Kamholz: Roots of March Madness
Editor's note: I'm reading Doug Kamholz's latest dispatch while watching Maryland reach the Elite Eight in the NCAA women's basketball tournament. My fascination with the game is dilettantish compared to Doug, in whose Springfield, Ill the above Hoops Shrine is found. Beneath he relates truths about March Madness, his own included, while examining the role of basketball off the court.
by Douglas Kamholz
Love, Truth, Beauty and Justice are the number one seeds in everybody’s tournament of life. Let’s see how they play against March Madness on the basketball court. And, please, do not turn away if sports ain’t you. There’s history and humanity here.
Two of our country’s recent overwhelming crises are COVID-19 and multiple horrors that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Here’s professional basketball’s response to both. The National Basketball Association (NBA) was the first organized sport to shut down. That was March of 2020. In July, they restarted their season after making a virtual bubble of Disney’s sprawling Orlando properties.
Then something perfect-storm-like happened. This bubble was home to athletes, mostly Black, separated from family and familiar life. Their quasi-isolated campus afforded time to absorb that year’s sad series of what CBS News counted as 164 African Americans killed by police. Some were heavily covered by media: Tyree Davis in Chicago in January; Breonna Taylor in Louisville in March; and George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. After NBA teams set up in Florida, a policeman shot Jacob Blake seven times in Kenosha, Wisconsin, just one hour south of the home of league-leading Milwaukee Bucks. Three days later, the team voted to boycott their tournament game. Their opponents stood with them. Soon all NBA play-off games were canceled that August 26. (It was four years to the day that NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the national anthem.)
As often happens, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was out in front of the men. It is, after all, a league essentially born out of protest against sexism as well as celebration of great skills. Inside their cloistered bubble, they also canceled games. About two months ahead of a new NBA justice coalition, the women announced theirs. The WNBA dedicated their season to Taylor, the young Louisville EMT killed by police in an illegal raid.
Both the NBA and WNBA established official social justice groups that continue to perform community work on issues of racism, public health, gender equity and more. It’s hard to imagine any other major professional sport doing what these basketball players have done. These are acts of civic engagement.
There are also many acts of joy. Like other states, Illinois wrapped up its high school basketball championships before the big college tournament started. It is common for coaches to get everybody into these games’ last minute or so if the score is not close. In that closing minute of a title game this year, two second-stringers from opposing teams hugged as they stepped onto the court.
Something like Joshua Speidel’s story plays out every season, but that doesn’t make any of them any less sweet. Speidel won a basketball scholarship to the University of Vermont, but then suffered a traumatic brain injury and a dark prognosis. To its credit, Vermont did not take away Speidel’s scholarship. To his credit, he defied predictions and graduated in 2020. And to a bunch of people’s credit, he lived his dream of playing college basketball. On senior night in late February, Speidel for the first time donned his Catamount uniform. Through a pre-game arrangement, Vermont’s opponent, Albany’s Great Danes, got the opening tip and were allowed to score unguarded. In trade they did not defend against the Catamounts bringing the ball up-court, passing to Speidel under the basket and his making a lay-up. And . . the . . crowd . . goes . . WILD!
In another 2020 story, first-generation Romanian-American Sabrina Ionescu, right, set records as a University of Oregon Duck, records no NCAA player had equaled: 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in college. Just hours before that thousandth rebound, Ionescu was asked to speak before 20,000 mourners at a service for NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, two of nine who died in a helicopter crash.
She told of Kobe and Gianna coming to see her play and meeting them after the game. “She had a fadeaway better than mine,” Ionescu said of Kobe’s 13-year-old. “If I represented the present of the women’s game, Gigi was the future, and Kobe knew it.” Ionescu was the first pick in that year’s WNBA draft after rooming in college with another basketball player, a guy named Eddy who is her younger-by-18-minutes twin brother.
Here’s one last 2020 story, this time local. A Springfield (Ill.) Rotary Club awards $500 scholarships to ten winning high-schoolers after they judge teens’ “This I Believe” essays, a theme borrowed from the late newsman Edward R. Murrow. One 2020 winner was Kylee Kazenski, then a senior point guard at North Mac High School in Virden, some miles south of Springfield. Her essay was entitled “I Believe in Passing the Ball.” She wrote: “I would never once hesitate to hand over control of the ball to any of my teammates; my lack of belief would only further amplify their own.” She says “the art of passing is an exercise of trust and cooperation,” concluding that those skills are the foundation of all human progress.
Please do not think that I think only basketball produces such prescient young people or such annals of joy. Humanity and hope do abound. I just happen to find it easy to see beyond well-toned bodies bouncing balls in their underwear. (This deeper dive probably also helps justify the hours I spend in the bleachers and on the couch.) We could as easily be lionizing farmers bringing in fall harvests to help hospitalized neighbors or teachers who so commonly impart love along with lessons. If there is a difference, it arises from the status our society, rightly or wrongly, stamps on high-level athletes. When they do good works, outsized attention comes to whatever issue they are addressing. I can only wish farmers and teachers would get that same limelight and appreciation.
Perhaps my personal history with the game is insightful. My fascination started with an oddity at the first basketball games I can recall, back when I was barely in grade school. Our Rockton, Ill.. village high school had both a gym and an auditorium. One winter, the gym was torn down to be rebuilt. What to do? Baskets and backboards were installed at stage right and stage left in our auditorium. My dad and I and everybody else sat in the same seats we occupied for school plays and concerts (and a talent show I would later emcee). So to my young eyes, basketball was some kind of staged drama. And not even the cast knew what would be what when the final curtain fell.
Jump ahead a couple decades and I am a reporter in Charlottesville, Va. My beat is higher education which mainly means Thomas Jefferson’s grandly designed University of Virginia. In athletics, UVA plays basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference, most often the best in the U.S. While I was there covering the school’s academics as well as its tawdry records on race and gender equality, UVA enrolled the most sought-after player entering college, seven-four Ralph Sampson. He went on to win three national player-of-the-year awards. Other schools practicing to go up against his team would give one guy two tennis rackets to match Sampson’s wingspan. It was an exciting time with UVA battling Duke, North Carolina and other ACC powerhouses in those early 1980s. Towering Sampson even reffed a charity game we reporters played against somebody in a high school gym.
I have been thrilled by many high school and college games including five Final Fours, the NCAA championship and culmination of March Madness. Often at those title contests, my hoops buddy Jim and I have engaged in seat-hopping, slipping our way into vacant spots much closer than those we paid for, hoping the rightful buyers don’t appear. We have sat rows away from the now-late Bill Russell and in the same row with other famous players. But no game compares to a late afternoon 38 years ago. NBA teams like to find some quiet, out-of-limelight gym for an early pre-season week of practice. I was back near my hometown in 1985. Just across the Wisconsin state line was Beloit College. I took my father to Beloit’s fieldhouse and, for a dollar each, we watched Bulls’ star Michael Jordan practice his roundball magic at close range. I can remember looking at my dad’s smile more than I recall watching the players.
Being from Illinois attaches me to some basketball history much older than Jordan and the Bulls. The Harlem Globetrotters played their first game in tiny Hinckley, Illinois, in the 1920s. (There’s a sign at the edge of tow to remind you.) Illinois also has a legitimate claim to be “home of the original March Madness.” After serious negotiations, only the Prairie State and the NCAA can officially use that capitalized descriptor. Back in the 1930s, a guy named Henry Van “H.V.” Porter worked for the Illinois High School Association. To this day it sponsors boys and girls state tournaments. Porter wrote a magazine piece in 1939 entitled “March Madness” and there we are. Three years later as World War II bloodied half the earth, Porter put his love of the hardwood into rhyme, concluding with this:
With war nerves tense, the final defense
Is the courage, strength and will
In a million lives where freedom thrives
And liberty lingers still.
Now eagles fly and heroes die
Beneath some foreign arch
Let their sons tread where hate is dead
In a happy Madness of March.