Viewpoints

A basketball fan’s annual labor of love

Tip off during an NCAA basketball game between the Butler Bulldogs and Providence Friars at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Tip off during an NCAA basketball game between the Butler Bulldogs and Providence Friars at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Icon Sportswire via AP Images

On Sunday, millions of hearts – including my own – will beat a bit faster, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s selection committee determines which teams will compete for the 2016 men’s basketball championship.

Aptly dubbed “March Madness,” this annual ritual will mesmerize much of the nation until a champion is crowned April 4 in Houston. Tournament brackets will be completed by countless hardwood aficionados, including President Barack Obama, who still shoots hoops when time permits.

Most of the fun will be tracking and scoring what has become known as The Big Dance. The first round starts this week at regional sites and then proceeds to the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight and the Final Four, one of the nation’s most compelling sporting events.

Serious students of “bracketology” will sift through strength of schedules, common opponents, roster depth, late-season momentum and, perhaps most importantly, the historical matchups that produce the greatest upsets. For many, filling out bracket predictions requires more concentration than completing an income tax return.

I grew up in Indiana, where basketball is less a sport than a secular religion – which explains why the state boasts nine of the nation’s 10 largest high-school gyms. And why I spent so many hours on basketball courts, working on my crossover dribble, pursuing the perfect jump shot and refusing to go home until I made 10 straight free throws.

That attention to detail extends to the competitive Miller family. My wife refuses to complete her bracket until she has researched each team, particularly their defensive prowess. One of our daughters-in-law, born and raised in Southern California, has a penchant for western teams. Our sons and I, who are Midwestern born and bred, generally favor teams from the heartland. Ditto for our niece and nephew, who live in Indiana and pull for Purdue.

I grew up in Indiana, where basketball is less a sport than a secular religion – which explains why the state boasts nine of the nation’s 10 largest high-school gyms. And why I spent so many hours on basketball courts, working on my crossover dribble, pursuing the perfect jump shot and refusing to go home until I made 10 straight free throws.

The 1986 film “Hoosiers” is the story of my early life. As a 15-year-old in 1954, I watched the film’s real-life hero, Bobby Plump, sink the winning jump shot as time expired. Three years later as a Butler University freshman, I marveled at his grace as he ran the Bulldogs’ offense and we routinely defeated much larger schools.

I’m still marveling at my Bulldogs, a scrappy school of 4,800 students whose impressive tournament record during the last five decades defies the laws of probability. In 2010, Butler came within a quarter-inch of winning the national championship against perennial powerhouse Duke when Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot caromed off the backboard, clipped the rim and fell fruitlessly to the floor. The following year little Butler lost again in the championship game to the University of Connecticut.

In “Hoosiers,” before taking the floor of the fabled fieldhouse at Butler, where the climactic game was filmed, a Hickory player says: “Let’s win this one for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”

That’s what I’ll be saying as my Bulldogs face their usual lineup of much bigger opponents. Not to mention the film’s closing line: “I love you guys.”

Alan Miller is a frequent contributor to The Bee. Contact him at miller396@comcast.net.

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