March Madness doesn’t refer so much to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the annual 68-team competition that crowns the best college team, as it does to the atmosphere around it, a national inferno of passion stoked by tens of millions of brackets religiously, incorrectly filled out by college basketball fans.
Jody Haggerty, whom many credit with creating the March Madness pool, owned the Irish bar Jody’s Club Forest. In early March 1977, he had the idea to print out the tournament pairings, asking some customers to select their favorites for a $10 fee; by 2006, the pool had grown so large that the winner took home $1.5 million. The next year, Haggerty ended the legendary pool after pleading guilty to federal tax evasion charges. He died in 2016.
School and regional pride fuel part of the intense national interest in the tournament. So does money dedicated to brackets; millions of fans gamble on the tournament, helping to create billions in revenue that never reaches the players. Offices, posses and families all over the country participate in competitions of their own.
Some pools have grown so large that organizers have become fearful of the wrath of the IRS. I spoke to three such New York-based commissioners who over the course of 10 years or more organized pools of hundreds of members and worth thousands of dollars. None wanted to be identified for fear of attracting the attention of the Feds.
Last weekend, Long Island University-Brooklyn upset Wagner College in the Northeast Conference championship to win an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. Undoubtedly one of the worst teams in the national tournament, LIU-Brooklyn was drawn in last Tuesday’s play-in game against a small school in Virginia called Radford University. It was the first game of the tournament. The winner would go on to join the rest of the field Thursday as a 16th seed.
And so it was that the madness of 2018 tipped off at Bounce Sporting Club, a sports bar in Manhattan, where LIU-Brooklyn’s Alumni Association had organized a watch party. John Vasquez, one of Bounce’s investors, graduated from LIU-Brooklyn in 1996.
“They’re going to keep it close, and then they’re going to take over in the second half,” Vasquez said early in the contest. “And then they’re going to play Villanova on Thursday.”
Villanova is seeded first in the East Region. Vasquez said he planned to pick his alma mater when he filled out his bracket.
“It’s March Madness because it’s Upset Madness,” he said. “All you need is momentum.”
It was wishful thinking that highlighted a vital, tragic point. Vasquez hadn’t even filled out his bracket yet; picks didn’t have to be finalized until Thursday.
Bounce is usually bursting with attractive young locals looking to be seen, drink and dance. During big sports events like the basketball tournament, a line of hopeful patrons can snake down the street, and the atmosphere inside can be electric, even oppressive. For this game, however, the cavernous bar was mostly empty, save for about two dozen alumni mingling and munching on wings, kebabs and fries in a reserved back area. For virtually everyone but these fans, March Madness had yet to begin.
Howard and Beverly Adelson drove down from New Rochelle, in Westchester County, to watch the game. At halftime, with LIU-Brooklyn down by three points, they lounged on a couch drinking beer.
“I got an email,” Howard Adelson said. “I thought, What better way to watch the game?”
Howard Adelson played guard for LIU-Brooklyn from 1963 until he graduated in 1967. Beverly Adelson graduated in 1968, the year they married.
“We thought there’d be more basketball alumni here,” she said.
Howard Adelson was happy enough with the berth. “It’s a tribute to the coach,” he said approvingly.
He fills out a bracket with his son every year. This year, he picked Virginia to win it all. He didn’t expect LIU-Brooklyn to get past Villanova.
Neither, really, did Andrew Zarick, who graduated from LIU-Brooklyn in 2007 and founded a tech company. He just recently moved to New Jersey after 14 years in Brooklyn, but he is from Louisville, Kentucky. Zarick said he catches only one or two LIU-Brooklyn games a year but participates in two small pools to keep in touch with his Louisville and college friends.
“In one bracket, I have Villanova winning it,” he said. “In one, I have Michigan.”
Terry Dayle, a computer programmer from Brooklyn, dropped out of LIU-Brooklyn in the ‘90s, but went back to finish his accounting degree in 2010. “I’m spiritually 1994,” he said.
In the second half of Tuesday’s game, LIU-Brooklyn kept it close. When asked who he thought would win, Dayle sighed. Radford, he said, reminded him of the 1980s Detroit Pistons. Teams would draw to within three points, but the Pistons would execute and eventually pull away. He finished his explanation 3 1/2 minutes into the half, just before LIU-Brooklyn took a three-point lead.
“Guess I was wrong,” he said.
Dayle doesn’t watch many LIU games. He doesn’t often fill out tournament brackets, either. “I’m never right,” he said.
Usha Narasimhan graduated from LIU Post, in Long Island, in 1999. She doesn’t follow college basketball, but she decided to show up. “I’m a proud alum,” she said. “I got the email and said, ‘Hey, why not?'”
Narasimhan chatted with a co-worker throughout the game. The alums made for a muted, distracted viewing party. They took group photos and caught up with one another as momentum seesawed between teams.
But with just over 5 minutes left, Radford led by three, and the viewing party grew quiet and tense.
Terry Williams, a football fan who graduated from LIU-Brooklyn in 1982, slammed his hand on the table when an LIU-Brooklyn player missed a free throw. With under 3 minutes remaining, a Radford forward made a turnaround jumper in the paint to put Radford in the lead, 66-59.
“He walked,” Williams weakly pleaded. “He walked.”
Dayle, it turned out, was finally right. Radford dominated in the end, building a 10-point lead with 20 seconds remaining.
Most of the alumni seemed untouched by the 71-61 defeat; no one had real expectations or much money riding on LIU-Brooklyn to win. But they all stayed to the final whistle.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
GREG HOWARD © 2018 The New York Times