March Madness is 'official-ly' upon us
by Tony Basilio
Now that the die is cast, the brackets are set and "One Shining Moment" for some lucky team is a couple of weeks away, it's time for the greatest single sports entertainment event of the year. I ain't talkin' Super Bowl or World Series or that disgrace that passes for a college football national title; I'm talking roundball. It's March Madness, baby! It's tremendous in a shady kind of way.
March Madness is David versus Goliath when David is only given half a smooth stone. That is both by design and fate. March Madness is what it is: sports entertainment. It's great storylines and made-for-TV match-ups played on stages in half-full to full houses from coast to coast. It's a collection of 64 teams grouped by a dozen or so matchmakers with one common goal: money, money and more money!
It's a time of the year when perennial winners get generous seeds (see Duke, Louisville) and others (Drexel) get left behind. It's a time when perennial winners, led by coaches and administrations who intimidate officials (see Duke) get calls while teams coached by lesser likes (Bruce Pearl) get technical fouls and sent packing. It's a maddeningly wonderful expression of art, theater and sport. But it's still sports entertainment. Don't just take my word for it on the sports entertainment side of men's college hoops, listen to a guy who took his team to the NCAA Promised Land.
The always-pugnacious Nolan Richardson led Arkansas to the national title back in the spring of '94 by upending Duke. Richardson lost the next year in the finals to Jim Harrick and UCLA. Richardson is also the only coach with a championship in the National Invitational Tournament and junior college to go along with his NCAA crown. So you could say the guy knows the score. Get him started on the sports entertainment aspect of college hoops and he turns his guns on officials. Perhaps more than any other sport, college basketball is a game controlled by referees who, in anonymity, can undo a season's worth of hard work for some poor collection of young men.
"Now I hate to say that there are some crooked officials, but in every walk of life there are crooks," Richardson says. "That's just a fact. And I hate to say that people bet on games, but I know they do. Again that's just the way of life. I have a problem if we don't say, 'Soon you're going to have to pass a test if you want to officiate.' And we're going to stop some of this cheatin', if that's what you're doing. Or if you're padding the score or whatever.
"There's a lot of things that I suspect. And it bothers me to suspect those things. But sometimes it's just blatant. It's just blatant cheating. A ref might get it wrong, and I can understand that. We all get it wrong. I've been wrong many times. In an official's mind, he is never wrong and that bothers me," he says.
One of Richardson's greatest pet peeves--besides the presence of officials at this time of the year--is what I call the keepers of the flame for the Regal Society of college basketball. Those are the refs who love seeing themselves on the TiVo and who play to the camera while making shady calls that are seldom challenged by announcers who participate as if scripted. The closest analogy I can come up with is that of old-school professional wrestling when the heel (bad guy) pulls out a pair of brass knuckles that he knocks his opponent out with while the good guy announcer screams, "Did you see that?" and the bad guy announcer says, "See what?" That's what it feels like when I see lesser likes get jobbed while Regal Society schools get a pass from the press.
"The greatest games back in the day were when you didn't even know the officials were around," Richardson continues. "But these days, they introduce them. It's almost like they've become The Game now! I used to yell out on the floor, 'Hey, these people didn't come to see you. They came to see a basketball game. So give them their money's worth.' Some of those guys walk around on the court, struttin' around like, 'Hey! This is my show! I am going to produce it!'
"I spent 38 years in the backwoods of Arkansas and Texas and Oklahoma so I kind of have a clue. So much so that I used to tell my players, 'Fellas, we're going to have to work twice as hard as the team we're playing because we're playing eight guys out there (including the refs) 90 percent of the time. Because they don't like me and they take it out on you sometimes'," Richardson says.
So coach Richardson, any advice for Tennessee and other non-Regal Society NCAA members in this year's tourney?
"I had a friend of mine back in El Paso who was a referee who used to tell me, 'Nolan, the only way you can keep the officials out of the game is to just shoot it well, baby! If you shoot it well, [the refs] are out of the game. If you don't, they're in the middle of the game!' He's right. When it comes to the game of college basketball, that's the truest statement I've ever heard!"
March Madness. Sport entertainment at its finest!
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