It took an impromptu conversation at an airport bar for me to discover what makes every March so magical for college students across the country when the NCAA tournament rolls around.
This weekend’s Florida-UCLA game was by no means compelling, jump-off-your-couch television, but its lead changes, hard-nosed defensive plays and tempo shifts had me entertained while waiting for my flight back to Los Angeles.
A deep three-pointer by the Gators’ junior guard Erving Walker put the game out of reach, and just as Billy Donovan was about to stamp his fourth career Sweet 16 ticket, I heard a dejected voice say, “I miss the days when this was my tournament.”
I turned back to find a man standing with a bittersweet grin on his face as the final moments of the game wound down.
I was intrigued, and posed a simple question: “What do you mean, ‘When this was your tournament?’”
Expecting him to be turned off by my rather brash inquiry, I remained silent for a few moments.
What ensued was a conversation that shed light on the juvenile yet magical allure of the Big Dance.
The man turned out to be a former player who was part of one of the largest upsets in college basketball history, when Coppin State, as the No. 15 seed, knocked off the No. 2 seeded South Carolina Gamecocks in 1997.
He told me that in the 14 years since the annual dance has slowly become someone else’s tournament.
The tournament, in his words, “is not as relatable to people my age, because it’s symbolic of the innocence and ambition of youth.”
This idea surprised me, given the widespread popularity of college’s postseason party. But after several more hours of watching the madness unfold this weekend, I came to realize his preposterous claim had substance.
I’ll admit, in terms of top-notch basketball, the NBA is the place to turn.
In an offensive-geared league that doesn’t rely on shortened three-point arcs, defensive schemes like the 2-3 zone or the full court trap would be laughed at.
Outside of this, it makes complete sense that college basketball has a captivating power over college students.
Besides the fact the games are tailored to our shorter attention spans, the real excitement stems from our ability to directly relate with the jovial, yet at times heartbreaking, tone of the tournament.
It’s our peers and fellow bracket busters.
It’s our universities being showcased to a national audience, even if just for one night in Dayton, Ohio.
For one month, our struggles and unrealized journeys are played out metaphorically on the court.
And it’s this authentic representation of the college experience, one borne out of amateurish naivety and passion, that students connect with in a way others simply cannot.
One day, when you’re sitting in an airport bar waiting for your flight, an NCAA tournament game might come on, bringing you back to all of the memories you have of watching the unscripted drama unfold during your college years.
Do you really want to be the fan who looks back in regret for failing to recognize how beautiful it was to have an experience to call your own?
I sure hope not.
“For The Love Of The Game” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Dave at email@example.com.