by Paul West
You might not have seen it yet; but in the immediate aftermath of a thrilling loss to North Carolina in the round of 16, De-Aaron Fox just presented us with an interview which is heartwarming and heartbreaking, all at once. His face covered in tears, his sweat barely dried, his arm around a teary-eyed teammate, Fox spoke of replaying ‘that shot’–the virtual buzzer-beater Luke Maye calmly delivered just seconds after a heroic, game-tying Wildcats basket–‘back and forth in my head.’ He broke down briefly as he declared his love for his teammates. He then gathered his composure enough to intelligently discuss a season of ups and downs, as well as the defensive overcommitment which led to the winning jumper, and pay respect to the opponent that had just broken his heart. The emotional strength it takes to openly, calmly, and–yes, professionally–experience a moment of such disappointment and heartbreak, in the gaze of countless millions, speaks to what makes March Madness such a compelling drama.
In March Madness, you have young men at the front end of adulthood, playing their hearts out under immense pressure before an audience the size of which would make most of us crumble. In so doing, they show us the full gamut of that vast, varied continuum between what was once poetically called ‘the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.’ They commit the most ill-timed, boneheaded, stress-induced blunders; and they execute the most astounding displays of grace under pressure you’ll ever see in a sporting context. They hit do-or-die shots with miraculous degrees of difficulty, deliver passes through lanes that seem beyond their purview, and remain calm and composed in heart-pounding and chaotic environments. They lift each other’s spirits in situations that would reduce many of us to squabbling at best, and unmitigated hostility at worst. And sometimes, in the moments following crushing, emotionally draining defeats, they present themselves with the grace and emotional courage to confess–and display–vulnerability, resiliency, and perspective.
It bears noting that while, yes, some of these young men will be living their personal dreams by performing their athletic craft for enormous sums–the vast majority of them will do no such thing. The vast majority of these young men will never again do anything for such a large audience, and accompanied by such fanfare. For better or worse, this is their Warholian ‘fifteen minutes of fame;’ and in these brief windows, they will do things sublime, astonishing, inspiring, and mortifying, for which they may be remembered for generations. For those of us who love March Madness, not just for its loony unpredictability or the chance at bracketological bragging rights, the payoff is well worth the intermittent instances of loopy, nerve-wracked shot selection and stupefying miscues.
If your love of sports runs deeper than just the desire for victory, then you understand what makes March Madness truly great. From this cauldron of emotion, intensity, athleticism, opportunity, and exposure can emerge moments of clarity and grace as well as feats of wonder. If this is why the Madness moves you, you’ll understand why De’Aaron Fox, in a few courageous moments of raw emotion, represented it so well.