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March Madness

March Madness

by William H. Benson

March 24, 2016

     The NCAA basketball games are upon us, and March Madness has arrived. The team to watch in recent years has been the University of Connecticut, where basketball is king. The men won their last national championship, their fourth, in 2014, but the women point with pride to their ten national championships, the most recent one last year, in 2015.

     In first round play this year, the Uconn women decimated the Robert Morris Colonials 101 to 49, and played Duquesne on Sunday, March 21. Uconn’s men defeated Colorado University’s Buffaloes 74-67, in first round play, a heartbreak to CU fans, but then the Kansas Jayhawks defeated Uconn’s men in the second game.

     Sports writer, Nick Kosmider, at the Denver Post, said, “For all the sheer excitement the NCAA Tournament provides, it also dishes out the hurt of cold, abrupt endings in equal measure.” Both Uconn and CU men’s teams saw their seasons end near the tournament’s beginning, not what they wanted.

     Is it ironic, or just random coincidence, that James Naismith, the father of basketball, invented the game at Springfield, Massachusetts, less than fifty miles from University of Connecticut’s campus?

     In December of 1891, the Canadian James Naismith found himself in a job where he was expected to teach physical education to a class of rowdy students at the local YMCA. The students griped about the endless calisthenics, the gymnastics, and the routine exercises in the gym, and that it was too cold to play tennis outside. Two previous instructors had tried to tame the students, and both resigned.

     Naismith said, “These boys would not play ‘Drop the handkerchief.’”

     Naismith’s supervisor suggested that he make up an indoor game that did not require much room, help the students get into shape, and “make it fair for all players, and not too rough.”

     Jim nailed a peach basket on the wall, ten feet high, at both ends of the gym, and asked the students to try to put a soccer ball into the basket. He wrote thirteen rules, and the last was, “The side making the most points in that time is declared the winner.” To say the game caught on is an understatement.

     The game’s purpose still remains the same: give the students a game to play indoors during the winter. Basketball equals winter; both begin in November and end in March. It occupies young people’s time, diverts their thoughts away from misbehavior or crime, provides them great exercise, and the spectators are thrilled to watch and cheer.

     Too many young people, with too much time on their hands, with too little freedoms, create conditions ripe for a revolution. In ages past, the more perceptive kings would round them up on occasion, and march them off to fight and die in a foreign war, or the tyrants would expect them to devote countless hours training for the next attack upon their country.

     In 1497, King James II banned golf because he considered it an unwelcome distraction to archery, a more useful military skill. I say it is far better to shoot baskets, rather than bows and arrows or guns.

     After Naismith earned a medical degree in Denver, he accepted a job at the University of Kansas as the physical education instructor, and there he coached basketball, the first coach ever for the Jayhawks, and the University’s only basketball coach with a losing record, 55 and 60.

     During World War II, Naismith served as an army chaplain, and he introduced basketball to the soldiers under his command, because, he believed, it “controls their excess energy, increases morale, and even lowers the rate of disciplinary actions among soldiers.”

     America has exported basketball to the world. Although only eight million people reside in Israel, it boasts of a professional basketball league. In the New York Times sports section, two weeks ago, there was a full article on Karam Mashour, a native of Nazareth, who now plays for the Israeli team, the Bnei Herzilya. “In a league full of Israeli Jews, top Europeans, and talented Americans, Mashour is the only player of Arab heritage.”

     This is unusual in the Middle East, where winter temperatures are mild, and there is little reason to play inside. “Everyone here plays football,” Mashour said, referring to soccer. “When my brother and I told people we wanted to play basketball, they said, ‘Why?’”

     Long ago the world decided that Western Civilization created the best opportunities for common individuals. Along with the arts and humanities, the Judeo-Christian faith, and the rule of law in a democratic society, Western Civilization has also enjoyed a long association with professional sports.

     The ancient Greeks formed city leagues and held championship games at the first Olympics, and the ancient Romans competed in coliseums. Hollywood is now remaking the movie Ben-Hur, and it promises a chariot race, as did the 1959 movie starring Charleton Heston as Prince Judah Ben-Hur.

     Tomorrow is Good Friday, Sunday is Easter. Enjoy the weekend.

     March Madness will end in April, and the champions, the last team to win, will receive trophies.