Understandably, many Americans are obsessed with the daily movements of glitzy celebrities, drawn hopelessly by the wealth, publicity, and frenetic lifestyles that separate society’s most famous people from the dull and dreary mainstream. Professional sports are no exception, as some of the most eccentric personalities shoot basketballs and catch footballs for a living (see: Metta World Peace and Rob Gronkowski.)
Watching the NBA provides certain celebrity-obsessed members of the population with the ample opportunity to watch athletically gifted multimillionaires doing something fun—something that they can’t possibly do, but resign themselves to vicarious living. They tune in to see LeBron James dominate his competition, in part because he is LeBron James and nobody does it quite like him. The NBA represents such a hot commodity nowadays for many reasons, but the names and the brands and the larger-than-life figures are certainly part of the equation.
However, when there’s college basketball out there for the watching in early spring, I couldn’t care less about that stuff. I cannnot relate to it, for starters. What do I know about LeBron James locking up another big-name sponsor and crushing the Charlotte Bobcats with what seems to be thirty dunks in transition? His feats on the basketball court—and in the moneymaking world–are indisputably impressive, but a fan like me can never really comprehend what he’s doing on a regular basis on the court.
I can watch and appreciate, but never truly grasp. LeBron resides on an entirely different planet that only he fully knows, in terms of off-the-charts athletic ability, domination of a cutthroat professional league, and sheer versatility of skill.
March Madness, on the other hand, resonates with me like no other competition involving basketball. The student-athletes still playing in March give full effort on each and every possession, which is a joy to watch and surprisingly unique. Most of the college players are playing some of their last meaningful games because only a very select few will be given the chance to pursue a professional career–and an even more elite group will make it to the NBA.
For most of the field, the time to shine is now–not three years from now or a decade down the line. The NCAA Tournament showcases the very best amateur basketball players playing to survive and advance (to take the name of ESPN’s newest 30 for 30 film), and it’s beautiful because you’re watching maximum effort being put forth the whole time.
The same cannot be said of the NBA in late March. As NBA teams either prep themselves for deep postseason runs or set their sights to the Draft, this isn’t the time to shine. It’s the time to coast. From late March to early April, the world’s premier basketball league resembles a steady marathon of assigning DNPs (Did Not Play) to key assets and postponing peak performance until Tax Day-the mantra isn’t “win now,” but “make sure that we win at the best possible time.” Knowing this regrettable fact of life, I can’t make the decision to watch a marathon when everybody not named Miami isn’t overly concerned with winning in the short run.
Joakim Noah misses two games here. Kevin Garnett misses three games there. Dwyane Wade rests up a little bit because his team doesn’t really need him right now. When there’s a frantic sprint taking place on another channel, why would I watch a steady marathon?
March Madness isn’t given its iconic name for no reason. Basketball fans everywhere are exposed to nonstop hustle, nonstop passion, and nonstop shot-making down the stretch of nerve-racking games. Nonstop effort. Chaotic play. Shocking upsets. (Now’s the time to look up Florida Gulf Coast University’s beautiful campus.)
I compare the NCAA Tournament to an adrenaline rush spread out over a few weeks in spring. And it stems from the student-athletes’ willingness to compete from start to finish, no matter the opponent. Can you say the same about Kobe Bryant’s defensive effort against the lowly Washington Wizards on March 22? When he decides to save himself in one aspect of the game to boost his production in another—against a dysfunctional team playing for nothing at the moment—my viewership tends to falter. I’m not excited to watch an elite NBA talent who doesn’t give it his all when I can watch an elite amateur talent who leaves it all out on the floor because his future isn’t guaranteed.
There’s nothing like seeing a student-athlete play like there’s no tomorrow, which is what March Madness can offer for those who watch. The phrase “blood, sweat, and tears” actually applies to college basketball in spring’s earliest days, not just some shallow rhetoric used by the multimillionaire egos scattered around the NBA.
And those who argue that NBA players try just as hard as the college athletes that you see on television these days just haven’t been paying too much attention. Look no further than Kobe’s effort on defense or the abundance of random DNPs that ruin many a fantasy basketball season (yes, I’m speaking from experience here.)
In the meantime, I can’t wait until Thursday night’s slate of games. And I’m not talking about the Sacramento Kings playing the Phoenix Suns. It’s almost time for some more March Madness, and I pity anyone who won’t be watching.