America's tournament

Dan Wetzel

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This week at the Polar Bar and Liquor Store in Nome, Alaska, when sthey say they are waiting for the dogs to come in, they don’t mean underdogs, like (Butler) Bulldogs or even fictional dogs, like Georgetown Hoyas. At least not yet.

The focus has been on actual dogs, the ones that tugged Iditarod sleds all the way from Anchorage to Nome, sliding right past the Polar before the finish line on Front Street. Late Tuesday night, musher Lance Mackey brought his team in first and Nome celebrated its moment in the sporting sun even as its moments in the real sun these days can be brief and rare.

“I always have quite a crowd for the Iditarod,” said the bartender at the Polar Tuesday. “It’s a big deal.”

But as good as the party can get on Front Street, no one has forgotten about the impending NCAA tournament that kicks off on Thursday and will have the folks at the Polar riveted by college hoops, a sport as distant to them as dog sled racing is to you.

There have already been some bracket sightings (entertainment purposes, of course) at the Polar. There most certainly will be some shouting Thursday, the bartender promised. Especially if Oral Roberts starts knocking down threes on Washington State, if Davidson manages to get up on Maryland or if any little school begins to carry the water of all the little places of this country, little places like Nome.

This is America’s Tournament and the fact they care even on Seward Peninsula, in the only state in the union without a Division I team eligible to win the national title, is really all you need to know.

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 that people from Nome to Key West will find themselves pulling for the same group of kids they couldn’t name playing for a school they’ve never heard of.

“They’ll be watching,” the bartender said. “They’ll watch the entire thing.”

They’ll be watching on TVs big and small, high def and rabbit-eared, on tiny ones in fancy cars and those giant numbers in Times Square.

And if a team with a big number next to its name gets up on a team with a little number – and it doesn’t completely ruin their brackets – they’ll be cheering at sports bars in San Diego, high-fiving at house parties in Maine and passing secret updates of each trey courtesy of their Treo in business meetings in Chicago.

It doesn't matter where. It doesn’t matter who.

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 Jackson State Tigers have a chance – albeit the chance of a 16th seed about to play defending national champion Florida, which means, what, a one-in-a-million chance?

According to some oddsmakes, try one in a sextillion.

So you're saying there's a chance.

But there is always a chance in the NCAA tournament, which is why a 48-hour flu epidemic will sweep offices and classrooms around noon ET Thursday.

No other sport enjoys this kind of diversity. These schools come in all shapes and sizes, from 30 different states and the District of Columbia. This year's field includes giant public schools and little private ones; schools founded by Mormons, Catholics and Evangelicals. They come from small towns (Rock Hill, Ogden, Carbondale) 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 Purple Eagles fly; where phrases such as Tar Heels, Razorbacks and Jayhawks need no explanation; where Commodores, Cavaliers and Crusaders roam; a place for Hoosiers, Hoyas and Hokies.

This is the week when we all become Islanders and Rattlers; when everyone is a Southern Illinois fan, even if most people didn't know Illinois had a Southern. 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, where no one wants to see Niagara take a fall and everyone likes Wright State, even if they have no idea who Wright is or when exactly we named a state after him. It’s actually named after the Wright Brothers, who first flew.

Not that it matters, 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"?

Who doesn’t want to watch this year’s gangly basketball prodigies, Kevin Durant at Texas and Greg Oden at Ohio State, show the brilliance to come.

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 a small country 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 Weber State gets up on UCLA, if North Texas starts walking on Memphis, if Central Connecticut 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 up at the Polar in Nome.

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

This is, after all, America's Tournament.

Dan Wetzel writes a column in this spirit each March and, by popular demand, repeats some of the jokes. Thursday and Friday he will be live blogging the NCAA tournament for all the people with real jobs that are stuck in their office.

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