Epic underdogs

Kyle Smith

Who am I kidding – how can I write about anything other than the George Mason Patriots?

My Spring Break was filled with other media-savvy activities, like watching Legends of the Hidden Temple and dissecting R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet DVD, but I realize I’m too late to comment on these particular cultural phenomena (though I may revisit Trapped in the Closet – that thing is amazing).

While at dinner with a friend of mine who is decidedly uninterested in sports (and is also a Classics major), I tried to offer some catch-all definition of the NCAA tournament as an event of epic, tragic proportions that can fascinate even the uninitiated. It is high concept, high drama at a low price – free, if you can stand watching two jackasses sing a Gilligan’s Island spoof for Applebee’s every 20-second timeout.

She didn’t buy it, probably because I got bogged down in sports movie cliches, but that’s what college basketball does to young men. We speak of the tourney with the same doe-eyed hope we have when discussing that unattainable woman – we’ll set aside weekend nights, cancel all previous plans and spend hours in reverent silence.

On television, I’ve always taken the tourney to play out like an epic film. By the time the West regional games wrap up after midnight, the dedicated viewer is dead to the world, their emotion and attention fully committed to whatever mid-major school is trying to pull off an upset.

I learned this year that the female interest in the event can, on occasion, rival that of the voracious male. As George Mason continued to outplay the University of Connecticut, my girlfriend’s roommates sat around the television, equally transfixed (save one who, oblivious to the life-changing events on the television, deferred to discussion of an ambiguously gay professor). I received this information in spurts from the girlfriend, as I had firmly positioned myself in a “good luck” stance in another room, kidneys and bowels be damned. These women hold only regional allegiance, and they naturally favor the underdog, which is probably why their brackets often outperform we know-it-all dudes.

The NCAA tournament really does highlight the role of the underdog – that quintessentially, hyperbolic American position – like no other sport. Funny how we always fashion ourselves the underdog -and favor the underdog – and when we don’t, we simply reassert our own superiority. Watching the Albany Great Danes lead UConn in the second half of their first-round game, I don’t think any American worth his weight in bald eagles would root for the Huskies.

What the tourney usually does, however, is steady itself. I remember UConn squeaking by a 10th-seed Gonzaga in 1999, and Kent State falling in the round of eight a few years later. The underdog dream always dies in that second weekend, or usually in the second round. Even more interesting is how the tournament rewards those who are expected to win. One of my saddest memories is my beloved 8th-seed Missouri Tigers poised to knock off the top-seeded UCLA Bruins in the 1995 tournament. Down by 1 with 4.9 seconds left, the Bruins inbounded to a little demon-man named Tyus Edney who took the ball the length of the court and made some unbelievable shot that I pretend to not remember.

Year-in and year-out, that replay shows up about as often as those Applebee’s jerks. Everybody remembers the shot and how UCLA went on to win it all that year – yet wasn’t that shot reinforcing the status quo? The favored team won; the underdog went home, a mere footnote to a classic moment.

It is this crushing reality that makes the tournament so real, that draws our attention every year. We invest in schools like Bradley and Northwestern State, knowing nothing about them besides their colors and their faces – the intimacy of basketball lets us empathize with the players without the equipment and brutality of football. We want the small schools to win – we feel they should win – against the big conference teams and future NBA stars. We make them our own, and they sometimes come through with us before a valiant failure when they run out of steam.

Save this George Mason team. Newsworthy sports coverage in America is relegated to championship events and the Olympics – only then does it show up on CNN or in the New York Times – but George Mason’s success deserves a special edition of People. It’s an epic movie that is still playing, that will more than likely have the unhappy ending that real life usually provides, but it may, just maybe, provide us with that moment too perfect to really exist.

Communication senior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]