America's Tournament

Way back in 1890, way out in Butte, Mont., the M&M Cigar Store opened as a gambling hall, bar and restaurant designed to serve the area's miners. Because of the uneven hours of the mining industry, it stayed open 24 hours a day and, according to legend, never once locked its doors for the next 113 years, not even during Prohibition.

Then in 2003 bankruptcy hit, closing a slice of Americana that was so full of colorful characters that famed Beat poet Jack Kerouac once declared a visit to the M&M "was the end of my quest for an ideal bar."

Fortunately, last year, the good governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, showed up at the M&M, handed a liquor license to the new owners and promptly did a shot of scotch.

"May she never close," he declared.

And miss another March Madness.

Butte is anything but a college basketball hotbed. The M&M, a bit rickety after all these years, is anything but a sports bar. But on Thursday, about 1 p.m. local time, they will fire up the TV – "only have one, basic cable," the bartender said Monday – to watch an actual home team, the Montana Grizzlies, take part in the wildest, woolliest event on the sports calendar – the N-C-Two-As, America's Tournament.

Nothing against the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Daytona 500, all of which are bigger than the NCAA tournament in different ways, but nothing brings the country together like an event so vast and diverse and enthralling as one that could possibly give a place like the M&M a local rooting interest.

Not to mention West Virginia and Arkansas and Spokane and Storrs and Milwaukee and Seattle and on and on.

And you needn't be bellied up to the bar at the M&M to root for Montana to advance. If the Grizzlies start hitting jumpers people will stop in front of the giant TVs in Times Square, hover around BlackBerrys spewing scores in staff meetings in Houston and find themselves high-fiving strangers at a beach bar in Santa Barbara.

It doesn't matter where.

The scene will play out over and over all over America any time a team (no matter how silly its name, no matter how obscure its state) with a high number next to it starts beating a team with a low number next to it, the fun of the upset sweeping over us all.

For three weeks you can forget about your big-market, big-city, big-revenue pro sports. The beauty of the NCAA tournament is that even someone like the little Albany Great Danes has a chance – albeit the chance of a 16th seed about to play Connecticut, which means, what, a one-in-a-million chance?

According to USA Today, try one in a sextillion.

So you're saying there's a chance.

There is always a chance in the NCAA tournament, which is why an influenza epidemic will sweep offices and classrooms around noon ET Thursday.

No other sport enjoys this kind of diversity. Only Alaska doesn't have a Division I team, which means colleges come in all shapes and sizes. This year's field includes giant public schools and little private ones; military academies and religious institutions. They come from 31 states and the District of Columbia, from small towns (Cedar Falls, Lewisburg, Natchitoches) and giant cities (Los Angeles, Washington, Boston).

This is a bizarre world where a place such as Kansas, generally congenial, friendly, wholesome Kansas, is to be feared. Where Quakers can be downright dangerous. Where the team representing New York City (Iona) is a heavy underdog to one from Baton Rouge (LSU).

This is the week when we all become Salukis and Aztecs and Shockers; when everyone is a South Alabama fan, even if most people didn't know there was any other kind of Alabama. When you catch waitresses using the proper technique for a 30-second timeout to ward off impatient customers and overhear school kids debate the spelling of Krzyzewski.

This is where atheists cheer for Oral Roberts, pacifists root for the Air Force Academy, sufferers of hydrophobia pull for Pacific and everyone likes Murray State, even if they have no idea who Murray is or when exactly we named a state after him.

Because who doesn't love the upset, the little guy beating the big one, the thrill of the pursuit of these kids' "One Shining Moment"?

The facts that no one knows the players, few have heard of the coaches and that you need a Barron's Guide to figure out the schools don't seem to matter.

Much of the popularity, of course, is because of the brackets and pools that are exhausting printer ink across the nation. It's a folly of a pursuit, of course, another great equalizer where Maria from accounting gets the better of all those ESPNU junkies because her dominant state flower formula magically predicts the 12-over-5 upset each year.

This is the week a report comes out claiming that we illegally wage the GNP of many countries on this tournament. But no one ever seems to do anything about it, probably because at this very moment inside the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, home of the FBI itself, a bracket is getting passed around.

And if Belmont starts raining threes on UCLA, if Southern pushes Duke into the final minutes, if Davidson takes a late lead on Ohio State, the feds will hover around a TV cheering too, just like in the dorm rooms, just like in the sports bars, just like in the break room, just like out at the old, open-again M&M.

Because how couldn't they? How can't we?

This is, after all, America's Tournament.