I’ve been reminded of something the past four days, other than my desire to move somewhere, someday, where green grass and no-jacket-required weather in March are more than a silly dream.

It’s that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the greatest spectacle in all of sport, and that second, third and fourth don’t even have an underdog’s chance in Spokane.

Go ahead, throw all the alternatives at me.

The Super Bowl commands a larger audience, allegedly, but it’s more of a social event than a sporting event. Millions watch for the same reason they attend church on Christmas and Easter: Because it’s what they’re “supposed” to do. And as this past February reminded us, the game itself is wholly capable of stinking out loud.

If you watch more than an inning or two of any World Series game, at this stage of Western civilization in which every game begins at 8 p.m. or later, it’s because your team is in the belly of the beast. Guess how many World Series I’ve watched in the past decade? Time’s up. Three. Now guess which three.

Olympics? Stop it. You don’t really care about curling or gymnastics.

Oh, I know you hockey loyalists are going to throw the Stanley Cup playoffs in my face. And just for good measure, you’ll add that your guys want to go back in the game after suffering cardiac arrest or a cut jugular vein while LeBron James begs off the court with leg cramps. Great arguments, all, but the game you passionately worship is still a niche sport in the part of North America where we don’t have mounted police. It doesn’t captivate the entire country, even if it probably should.

And that’s what makes March Madness so great. It does hook us all, even when a vast majority of U.S. television sets aren’t tuned to five minutes of college hoops from November through February.

Warren Buffett will get some credit for sending the ratings through the roof this time around, simply by offering Monopoly money to anyone who accomplished a feat with longer odds than being kidnapped in the light of day by scientific researchers from Neptune. With or without the billion-dollar carrot, those dastardly brackets are a huge part of the appeal. No point in denying that.

OK, maybe low-stakes gambling is what brings us to the TV, but it isn’t what keeps us there. For all the criticism the NCAA receives over this event, running the spectrum from hypocrisy to racism, it packages so many things that we love, so perfectly.

It’s like the WWE, only without scripted endings. And because the lines between the good guys and bad guys are so blurred, it inspires rooting interests that defy logic.

Only in the NCAA tournament could a team that is 35-0 and stomped every foe in its path be considered a lovable underdog, in part because we can’t stand the snake-oil salesman that coaches its opponent.

Only in the NCAA tournament do we celebrate with such ghoulish glee when a program and coach who have won the right way for decades stumble in the opening round against a school we couldn’t point out on a map within a 100-mile radius.

Only in the NCAA tournament do we root for Harvard. Harvard! Since when did that place become an underdog? All bets are off once the horn sounds, of course, and we can commence with labeling them “the 1 percent” or cursing their health care plan 30 years from now.

The underdogs rule the day, folks, and you won’t find underdogs in any professional sport that stack up against the ones in this environment. Being an underdog is in our DNA, after all. If you don’t believe it, do some research about the Continental Army.

And when the Davids eventually, inevitably lose, we pull the colors of whatever Goliath with which we sympathize out of cold storage.

Here in Maine, the flagship university many of us attended has never been to the tournament and probably isn’t heading there in the foreseeable future. Others among us went to satellite schools, differentiated by hyphens, none of them eligible to crash this party.

So we hitch our wagons to the school we would have attended if we had the money/brains/guts to truly strike out on our own at 18. In my case, that is either Duke or Florida. If you’re a soulless wretch, it might be Kentucky, North Carolina or Syracuse.

You aren’t even allowed to think such sacrilege in pro sports. When your team is done, it’s done, and your season is dead. It takes an invitation and free beer to even persuade you to watch the rest of the playoffs.

When it comes to college basketball, we keep watching, intently.

There’s always another underdog, another us-against-them, another spine-tingling moment to warm the winter that won’t end.

There’s nothing like it.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.


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