HOW CAN WE ROOT AGAINST ASHLEY JUDD? HEY, IT'S A BEAUTIFUL THING


In today's Writers' Bloc, Jeff Merron explains why we love our NCAA Tourney upsets so. Hint: Think chaos with no real consequences.

A world of possibility
By Jeff Merron

I caught the last half of the UAB-Kentucky game and loved it. I'm trying to figure out why. I had no rooting interest whatsoever -- I didn't fill out a bracket, I don't hate the Wildcats, I'm not a fan of UAB. Had no money down, either.

My first thought: I dig good basketball, and UAB's swarming defense and domination on the offensive boards, their quickness and cool even when Kentucky mounted a strong second-half comeback, amounted to very good hoops. A tight game, with lots of lead changes, that goes down to the final shot, what's not to like? I was glued.

But there's something more primal going on in my lingering thrill at Alabama-Birmingham's victory, and it's that word we sports fans bandy about so casually: upset. Or, if you're the New York Post, UPSET!

In just about every other aspect of our daily lives, "upset" is not a good thing. Ouside the sports world, I use the word, and hear it, as No. 3 at Dictionary.com: "distress or perturb mentally or emotionally." I'm upset, you're upset, she's upset, they're upset, we're upset -- it means something's gone wrong, at least temporarily, and thrown us for an unwanted loop, one that's sometimes truly life-changing.

As a sports fan, though, I live for the upsets, unless, of course, it's my favorite team that's on the receiving end. And the clue was also to be found at Dictionary.com. The first two definitions listed there: 1) "To cause to turn or tip over; capsize;" and 2) "To disturb the functioning, order, or course of."

Bingo. The thrill is in the disorder -- No. 9 seeds are not supposed to beat No. 1 seeds. The Mets weren't supposed to win 100 games and the World Series in 1969. The Marlins didn't have a chance to make the playoffs, much less beat the Yankees in last year's World Series. It's the sports world turned topsy-turvy, all assumptions wiped clean by a final result.

The beauty, the lingering, delicious feeling, though, comes from what seems to be an oxymoron: controlled anarchy. UAB over Kentucky, in particular, was a fantasy finish arising from false expectations in this artificial environment we call "March Madness." It was a little piece of unscripted drama that we can relish, knowing it has little, if any, impact in the "real" world.

Alabama knocking out Stanford, Nevada taking down Gonzaga -- same thing. Powers that be -- the selection committee, the college hoops experts, the seemingly invincible squads coached by million-dollar coaches -- have been taken down a notch. There's pleasure in knowing that even the most knowledgable and powerful can be so wrong. Especially when it's not at our expense.

But there's another kind of sweet pleasure, and that comes from the sheer delight of inescapable "cognitive dissonance." I don't want to get too academic here, but here's the gist of that academic theory: We tend to gravitate to thoughts, opinions and facts that we already hold, or are sympathetic to.

For example, few Lefties listen to Rush Limbaugh, because, in a very real way, it's too painful for them to hear what he's saying, too far from their own world view. Limbaugh's opinions just evoke an anger that can't be immediately vented. And it's a cold day in Miami when a dittohead walks into a bookstore and buys the latest Michael Moore or Al Franken book. They're simply unable to get past the introduction without having smoke come out of their ears.

But sports upsets upend what we think of as solid: The Yankees will win, or come damn near close, every year. The Lakers will dominate. The Marlins, the Mighty Ducks -- we know their place ... in the second division. Then the big boys lose, and the little guys emerge victorious, and we find out we were wrong. Brain synapses scramble to make sense of it all.

But here's the key: There's no pain. And this tiny little seed of possibility has been planted & by a simple little sporting event. Some wonderful things await us all. We just don't have a clue when, or where, or what they'll be.

All from some simple basketball games. Go figure.

* * * * *

Alan Grant:

Indeed. As one who is routinely lashed for his lack of attachment to a team and his "forensic" view of sports, I agree wholeheartedly with Jeff's appreciation of "good hoops." The Kentucky-UAB game was a smorgasborg of great athletes doing athletic stuff. I live for that kind of display. I also agree that an upset lay in the eye of the beholder. A No. 1 seeding accrued during the regular season does not, and will not ever, guarantee No.1-seed caliber play in March. But I dig the drama.

Eric Neel:

Jeff, my friend, you've been hoodwinked. The stirring upsets you fancy are a myth. Once upon a time there were college powerhouses loaded with phenomenal talent, and when one of those teams went down, it was a mighty fall and a great noise. But these days, with so many of the college superstars bolting early from the prestige programs for NBA paychecks, there are no Goliaths. Which means no Davids, either.

The upsets over the weekend weren't upsets at all, really. UAB took Kentucky because, like Kentucky, they had kids who could run for days and, like Kentucky, they had experienced upper classmen making major contributions. They took them because they were good and because UK was beatable.

Same with Alabama and Stanford. Some of the games coming this weekend look like blowouts on paper maybe, but I bet they won't be. I bet they'll be tight. Maybe the high seeds will "restore order," but my guess is it'll be a mix. If UAB can take Kentucky, they can surely hang with Kansas. GTech's looked listless so far; Nevada's going to make them run. Illinois will probably fall to Duke, but they're going to put some bodies on 'em down on the blocks first, and who knows ... If the Tournament is good this year, and it is, it isn't because of the Cinderella stories, it's because big-time programs and second- and third-tier schools are playing even.

Ralph Wiley:

I'm just wild-guessing, but I think Hunter Thompson would rather have Kentucky-Duke. As for me, and I can only speak for myself, and maybe millions of others whose alma maters are not in the Tourney, I'd rather have a Lakers vs. Pistons Finals. The rest is just warmups.