As a sports marketing event, the NCAA Division 1 Men’s basketball tournament is in the Major Leagues, alongside the Super Bowl, the World Cup, and the Olympics. In fact, many regard this tournament as the most popular sporting event of the year. During the next week, ten committee members will debate the destinies of basketball players across the country, all hoping their team will get an invite to the big dance. It’s a dream as big as a prince’s invitation to a ball – and we talk about it the same way.
The tournament begins March 13th this year, kicking off two weeks of ecstasy and heartache known as March Madness. Selection Sunday is March 11 at 6:00 pm on TBS for those looking for a jumpstart on their brackets.
Part of the success of the tournament, which began getting widespread coverage in 1982, resulted from the unexpected national championship runs of teams like North Carolina State. In 1983, NC State won the National Championship against extraordinary odds. It was around that time that NC State and teams like them began to be widely referred to as “Cinderella” teams.
Welcome to the Madness
Why Cinderella? Some of it has to do with the drama some prominent NCAA programs currently find themselves embroiled in. The transition of a poor urban kid playing for a scholarship to make it to the big time – the NBA – is one of the most American of rags-to-riches stories, but the underbelly of that fable may now be coming to light.
For many basketball players, the Big Dance is the best – and sometimes last – opportunity to “debut” their skills to the scouts in the stands. Just like Cinderella, who has one chance to shine and claim her dream, these players see this as their shot at the dream. It’s also true both are stories of great passion. If you haven’t watched the NCAA Tourney, you haven’t felt the NCAA Tourney. With the possible exception of the World Cup, there is no sporting event that produces more passion from both its participants and its audience. There’s certainly no event that brings human beings to tears of joy and heartache as frequently and insistently as the Big Dance does.
An Invitation to the Big Dance
If you aren’t familiar with some of the Cinderella-myth language commonly used around the tournament, here is a rough idea. If yours is one of the fortunate teams to make the tournament, you have been granted an “invitation” to “The Big Dance.”
“March Madness” designates the temporal enthusiasm that weds the tournament to Spring and is mostly a marketing pitch for the sales of beer and food, but the tournament itself is called “The Big Dance” about as frequently as it is called the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
“The Big Dance” is a kind of nickname for the “Royal Ball” that Cinderella teams are invited to each Spring. And because Cinderella is a “debutant” myth, a word frequently used to describe teams as well as individual players, if you do well enough at “The Big Dance” to make it to the quarterfinals, you reach the “Sweet Sixteen.”
The “Sweet Sixteen” party, like the debutant party of social circles that introduces a young woman into datable society, springs from the “coming of age” or “coming out” tales like Cinderella. Maybe it’s because the “Sweet Sixteen” round is the halfway mark of the tournament that it gets so much attention, but this round is referenced more than any other point in the two-week long affair. Such is the power of language and myth. Teams are very often satisfied to have reached the “Sweet Sixteen.”
There are countless other phrases turned in honor of this most famous of fairy tales. Over the years, I have heard “stroke of midnight,” “teams on their dance card, “dropped the slipper,” “fairy godmother” and “fairy godfather,” and “turned into a pumpkin” to describe what’s happening on a basketball court.
More Grace Than Madness
The graceful, synchronized movement of a basketball team in a room with a ball suspended in the air is the stuff of fairy tales. It’s also the stuff of Junior Proms. It’s a story that’s familiar to us, and it’s one we retell because we need it. It takes us back, girls and boys, women and men, to that brief flare of our own lives during which we transcended the world’s expectations of us.
So, when a Cinderella team from the east goes from anonymity to office pool fame in one night, just before midnight, we get it. We get the move from sports to romance, from basketball to myth. It is a leap, to be sure, but a slam dunk of an experience for all of us who invest in it each year, to all of us who fill out our brackets and wait to see if our hearts break or soar.