— Almost like a first kiss, Johnny Dawkins remembers the day, down to the moment, the NCAA tournament came alive to him and his friends in the Washington, D.C. area.
The year: 1979. The Stage: The NCAA men’s Final Four. The backdrop: Salt Lake City. The subjects: Michigan State versus Indiana State.
But it was the main characters who offered the most intrigue and the best theatre. On one side you had this freak of a 6-foot-9 point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson, whose size and playing style were changing the game and had every kid on the blacktop wanting to show his moves. Then on the other side you had the smooth-stroking forward, Larry Bird, who was leading the nation in scoring, but without the constant ESPN video few had ever seen him do his thing before that night.
“For my generation, absolutely,” recalled Dawkins, who went on to star at Duke and in the NBA and is now Stanford's coach. “Having seen that game and being in high school and going 'Wow, I would love to have the opportunity to be involved with that.' It was that big and stood out that much to you.
“So sure, you saw that game and you saw the personalities involved and you dreamed of being part of it.”
Dawkins is far from alone. It’s possible that millions of young boys and girls first fell deeply in love with the idea of playing college basketball from watching one of the premier sporting events of our time, the NCAA tournament.
But this goes so much deeper than the dreams and goals of those who bounce a basketball or have a fancy for diagramming X’s and O’s. The NCAA tournament, known as March Madness, has captured the nation's imagination.
It doesn’t matter: Young or old; black or white, avid fan or non-fan, Republican or Democrat, there is a demographic to be found.
Starting on Monday, the day after Selection Sunday, work production in America has slowed as NCAA tournament brackets are being filled out, analyzed and re-evaluated and office pools are dominating water cooler conversations.
And then you have the games themselves. Sixty-five entered this week. Only one will reign supreme come April 6 in Detroit.
“If you love basketball, this is the greatest time of the year,” said Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon, who played at Kansas and was assistant on the KU staff that won it all with Danny Manning in 1988. “They start talking about this tournament in December and the build up is incredible. I just think it’s the hype going into it.
“I think there is so much interest because they have these brackets and pools in so many offices and people jump on a bandwagon so there is interest there. Then I think television and media do a fantastic job of covering it.”
But arguably what has made this three-week journey so great are the games themselves. You are guaranteed to have seemingly endless buzzer-beater games.
“It’s a very, very unique tournament," Dawkins said. "It’s one of those things where you hit on something that’s just right. When they hit on this tournament and the concept, it’s just right.
“I think the whole world, especially the United States, gets captivated because of the format."
Forget about which four teams deserve to have the No. 1 seeds, we want to know which one will be the first to fall. Will this be the year David finally topples Goliath and a 16th seed knocks out a No. 1 in the first round? And we know that a 12th-seed will sneak up and surprise a No. 5, but which one?
Then there is the love of the underdog, or the Cinderella. Will Butler be this year’s George Mason at the Final Four, the pesky uninvited guest to the NCAA tournament’s party?
And just as intriguing, who will emerge as the next Stephen Curry: the unknown player who will become the talk of the tournament after lifting his team to improbable wins?
“It’s like reading a great book, you turn the page and every three or four there is something that keeps you turning the page,” said Memphis coach John Calipari, whose team lost several key players of last season’s runner-up squad yet is one of the contenders again this year. “That’s what the NCAA tournament is about.”
That’s what CBS is counting on as it projects to bring in record viewership and ad revenue, even in these difficult times. The network will again make every game played in this tournament available online with CBS March Madness on Demand, courtesy of video streaming.
Fans don’t have to take off from work. They can sit at their desks and save valuable vacation time while watching any game on their computers. In additions to the millions who will still watch on television and fill the arenas, media analysts are expecting 7 million views on the Internet, which will be up from the 4.7 million that logged in last year. That also means a bump in ad revenue from $23 million in 2008 to at least $30 million.
The NCAA tournament may be surpassed only by the Super Bowl in terms of interest and indeed rivals the NBA playoffs. Beyond that, the tournament that has grown from 16 to 32 to 48 to 64 and now 65 has no other peers.
“It really is special,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “Everybody in the country is involved from every corner and every Division I basketball league. That’s what makes it special. It really really is the greatest sporting event in this country.”
Naturally, when you have something great there are some who want to tinker with it to make it even greater. Ned Hirsch of Rockville Center, N.Y., is one who like to see the field expanded to include all 343 teams. He has started a campaign to that end.
Calipari, however, says not so fast. The NCAA tournament and the madness it brings in March is just fine the way it is.
“It’s an interesting thing, but I wouldn’t mess with it too much,” Calipari said. “They talk about adding this, adding teams. But don’t mess with it.”