. There is drama. There are falls, redemptions. The 20 games before this make no promises about the 20 minutes to come.

Every game is an exercise in transience. There is before: the fanfare, introductions, dark stadiums stuffed 

20,000 strong, all shirtless, face-painted or sweaty. There is after: reels, headlines, broken brackets. Between the two is a rubbery space that alternately expands or contracts, an interval that lends itself to lessons about living in the moment or carpe diem.

In some contests, these key sequences are easier to spot than others. We might make out the knife’s edge of a game at a few points in a game, a back-and-forth possession in which the momentum visibly tips from one side of the fulcrum to the other. Certain putback dunks naturally steal all the oxygen in the air. Some back-to-back threes remind us, at some instinctive level, that the game has been sealed. The players on the bench who had been laughing one buzzer-beater ago now have their heads buried in Gatorade towels. We like imagining “One Shining Moment,” a single shot or the razor-thin margins of a second that make all the difference between victory and defeat.

But events don’t usually unfold in this way. Most games are more complex than that, culminations of possessions we might not fully understand or even register. We do not think about a team’s missed free throw three minutes into the game until the last 30 seconds of regulation, when the team is down by a point. That intercepted pass somewhere before the second TV timeout only comes to bite back when we watch condensed replays. Often there is no single moment, just tiny ones strung together — flicks of a wrist, marginally delayed lay-ups, pump fakes — that build up, one after the other. For all our emphasis on the present, we never really understand in it the way we should or can. Some moments ever come signposted; most just slip past. We always end up selecting what to remember, how to remember.

I’ve chosen my own touchstones of time. A few, though listed in no necessary order of importance: Kris Jenkins’ three, Aaron Harrison’s hot hand, the annual variations of Chris Paul’s State Farm ads. That was the year Zion Williamson played. That was the game Luke Mayes sent a dagger sailing through the net. That was the night Texas A&M staged a 12-point rally in just 31.1 seconds. That was the year a deer kicked down bowling balls in Chris Paul’s house.

For now, the replays will sit atop Twitter’s trending page. The confetti shower and hoisted trophy grace the cover of USA Today or ESPN primetime. For a few weeks longer the games might still remain talk for Stephen A. or fourth-graders heaving imaginary halfcourt buzzer beaters after basketball practice. Then, months from now, as with everything else, it will all hush to a faint rustling in the rafters. History.

We trudge into the desert of the offseason. The five-star recruitments come trickling in, along with press conferences and summer tours. We sketch out our career plans and internships and courses for next semester. But some things we will hold onto — that game, that play — remembering the event right down to where and when it happened.

We make our memories at a moment’s notice, in the fractions of a second or blinks of an eye. We spend the rest of our lives retracing them.

HANWEN ZHANG