"Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through.
- R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise
If you're not a basketball fan and could care less about collegiate athletics and are sick and tried of people chirping about March Madness then I've got some good news for you. The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is actually about more than this. Yes, beyond the buzzer beaters and bracket busters and Cinderella slippers, I've discovered -- after witnessing four games in two days at last week's second and third rounds in Philadelphia -- that the annual sports extravaganza is, at its core, about the human condition. It teaches us -- it taught me -- some very valuable lessons about relationships, about loyalty, and about love.
Truth is, I am a rapid college basketball fan and had travelled to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love (appropriately I was joined by my brother Ron) where I was born, to cheer on Creighton University, a modest-sized Catholic college in Omaha , Nebraska, that I was supporting in its quest for an NCAA championship. Creighton didn't get there, but how I got there and what I learned in the process help to explain why the tournament has more to do with life than with basketball.
I was able to experience all this because my good friend Don Mash, who's had an illustrious career in higher education, most recently in the University of Wisconsin System, had provided Creighton Coach Greg McDermott his first head coaching opportunity at Division II Wayne State College (Nebraska) when he hired him in 1994. McDermott went on to compile a record of 116 wins and 53 losses during his six years at Wayne State. He and Don have kept in contact over the years, as they've both moved on, and up, in their respective careers.
Don and I decided last year, our local allegiance to the University of Wisconsin notwithstanding, that we would follow Creighton in the NCAA Tournament this year, should they make it.
And make it they did!
Creighton started the season on an 18-1 run and a ranking near the top 10. They even beat our beloved UW! The team ended up 28-8 and was champion of their conference and won the conference tournament. Their best player, and one of the best players in the country, is Doug McDermott, the coach's son. Adding to this drama was the possibility that Doug could be a first-round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, that Creighton had just announced it was leaving the Missouri Valley Conference to join the seven Catholic schools in the "new" Big East, and that Teresa McDermott, Greg's wife and Doug's mom, had recently celebrated her five-year cancer-free anniversary, having been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005.
It was almost too much drama!
While the young athletes played their hearts out on the hardwood, I was even more amazed by the bond between the never-say-die Creighton fans and their team, by the hug I saw Greg, an imposing 6'8" of a man, give to Don when they were reunited, by the quiet courage of Teresa, and by the way Greg and Doug are able to navigate the coach-player/father-son dynamic.
In the end Duke, who'd defeated Albany, beat Creighton, who'd bested Cincinnati, to advance in our bracket of the NCAA Tournament. Doug McDermott fouled out of the game with 37 seconds left and was hugged by his coach/father. All of us who watched him were wondering if Doug would ever do that in a Creighton uniform again.
The Creighton fans stood and applauded their team long after the final horn had sounded. Don, my brother Ron, and I joined them. And we knew then that we'd been a part of something very special.
The McDermotts have big decisions to make and I know they'll make the one that's best for Doug and his future. And I know too, that Teresa will continue to thrive and that Greg McDermott and the Creighton basketball program will flourish in the Big East for years to come.
While we all need to be reminded that this is only a game, we also need to realize that communities like Albany and Madison and Durham and Omaha have incredibly strong and personal bonds with their local schools, that former colleagues like Don Mash and Greg McDermott remain friends and will long after basketball, and that fathers and sons will always be there for one another. If that's what this March Madness stuff is about, then I'd gladly take a dose of it every month of the year.