Before this past weekend gets too far in the rear view mirror it should be noted that the world of sports belonged to the ladies from Friday evening thru Sunday. By the way, I consider any time after 5:00 on Friday afternoon to be the part of the weekend; a position I adopted years ago while sitting behind a desk in a coat and tie that needed to be discarded. So while the men were still a day away from playing the semifinals of their basketball tournament and major league baseball would wait until Sunday for their opening day, the most amazing thing happened Friday evening in the women’s semifinals of their collegiate basketball tournament. Are you ready for this? Connecticut lost. Yep, a school that had won 111 consecutive games, almost always by huge margins, was defeated by Mississippi State on a last second basket.
You had to see it to believe it and if the truth be told Connecticut was completely outplayed throughout and only a ridiculous referee’s call near the end of the game kept Mississippi State from a more decisive victory. Unfortunately for them South Carolina won the Sunday final in a game far less entertaining, but while they would rather have the title, history will record that the Mississippi State ladies did the unthinkable and did it well.
Then came Sunday and more excitement in women’s sports. The setting was the final round of the first major of the year in ladies professional golf. It was played in Palm Springs at a tournament started by Dinah Shore, who didn’t even play golf but sure enjoyed watching it.
A twenty two year old American named Lexi Thompson had a three shot lead on the field as she headed down the back nine toward her second victory in this tournament when the damndest thing happened. She was assessed a four shot penalty for failing to replace her ball on the green in the same spot where she had marked it on a previous hole. She missed doing that by the slightest of margins, and it was clear it was unintentional, but indeed she had done it. But here is the kicker; that mistake happened not on Sunday but during Saturday’s round and was not reported until Sunday. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the mistake was reported by someone sitting in front of a television set who then emailed the course and got the officials’ attention and they took it from there.
The failure to replace her ball correctly cost her two strokes and two more were added because she signed an incorrect scorecard on Saturday because nobody was aware of the infraction at that time. All mandated by the rules of golf, and all quite stupid. If golf is going to allow people at home to influence the outcome of tournaments at least they could require the infraction to be reported before the player signs her scorecard for that round, Saturday in this case. Anyhow, what was done was done and those either watching in person or on television immediately proceeded to root like crazy for Thompson to overcome this situation and still win the thing. And she almost did by birding three of the last five holes to get into a playoff, but in the end she fell short. Nevertheless it was all compelling to watch and capped a weekend that belonged to the ladies in the world of sport.
March Madness is down to four teams with the finalists to be determined next Saturday. North Carolina is there as often is the case, but Oregon and South Carolina are surprises. The fourth team is Gonzaga, and they are an interesting story. They have dominated their extremely weak conference for years, only to disappear early come March Madness time. Much the same was anticipated this time around but to their credit they have looked most impressive in moving along. Incidentally, those of you who were around for the Ben Franklin years may recall that Gonzaga was the alma mater of Bing Crosby. History lesson now over.
By the way, the women are playing their tournament as well right now and providing damn good basketball. Their problem is the dominance of Connecticut which, I kid you not, has won over 100 consecutive games and most always by huge margins. Great for them and their followers; not so good for a sport in need of having other serious contenders for the throne. Never know, perhaps this is the year but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Finally, the best league for men’s professional basketball in this country is known as the NBA and it is wrestling with an interesting issue right now. NBA teams play 82 regular season games and sometimes do so on two consecutive nights and as a result coaches become concerned about the wear and tear on their players, particularly if the team in question has older star players. After all, coaches of those teams are the first to tell you they are hired to win games, get their teams to the playoffs, and compete for championships. So some have adopted the practice of resting their star players for a game now and then. Doesn’t sound too unreasonable, but here’s the problem. If you have paid much money far in advance to take the family to see Lebron James when he comes to your town only to discover on the eve of the game that he and his two most productive teammates are sitting this one out…well, this is not going to please you. Proposed solutions include a team not playing on consecutive nights, a proposal that has traction but would lengthen an already interminable season. Then there is the shootaround.
The “shootaround” is a practice session held the morning of game day, with the actual game to be played later that day and usually in the evening. But the argument goes that if a coach foregoes the shootaround his players will be able to participate in the game and with fresh legs. My favorite shootaround story involves the legendary player Wilt Chamberlain. When Wilt played for the Los Angeles Lakers their coach loved the shootaround. However, Wilt did not and so it came to pass that one day Wilt advised his coach that henceforth on game day he would come to the arena ONCE. Did not matter to him whether it was for shootaround or for the game, but only one time. Guess which one the coach chose. Then there is the Bill Russell story. Russell played in the same era as Wilt but for the Boston Celtics. Russell played for a coach named Red Auerbach, a coach who believed he invented the game but won nothing until Russell came along. Thereafter the Celtics won everything for as long as Russell played. Auerbach had always maintained that part of his success was having one set of rules for all players, but one day as practice was about to commence the coach noticed his star player sitting in the stands reading a newspaper. Auerbach asked his star player, whom he called “Russ,” what was going on? Russell replied he was tired and would not be practicing that day. At that point the coach called his 12 man squad together and said the following: “Henceforth we will have one set of rules for 11 of you and one set for Russ.” Made sense then, seems to make sense now.
Well, was it good for you? No, not THAT. What I write of is the first two days of March Madness, the best two consecutive days of sports viewing. On those days 64 college basketball teams play each other in a single elimination tournament that in three weeks from the start will result in the crowning of a national champion. This year those two days of wall-to-wall games were March 16-17, yesterday and today as I write this.
Now some will argue that a weekend of professional football playoffs in January is right up there for us couch potatoes. Nah, not even close. That is a mere handful of games and, if I failed to mention it, the Madness gives us 32 games over two blissful days. But it is more than merely a numbers game. A fair number of the games always seem to be exciting right up until the end.
After all, that is what gives the tournament the name March Madness. The tournament itself has been around forever; I recall attending the semi-finals and championship game over 50 years ago. Yes, I have been around a long time but can we not get into that just now? Anyhow, back then and for some time thereafter fewer teams participated and television coverage was less extensive. But along the way more and more of the games were exciting so fan appreciation grew as did the number of teams invited to participate . Naturally television said they wanted some of that and the combination of competitive games and increased exposure brought us to the March Madness we have today.
The popularity of the tournament is all the more remarkable because I believe the vast majority of us have no idea who is playing or can name any of the players on most of the teams. Heck, some of the colleges are a mystery as well. Because the best college players these days only stay in college for one season and then head to the pros only family, close friends and the most avid boosters know who plays for whom. Does not seem to matter because the sports fan will tune in, find a good game and commence searching for more of the same once that one is over. And that is easy to do with so many games; in fact ESPN, the self proclaimed “sports leader” but not one of the networks carry the games these days, will not even program against it. They have some popular sports talk shows during most weekdays but the cowards pull those shows on the first two days of the Madness because they think we only have eyes for the Madness. And are they ever right.