Hoops, Here It Is

What disorder compels a man to neglect his accounts, shun his family, starve his dog and inflate his bar tab so that it looks like the U.S. defense budget? What terror binds the victim to couch or barstool, gazing at multiple boob tubes for twelve- or fourteen-hour stretches, day after day, week after week? What awful thing ruins his eyesight, sours his temper and occasionally brings him to his feet, cheering hoarsely, like a penitentiary inmate who's just noticed the Playmate of the Month slipping into his cell?

The trade name is March Madness. Angry wives and their divorce lawyers have some other handles for it: incurable dementia, mule-headed stupidity, delusion. Little matter. Even as the movers haul washing machines and bedroom sets past the afflicted one on their way out to the van -- what's-her-name really is leaving this time -- the poor guy doesn't even notice. Central Connecticut is leading Quinnipiac by three points with two minutes to play, and this is no time for trifles like marriage or mutual funds or who gets the Acura. Hey, fella! Slide that bowl of Chee-tos over here before you take the coffee table. YES! Damian Battles hits the jumper!

A few afternoons and evenings of careful study have revealed that the annual epidemic is no less widespread this March than any other. For instance, a few nights ago at Chopper's Sports Grill, a cozy little boîte with 13,000 television sets and a decibel level like Kandahar under a B-52 attack, I met a reasonable-looking fellow named Hal Dodd, who is neatly groomed and well-mannered. A 37-year-old financial analyst, Dodd has a business degree from the University of Wisconsin -- home of the Badgers -- and friends say he is good at his job. But when March rolls around, they say, Hal gets wild-eyed, flips out and takes a vacation so he can take a fanatical rooting interest in anything that dribbles -- the flashy point guard from Texas Wesleyan, the obscure center at Montana, the reserve forward from Winthrop. Meanwhile, Hal can tell you that Piggy Lambert's Purdue team won the national championship in 1932, led by a guard named John Wooden. He knows that the most valuable player of the 1950 NCAA tournament was Irwin Dambrot of CCNY and that Dartmouth was the runner-up in 1944. He knows that Wisconsin has a shot this year. Kind of.

"Yes, yes and yes," Dodd answered, laughing. The questions? Are you a guy who would leave his grandmother bleeding outside the emergency room if the Syracuse-Georgetown tipoff was in five minutes? Would you rather watch hoops than, well, you know? Do you need medication for your problem?

"Actually, this is not so strange," Dodd went on, barely ungluing his eyes from the Illinois of Chicago-Loyola of Chicago game. "I know people who will spend fifteen hours a day scraping the old varnish off their staircase or reading detective novels. My pal Barry can't get enough -- what's the guy's name? -- Elmore Leonard. Barry's read all his books about six times, and now he's starting over. Eight, ten hours a day. The whole shelf. So why not watch basketball? Guy like you -- sometimes you see three, four movies in a day? Film festival. Same thing. In March, I like to watch college basketball. It has a kind of momentum that I like. You get rolling with it."

On three or four TV screens, the bald head and big nose of Dick Vitale suddenly popped into view. The basketball commentator's hands were flailing away on either side of his face, and his mouth was flapping -- flapping silently, because the TV sound was off and because even if it was turned up all the way, no one in the joint would be able to hear a syllable over the smashing of beer glasses and the yelling of hamburger-eaters. For most people, Vitale is a mixed blessing. His high-octane shouts of "Awesome, baby!" and "Gimme the rock, baby!" make him the patron saint of college-hoops junkies everywhere, but his volume level would irritate Helen Keller. My pal Scooter McGregor, a basketball guru of encyclopedic range, loves Vitale because Vitale loves his job. Hal Dodd loves Vitale because the sound is off. "Jesus, look at the guy," he said. "Put him out of our misery. Besides, he couldn't pick his mother out of Duke Ellington's band."

Like it or not, we will be seeing a lot of Dick Vitale in the next two weeks. I'd be surprised if he doesn't show up in a gunship over Kabul. Gimme the ammo, baby.

Before the evening at Chopper's shut down, there were a few more questions for Hal Dodd, who was now busy absorbing the drama of the Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette versus the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky.

"Hey, Hal," a friend called out. "Who was the national champ in '47?"

"Holy Cross."

"Who was the coach, Hal?"

"C'mon," he said, clearly bored by the ease of it. "Doggie Julian."

"Okay. Who finished third that year?"

"Uh, let's see. Texas."

"What's your wife's name, Hal?"

"Uhhh. Uhhh." This was tough. "Charlotte."

You know what? He was right. About everything. He'd already spent four straight days mainlining hoops on the tube, and still no one could score on Hal Dodd. Every answer a slam dunk.

The next night, at another sports bar, I ran into the Big Fella, a witty, golden-hearted friend of long standing who once described his life's work this way: "I accommodate speculation on the outcome of certain events -- canine, equine and Homo sapiens." The Homo sapiens end -- the tall Homo sapiens end -- of my friend's trade has grown lively this week. At this writing, before the weekend, a glance at the morning sports section reveals that there are seventeen men's and women's conference tournament basketball games on television today, beginning at 10 a.m. and ending sometime after midnight. Chances are good that the Big Fella's phones will ring constantly until the end of the month. Some degenerates will even beg for a line on the women's games. And think of it: What they call the Big Dance -- the 65-team NCAA Tournament -- doesn't even start until Tuesday, and those interested in Homo sapiens speculation will be combing the tournament brackets for upset specials in the early rounds -- a Hampton rising, a Davidson, a Kent State-- before the number-one seeds like Duke and Maryland and Kansas start bowling over the pretenders.

"Yeah, it'll be hell," the Big Fella said. "The early upsets, you get a big pile of money over here." He held his meaty hands over the bar. "Then, later, as it gets interesting -- as I start to get interested -- that pile starts eroding. Duke erodes it. Oklahoma erodes it. Alabama. Pretty soon..." Here he swept his hands into the air, where the money will vanish.

March Madness ruins relationships, gladdens hearts and creates lunatics -- some of them even watch every minute of the second-class NIT Tournament, for God's sake --but one story the Big Fella tells illustrates best the sheer power of the thing. I've changed names to protect the guilty and altered some details for no reason other than it better serves the purpose of today's subject.

Imagine a handsome saloon on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Imagine a quartet of cocky young managers and bartenders familiar with the expensive seats at Madison Square Garden, the Scotch on the top shelf and the deeper passions of sport. Now imagine that it's March and that one of the young guys --call him Pete -- has just learned that his woman, his beloved, has run off with her former boyfriend to the Bahamas and, yes, gotten married. Imagine the shock. Next, picture Pete coming in to work, where he is consoled by his friends, helped through his unhappy shift behind the mahogany and, when closing time comes, served a drink the size of his head.

"I can't believe it," Pete moans. "How could it go that way?"

"Hey, Pete," his pal Tony says. "I know. It's rough. But these things happen."

"But how?" Pete goes on, staring morosely into his Scotch. "How in hell did Wake Forest blow a ten-point lead to Carolina?"

God help Pete in the next two weeks. God help Hal Dodd. God help the Big Fella, too. And all those gray-faced zombies planted on their living-room couches with a twelve-pack of Bud, a crumpled bracket sheet and a broken dream for company. If any of them survives until April Fool's Day, it will be a miracle. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll get through the NBA playoffs without finding their clothes out on the lawn and their children in foster homes...

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