By its very nature, the phrase "March Madness" that has come to describe arguably the most exciting set of U.S. sporting events has the power to excite us and yet also the potential to desensitize us to the beauty of the very moments that give concrete meaning to the madness.
In the 24/7 news cycle we currently exist in, it's easy to not only get lost in a state of information overload at this time of year but also cynically file away each successive moment of madness as merely the latest in a vast array of moments or, even worse, hastily look forward to the next moment without fully appreciating the very madness we supposedly enjoy.
It becomes very easy to cheat ourselves of opportunities to truly appreciate the moments that both excite us and remind us of why we're so drawn to this whole March Madness thing to begin with.
And on Saturday night, Washington Huskies fans witnessed one such moment when star guard Isaiah Thomas hit a fall-away jumper off of one foot at the buzzer to win the Pac-10 Title in overtime against the Arizona Wildcats. On its own, the moment contained the type of magic that epic stories and playground dreams are made of, with Thomas at the center of a hero's narrative. But as with almost any moment in life, the context of this moment truly defined its significance although it's simplicity makes it either obvious or out of a Hollywood script.
Not even a week ago, people had all but written the Huskies off with cross-state rival Washington State Cougars looming - WSU had already beaten them twice in the regular season, including an ugly game in Seattle on February 27. Senior guard Venoy Overton had been suspended for the duration of the Pac-10 tournament last Tuesday, while senior forward Justin Holiday was a game-day decision after suffering a collision with USC post Alex Stepheson's elbow in their final game of the regular season. Although Holiday did end up playing, losing Overton in the backcourt compounded the loss of sophomore Abdul Gaddy to a season-ending knee injury earlier in the season making Thomas the starting, backup, and deep reserve point guard who would likely be expected to play 40 minutes a game.
After a season of high expectations for a NCAA tournament run, it was starting to look like they were headed straight to the NIT. Put simply, they were on a rapidly downward spiral entering the tournament and a lot was going to have to come together for the Huskies to even make it past the first round.
Yet instead they managed to overcome WSU, cruise past the Oregon Ducks, and Thomas finished off an turnaround that was almost as miraculous as it was swift with among the greatest moments in school history to win the championship that everyone expected them to claim easily at the beginning of the year.
It's a beautiful human story of resilience among a group of athletes that unexpectedly came together against all odds to achieve something that at least appeared distant if not unfathomable.
Redemptive glory? Courageous triumph? Lost potential finally realized when it counted?
No matter how you describe it, it's almost painfully cheesy to describe to the point that if you had seen that in a movie theater - like, if you had stayed awake - you might have left yawning and saying predictable. However, in real life, what's cliched and predictable doesn't necessarily have to be trite if we make even a cursory attempt to understand it from the perspective of those involved.
Close to a year ago, Dave Kindred of the National Sports Journalism Center relayed a quote from Steven Ungerleider, co-chair of the Texas Program for Sports and Media, that described the draw of sports and quite possibly why we find the most improbably moments in March so inspiring.
"Sports is a microcosm of life – with the volume turned up," Ungerleider was quoted as saying, with Kindred noting that the "volume" line was borrowed from Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register. "It involves virtually all of us, as athletes, coaches, spectators. It’s integral to teaching ethics, standards, and principles that touch every aspect of our lives."
A singular moment in sports rarely has the power to change the world around us and often times such arguments are either vastly overstated or reflective of distorted sense of reality.
Nevertheless, for those of us whose emotions were implicated in UW's season by following them through all of their ups and downs as outsiders yet invested stakeholders, the Pac-10 title is a celebration of human growth and triumph at a time when all around us in the real world exist signs of an uncertain future. It was a reminder of the best of our ideals about hard work, sustained focus, and unwavering determination that we all want to hold on to even when presented with disconfirming evidence.
After a season of disappointment, Thomas' shot sent the Huskies into the tournament on a high note and primed us to re-engage any emotion that had been previously suspended by the circumstances. Even the most staunchly cynical individual could find an entry point into this story that almost perfectly reminds us of what March Madness is about and why we're sports fans. And for any fan to cast that emotional high aside as the team eyes Charlotte would only be a disservice to themselves - the beauty of this particular NCAA tournament bid is not necessarily that it's a new beginning for the players, but that it will complete a story that we've been patiently watching unfold since November.
Win or lose, a subtly fascinating sports story might be completed without the fairytale ending that makes it easily dismissed, even though it an otherworldly moment to satisfy our appetites for the extraordinary along the way.