I know we're still a couple of months out from the carnival of cacophony that is the NCAA tournament, but I want you to try something for me here. Ready? Imagine an NCAA tournament ... without the help of television. Imagine that sheet of yours, scrawled picks already mutilated, sitting in your sweaty hands -- and you have no ability to watch it unfold anywhere, just information and game results coming in over the Internet, or your phone, or from a friend.
Go ahead. I'll give you a good 20 seconds to try and picture that kind of world, that kind of torture.
Yeah ... you can't, can you? I know: God forbid. Forever spare us from such a dystopia, oh Great One from above. This beautiful bracket of boisterous basketball that comes in three weekend dollops each year, it's ingrained within the framework and fabric of television. The tournament is The Tournament because of TV. I'm a 1981 baby. My first college basketball memory is UNLV winning the 1990 national title, that throttling of Duke before Duke was truly Duke. My point is, I -- like the growing populace of basketball fans -- cannot picture the NCAA tournament without it taking place on a television screen. Almost every memory I have of March basketball is looped in to my eyes wide and beamed in at the moving pictures beamed out at me.
To those of you, the diehards reading this who were in love with and ahead of the game in the 1960s and '70s, all of my respect. I don't know what it was like back then, charting and tracking college hoops when it had only a handful of tilts on TV each season. An alien era for a sports fan like me.
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The sea change came right around the time disco died -- 1979 altered everything. That's when Magic Johnson and Michigan State beat Larry Bird's Sycamores from Indiana State. Highest-rated college hoops game ever. It's what caused the tournament to move up in caste, to be a popular American sporting event and eventually the best one, beaten only in popularity by the Super Bowl and rivaled by none other in terms of widespread drama, variety of victory, magical moments and unpredictable outcomes. In fact, 1979 and a Saturday in March 1981 (March 14, to be exact; read this) are what really showed what this tournament was capable of doing.
It was built to create casual interest, sweeping appeal, white-hot fanaticism -- all due to the nature of the grid. Basketball plus brackets plus television equals a formula that is nearly impossible to screw up. And I know college hoops TV ratings aren't what they once were, but that's not the point. The point is, the actual NCAA tournament has only gotten better/easier to watch as the years have gone on because the means to watch it have improved. Better screens of all sizes and made-for-you appointment television.
I remember the 1990s, when CBS used to attempt to put four games on at once during the opening round, as if we could see all that action on our regular-def TVs back in 1995. I still loved the ambition. I now realize CBS was squeezing the first "quad box" onto our screens more than a decade before the Red Zone Channel brought the term to the American sports lexicon. Hey, attending the tournament can be great. Special, even. But nowadays, TV affects even that. Here's how. I'm in Denver at the 2011 NCAA opening weekend, watching a through-the-motions game unfold between BYU and Gonzaga.
Then I hear oohs and ahhs coming in distant but distinct waves from within the arena. Not overpowering, but enough to draw the attention from most in the building. Where's it coming from? Is there something we're missing? This game's only in the first half. Then I realize: Everyone who's in a luxury box is watching Pittsburgh and Butler goof and grit their way to one of the best NCAA tournament games of the past five years. Eventually, cheers. Butler wins. And then most everyone turns back to watch BYU and Jimmer Fredette go on to lash Gonzaga by 22 points and move on to the Sweet 16. Even when we're at the games, TV has an impact.
Now it has only gotten better for viewers. Instead of the archaic notion of being stuck with one game, CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV give us the option to watch any game we want. You can see games on your computer and on your phone. The NCAA tournament is about your picks, the no-name players on no-name teams and the common appeal of going through the theatrics with complete strangers at a bar, or with your dad in the living room, or alone in your apartment, holding up friends while you wait to see the end of this ridiculous 6-11 matchup.
I'll never forget being with my brothers at my parents' place in 2010, watching Kansas get Farokhmanesh'd. The gusty, quick 3 fell and we exploded off the couch, just like we did in 2006, when we watched in disbelief as George Mason beat UConn to go to the Final Four. (Still can't believe Denham Brown's shot didn't go in to win it.) I'll never forget visiting a former girlfriend in Syracuse in 2003 and watching Gonzaga and Arizona play one of the best second-round games I'll ever see. There must have been 16 of us squeezed into that dorm room -- and there must have been thousands of other dorm rooms around the country engaging in the same thrills.
I could go on. VCU over Duke in '06. Syracuse over Georgia 10 years before. VCU's run two years ago; the unlikely Illinois comeback against Arizona in '05; Richard Hamilton -- "HAMILTON!" -- in '98. Dozens more. They're with us not because we were there, but because we couldn't be. The tournament wouldn't be The Tournament without television. To those witnessing the best moments in person, it's the best sport. For everyone else getting to watch it around the globe, it becomes more -- a communal, immortal spectacle.