Most of my childhood memories are blocked out by the trauma of growing up in New Jersey, but I somehow manage to always recall one scenario from fifth grade. It involves our teacher, Mr. Born, regularly asking the dumb kid in class - in an attempt to reassure him that there is hope - a question the kid knew the answer to.
The question was "Why did the Pilgrims come to America?" The answer? "For religious reasons!" the dumb kid would blurt out through a face beaming with pride.
More than 25 years later, I find myself giving that same pride-filled answer to those who question why I have such a devotion and love for March Madness.
For religious reasons.
The Catholicism of my youth was renounced long ago, and for 11 months of the year I'm as agnostic and religiously indifferent as they come. But when the calendar hits March, I go full-on zealot, and these next few days are my Holy Days.
Call it Bracketism, call it Hooperology, call it whatever you want. I call it the most exciting four days a sports fan can experience, and that is truly the way you must live those days. By experiencing them.
Translation: nothing else matters but the hoops. Hoops, and anything that can be tangentially associated with it, like staring at multiple TV screens as well as a laptop or two, spending all day in a sports bar, day drinking, maybe a little bit of wagering (just to keep things interesting) and, most importantly, spending as little time as possible working.
Call it my Sabbath, but one that runs for four days, involves alcohol, Red Bull (sugar free, of course), gambling and screaming profanities at flatscreens, and only requires candles if you somehow lose power. A Rumspringa, but without having to go back to butter churning, abhorring technology and distrusting non-Dutch descendants.
There isn't a Bible, a Quran or a Torah. Instead, there are brackets. So, so many brackets. Each one filled out following diligent research (based on uniform color, uniqueness of mascot type or actual research into the teams' skills and abilities), but even if every guess is wrong, so be it. I'd rather get all 67 games incorrect than not pick them at all.
Last Sunday's NCAA basketball tournament field selection show? Yeah, that's my version of camping out in St. Peter's Square, waiting for the white smoke to appear.
There's even a hymm: One Shining Moment, the tear-inducing anthem that's ended every NCAA title game since 1987.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a year-round sports fan. And there are plenty of other events and occurrences in the sports world that get my juices flowing, though in comparison to March Madness the effort and devotion I pour into those other things is tantamount to the routine most Convenience Catholics go through around Easter and Christmas.
(The lone exception to this rule is the World Series of Poker, but that's a story for another column. In mid-June, to be precise.)
This four-day basketball immersion has been part of my mid-March routine since middle school, when I coincidentally always came down with strep throat or an ear infection on the Thursday and Friday that the tourney started on. I didn't have the luxury of being on Spring Break because, well, IT WAS NOT SPRING.
When I enrolled at the University of Arizona in 1994 I thought maybe my passion for the madness would subside, seeing as I was now a student at a school that regularly was an integral part of the tourney. Remember, the Wildcats made the Final Four that March, something I glowingly enjoyed watching just a few months before starting at the UA.
Instead, the fever grew. And even more cowbell wasn't going to cure it. I was thankful to have the first weekend of the tourney coincide with UA's Spring Break, but even if it hadn't there was going to be NO SCHOOL FOR ME on those days. And I found I wasn't alone, as those of us who didn't have the means to hit Rocky Point, Lake Havasu or San Diego instead would assemble around any and every on-campus TV we could find to soak up the madness.
Once I entered the real world and got a big-boy job getting paid to watch sports, I luckily didn't sour on the addiction to sports that I noticed so many of my sportswriter peers fell victim to. The chance to cover the first two rounds at McKale Center in 2000 for the Arizona Daily Star felt like a privilege, not a burden, and when I got to travel with the Wildcats during the 2004 and 2005 NCAA tournaments, I felt what Muslims must experience when they complete the pillar of Hajj.
The sportswriting thing is no longer a full-time deal for me. Beyond this sad excuse for a column and my random tweets and Facebook posts pertaining to athletics, I no longer have any sort of direct connection to the sporting world. But thankfully that's only enabled my love of March Madness to increase exponentially. And I've welcomed this newfound enlightenment with Kali-like welcoming arms.
And though I do preach the Good Word to those around me, I don't expect them to follow suit and join the cause. I'm not that kind of devotee. If you agree, awesome, if not, so be it. It's why I sent my wife out of town last week during her Spring Break so she didn't have to deal with losing control of the remote due to the presence of conference tournament games on a glorious SEVEN different channels.
The NCAA tournament is on only four channels, so my DISH system at home makes it so I can easily scan back-and-forth-and-there-and-over-and-back to track all the games. Most likely, though, much of these next four days will be spent at an establishment that will provide all of the following:
Many large TVs
A sound system that will allow for hearing the play-by-play during buzzer beaters (and hitting mute if Bill Walton somehow gets ahold of a microphone)
Ample enough table/counter space for laptops and piles of brackets
Effective, working wireless (gotta keep track of my $1 bets ...)
So while I'm just as hopeful as anyone that the UA will make another deep run in the tourney, thus providing a quick cash-making opportunity for local entrepreneurs selling knockoff Wildcat gear on every street corner, I'm going to enjoy this tournament no matter who beats whom. For all I know, by the time you're reading this, Arizona has been knocked out and the suicide hotline is doing a brisk business.