Way out in the foothills of southwest New Mexico, where U.S. Route 26 meets U.S. Route 27, there is a town called Nutt.
Nutt, N.M. Only it isn't officially a town anymore. It hasn't even had a post office since 1939. It has just three buildings (two of which are on wheels). You can take a census with one hand.
If you happen upon Nutt there is a good chance you are lost, but not all is actually lost. One building houses the aptly named Middle of Nowhere Cafe and Bar, which serves beer, conversation and Merle Haggard songs on the jukebox. It is where some ranchers and occasional passersby hang out and shoot pool. Most days, not much happens.
Thursday is not most days.
An old TV will be brought out and rabbit ears wiggled around to pick up the CBS feed out of El Paso. The crowd might be small but the excitement level will surge and the shouting will begin if, say, Southern Illinois gets up on Alabama.
Everyone will be praying, absolutely praying, for just one more Southern Illinois basket. Even if no one even knows Illinois had a Southern.
Welcome to America's Tournament, the NCAA men's basketball championship, the great unifying sporting event of the year.
The Super Bowl is a major party. The Masters is a grand weekend. The World Series is an historic event.
But nothing sweeps the nation, generates unbridled passion and draws in the masses like the NCAA tournament. Nothing can unite people like a little school with a big seed possibly upsetting a big school with a little seed.
Murray State leads Illinois? The word will buzz through the office, the dorm, the restaurant, the shop. "Awesome," people will say. "By the way, we have a state named Murray?"
It doesn't matter. The scene that will play out in Nutt will also occur in front of the giant televisions in Times Square, at the Coaster Saloon by the beach in San Diego, in the break room at the Ford Wixom Plant in Michigan.
The beauty of this tournament is there is something for everyone, from Walla Walla to Wall Street. Pro sports are about big cities and big money. Even college football has no true underdogs. But college hoops? Dare to dream.
So what if the odds of Alabama State winning it all are, what, one in a million?
Try, according to USA Today, more like one in a sextillion.
So you're saying there's a chance.
This year's field contains teams from 33 states and municipalities of all shapes and sizes, from Manhattan to Stillwater. There are giant public schools and little private ones; military academies and religious institutions.
Not a single school from the public university systems of California (population 34.5 million) is in. But Vermont, in a state with about 600,000 residents, is.
That is why this is special. This is the week where country meets city and vice versa. Where grass roots grow on Madison Avenue. Where upscale crowds in big cities will stand and cheer and hold their breath for Northern Iowa.
Where liberals cheer for Liberty (along with chancellor Jerry Falwell), pacifists root for the Air Force Academy and sufferers of hydrophobia pull for Pacific.
This is a sport that throws day-to-day perceptions on its ear. Where Kansas, lovable, peaceful Kansas, is to be feared. Where something from Manhattan would play the role of underdog to something from Mississippi (State).
This is the week when Salukis, Catamounts and Jaspers invade our vocabulary. When everyone is a Valpo fan. When you catch waitresses using the proper technique for a 30-second timeout to ward off fussy customers and overhear old ladies debate the spelling of Krzyzewski.
Where you don't dare badmouth Monmouth, at least not until it destroys your office pool.
The pool? Yeah, the pool. Brackets everywhere. Jenni from accounting's bracket that uses theories of dominant state flower cross-pollination is defeating your bracket, even though you watched so much college hoops this winter you consider Jay Bilas and Rece Davis personal friends.
At some point this week the IRS will send out a release stating the nation will collectively wager a small Central American country on the tourney. Illegally, of course.
We would feel bad except we're pretty certain that at this very moment inside the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, home of the FBI itself, there is a bracket getting passed around.
And if Princeton starts backdoor cutting Texas, if Louisiana-Lafayette starts ragin' against N.C. State or Air Force starts flying by North Carolina, the gumshoes will be watching and rooting and cheering, too.
Because how couldn't they?
This is, after all, America's Tournament.
- Southern Illinois