The Importance of Sports When Nothing Else Seems to Matter

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 19: A general view as the Miami Hurricanes face the Wichita State Shockers during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 19, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

For the first time in more than 80 years, the men’s basketball NCAA tournament, which was scheduled to begin Thursday morning, was canceled. In the scheme of everything happening in the world at this moment, stopping March Madness is of little consequence, but in these uncertain times, losing that event has completely unmoored my well-being.

I have written about men’s college basketball for the past decade, and watched the sport for 30-plus years, and there have of course been disruptions to my consumption of “amateur” hoops. Growing up, I was a massive St. John’s stan, a boy in Brooklyn for whom the Red Storm was the hometown team, but my faith dipped under the weight of those years Mike Jarvis coached the team, a period which culminated in player expulsions, sexual assault allegations and NCAA violations. Then there was the two years my father, who brought me to my first college basketball game at Madison Square Garden (St. John’s — obvi — versus Villanova, or how I viewed it as a pre-teen: Felipe Lopez versus Kerry Kittles), battled acute myeloid leukemia. I watched the 2010 NCAA tournament final in his hospital room at Memorial Sloan Kettering, rushing home after he fell asleep to catch a half-court heave by Butler’s Gordon Hayward carom off the rim. When he died months later, it was hard to focus on hoops.

But I always returned. As much as I believe the NCAA is a backwards organization that should have decades earlier addressed the financial inequality and begun to pay players, there is something uniquely humanizing about the NCAA tournament. Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton recently said, “In college, you’re growing, you’re maturing and you’re developing as a player, and sometimes you can get locked into a rhythm or a focus that will allow you to have those types of moments. They’re special and unique.” That is what connects sport to people, and turns strangers into friends — the recognition that what you witness is sui generis to the time and place in one’s life, and will never happen again. Even people that don’t like college basketball tune in each March to hear Bill Raftery’s first “Onions!” call of the tournament; to cry through “One Shining Moment”; to jump off their couch when “THE SHOT” cascades through the net and upends the brackets of millions.

So when NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the 2020 tournament was permanently postponed, a decision I knew to be the right one, I felt lost. I looked forward to the tournament each spring. I planned vacations, work schedules, and my general life around the first tip of madness. I was not alone. Colleagues would schedule their PTO months in advance; others scheduled vasectomies — you can’t move for four days, so what better way to focus through the pain than watching a 13-seed almost upset a 4-seed? The NCAA tournament was a unifying bridge, an event that we all wanted to participate in, and in its absence, I’ve begun to notice subtle changes within myself. My stress levels have risen. I’ve long dealt with dermatillomania, and picking my fingers — no matter how disgusting the habit — has always relieved my anxieties, but my hands are suffering much more now than ever before. And while that could be attributed to the stress of a pandemic, a recession, and job security, without the dulcet sounds of a basketball on hardwood, of explaining to my toddler son the importance of going 2-for-1 at the end of the half, of feeling the chemical response whenever a buzzer beater happened, I feel lost.

Proclamations that ‘sports will not bring us together‘ are misguided. Sports engender a community. You don’t have to pack a stadium or a gym to feel connected to others via a love of a team or a player or a tournament. During the 1952 tournament, in which the Kansas Jayhawks defeated St. John’s, Americans reportedly soothed their daily anxieties of a national polio outbreak by furiously analyzing the boxscores of each game. Sports is the great connector, and in its absence, the effects have been deleterious. I am rudderless, aimless, and disconnected, no matter how close my wife and my son are to me now and for the foreseeable future.