Commentary

Encyclopedia: The bracket racket

Originally Published: March 14, 2010
By Steve Rushin | ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia

The English word bracket comes from the French braguette and the Spanish bragueta, both of which mean the same thing: codpiece.

A codpiece, in medieval menswear, was a cloth pouch on the front of the pants that both concealed and called attention to the wearer's private parts. And so, this much can be said with absolute certainty: Men have been filling out brackets since at least the Middle Ages.

In the beginning, there were all manner of brackets. The architectural bracket got its name because it resembled a codpiece in profile. But brackets also supported bookshelves and enclosed arcane algebraic equations. They literally embraced [placed an editorial afterthought between braces, like these] and were embraced, by anyone who aspired to a higher tax bracket.

It wasn't until the late 20th century that the word bracket became synonymous with one thing: the NCAA Basketball Tournament schematic we fill out every March -- 32 typographical brackets that give way to the single, long-stemmed bracket of the championship game, which on paper resembles a toppled football goalpost.

That metaphor is at once terribly wrong -- college football is bereft of brackets, which is precisely its problem, say playoff advocates -- and so very right: The toppled goalpost, like the basketball bracket it resembles, signifies epic celebration in college sports.

The Tournament bracket both embraces (think of NC State coach Jim Valvano looking for someone to hug after winning the big one in 1983) and is embraced (by a nation that sacrifices $3.8 billion a year in productivity to brood over its picks in one office pool or another).

Brackets once supported bookshelves. Now it's the other way around. Among the 21st-century volumes devoted to brackets is The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything. In it, authors Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir place the whole of human existence into brackets, then winnow each category -- everything from Frank Sinatra songs to Shakespearean insults -- down to a single Darwinian champion. And so, "Survey said … !" beat "Come on down!" in the championship for Best Game Show Catchphrase.

Manifold magazines, newspapers and websites do the same, placing into the crucible of brackets everything from cars to beers to unusual names. And so, a professional basketball player in France named Steeve Ho You Fat battled a former University of Kansas softball shortstop named Destiny Frankenstein in an annual online, 64-entry Name of the Year bracket competition.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Valvano
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesWho can forget Jimmy Valvano and underdog NC State winning it all in 1983?

Both were upset by eventual champion Spaceman Africa. But then, brackets are a kind of sodium pentothal. Brackets force the truth -- a concept that elevates college basketball over other sports.

There are no fluke champions. Brackets make sure of that. Selection Sunday might better be called Natural Delectation Sunday, for brackets brutally illustrate survival of the fittest, a concept central to earthly existence since at least the Old Testament when Cain eliminated Abel in the East-of-Eden Regional.

And yet, the tournament bracket has no Darwin, no Edison, no founding genius who imposed order where once chaos reigned. In 1933, an electrical draftsman named Harry Beck, inspired by circuit diagrams, drew a schematic map of the London Underground. Using little more than a few simple lines, Beck created an icon of international design -- still used as a map, but also emblazoned on shopping bags and coffee mugs and T-shirts -- for which he was paid five guineas.

Alas, the bracket has no Harry Beck, who was five guineas richer than the anonymous draftsman who ingeniously sketched the first brackets for a single-elimination tournament -- or knockout competition, as it's known in England -- where brackets or something like them have been in use at Wimbledon since the tournament began with 22 participants in 1877.

And yet, when we talk about Wimbledon, if we talk about it at all these days, we speak of its "draw," not its brackets. The same goes for the other Grand Slam tennis events. It was in the NCAA Basketball Tournament -- with its alliteratively Darwinian descent from Sweet 16 to Elite Eight to Final Four -- that the bracket found its highest purpose.

Even then, it wasn't until after 1984 that brackets became a cultural touchstone, when the NCAA expanded its field of teams to 64 (after diddling with various sizes growing from the seminal eight in 1939). More teams meant broader interest, of course, and a greater need for the organizational genius of brackets.

But more than that, there is something elemental about Nineteen the number 64, something hardwired into the human race. Something to do with competition and status and desire. Sixty-four is the number of squares on a chess board, the number of positions in the Kama Sutra, the number of colors in the big box of Creoles -- the one you longed for in grade school but couldn't have; the one with the built-in sharpener.

The number 128 -- the number of men and women, respectively, in the Wimbledon singles draw -- signifies nothing. And never mind that the NCAA technically invites 65 teams to the Tournament: That 65th -- the loser of the play-in game -- never makes it to the bracket, in the way that "the 51st state," Puerto Rico, never makes the weather map.

Whatever number the ever-avaricious NCAA might expand its field to in the future, 64 was an unmistakable milestone, as John Lennon and Paul McCartney well knew. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?

All of the following elements come into play when you complete a bracket, whether or not you realize it: chess, sex, envy and mortality. Brackets are life. They give office bragging rights to pool winners every April. They've made a few people rich and others poor. Countless American men equate their brackets with their manhood.

It's worth remembering: When you endeavor to fill out a bracket, you are attempting to fill out a codpiece, and not only in an etymological sense. "My wife has a better bracket than I do," one of innumerable posters to one of innumerable online bracket contests lamented in 2008. "Thanks, Georgetown, for letting down the entire male gender."

The Hoyas that year were upset losers to Davidson, which instantly entered the pantheon of "bracketbusters." It is a perfect name for those teams that upend the traditional powers of college basketball -- and not only because the bracket for each NCAA region resembles a toppled pyramid.

[+] EnlargeSTEPHEN CURRY
Sporting News/ZUMA Press/Icon SMIStephen Curry led Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008.

Bracketbuster is one more neologism in the alliterative lexicon of March Madness, that glorious period bracketed [if you will] by Selection Sunday and the Final Four, when Americans wager an estimated $7 billion on the outcomes of the games laid out in those brackets.

How ever did this happen? That is the (here's that number again) $64,000 question.

Nineteen fifty-nine was a revolutionary year, and not only in Cuba. It was an annus mirabilis for college basketball fans, who witnessed their own reinvention of the wheel with the introduction into the American workplace of the Xerox 914, the world's first commercially successful plain-paper copier.

Though we didn't know it then, the basketball bracket would become an enduring and iconic offspring of the office copy machine, ranking alongside the photocopied keister from the Christmas party as the most memorable fruits of xerography. But we only know that in hindsight. In 1959, the NCAA Tournament consisted of 23 teams, nine of which had first-round byes, and brackets didn't have the neat symmetry they have today in which each half of the Tournament draw, turned on its side, resembles an inverted tower of champagne glasses.

Predicting the winner of the NCAA Tournament was not yet a national parlor game. On the contrary. For a good while, a chimpanzee with a four-letter alphabet -- U, C, L and A-could accurately forecast the national champion every year.

In 1964, the Bruins began their run of 10 titles in 12 seasons, a Dark Age for the office pool. But three bracket-building phenomena occurred at the conclusion of that streak in 1975: 1) The UCLA dynasty ended with John Wooden's retirement; 2) The Tournament field expanded to a symmetrical, bracket-friendly field of 32; and 3) Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Ed Chay coined the phrase "Final Four." The Tournament, and its attendant hype, was growing.

Four years later, the field grew again, to 40, and a Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson final pulled the highest television rating ever for an NCAA Tournament game. College basketball's championship playoff, at last, was unpredictable. And people desperately wanted to predict it.

Exactly halfway between those watershed Tournaments of '75 and '79 -- when an Irish ex-bartender from New York named Al McGuire led Marquette to the '77 title -- an Irish bar in Staten Island, N.Y., named Jody's Club Forest started a Tournament pool with 88 filled-out brackets. Patrons paid $10 per entry, winner take all.

Each regional bracket resembles a genealogy chart, a family tree in which every couple gives birth to an only child. And in the early 1980s, those brackets went forth and multiplied. The Tournament expanded to 48 teams in 1980, to 53 in '84, to 64 in '85, all the while stringing together a charm bracelet of memorable championship games.

Freshman "Mike" Jordan's jumper won the title for North Carolina in 1982 -- the year the phrase "March Madness" was uttered on national television for the first time, by CBS announcer Brent Musburger. (The phrase had been used by H.V. Porter of the Illinois High School Association as early as 1939, referring to that state's high school tourney.)

In the wine cellar of history, Jordan '82 was followed by other unforgettable vintages: that '83 Jimmy V, the '85 Villanova, the '90 UNLV. On Staten Island, the lines outside Jody Haggerty's tavern grew longer, a living bar graph of the Tournament's growth.

Published in newspapers, photocopied in offices, pored over in cubicles, brackets were becoming huge, and not only in a metaphorical sense. By 2004, pedestrians in downtown San Antonio would find themselves looking up -- awestruck Earthlings in a sci-fi flick -- at a six-story bracket hung on the side of the city's Convention Center. This monster -- Attack of the 72-Foot Bracket -- was nurtured in the 1990s by the epoch-making arrival of the Internet, which would put brackets on every desk-and laptop. The annual office pool became so wedded to the PC that downloadable brackets for the men's and women's Tournaments were offered online by Microsoft, whose founder, Bill Gates, was more renowned for his tax bracket than his basketball bracket.

But the computer turned out to be much more than a mega-mimeograph machine. For the World Wide Web put expert advice at every desk jockey's fingertips, quite literally, and allowed all of humanity to join a single office pool. In 2003, ESPN.com started an online bracket competition that attracted 875,000 entries. And of course, the queues for Jody's Pool on Staten Island continued to grow, a joyous conga line of hoop junkies down Forest Avenue.

By 2009, according to a poll by CareerBuilders.com, 19% of American office workers participated in an NCAA Tournament pool, leaving many of us to wonder who the other 81% were. Even to those who cared nothing about basketball, brackets represented an irresistible intersection of money and soothsaying. Of that $6 billion wagered nationally on the Tournament, the state of Nevada -- the only place where it's legal -- accounts for only about 3%.

An online betting site in 2008 offered an $11 million prize to anyone who picked a perfect bracket, secure in the knowledge that the odds of doing so have been calculated at one in 9 million trillion.

Of course, participants don't have to pick them all right to win big: Rick Neuheisel reportedly won $20,000 in a high-stakes bracket competition in 2002. That revelation got him fired as football coach at the University of Washington, which ended up paying him $4.5 million in a legal settlement, almost certainly the biggest bracket prize in history.

The second-biggest prize may well have been the one at Jody's Club Forest. By 2005, Jody's Pool had 150,000 $10 entries, a prize of $1.5 million and prominent press coverage after the winner was identified as "Noe Body." That, in turn, drew the interest of the Internal Revenue Service. And though Jody's Pool was legal, the bar shut it down in 2006, ending the happy queues on Forest Avenue in Staten Island.

Bracket pools aren't legal in every state -- a fact that offends many lawmakers. "It's a crime we consider [them] a crime," said Michigan state legislator Kim Meltzer in 2007. And indeed prosecutors -- often participants in their own office pools -- have been loath to indict millions of Americans on charges of bracketeering. The biggest bracket pool by far is ESPN.com's, which in 2009 drew more than five million entries. (Four other sites combined to attract at least another four million entries.) And though ESPN's own expert, Joe Lunardi -- Joey Brackets to the basketball mafia -- coined the term "bracketology," filling in brackets is much more an art than a science. Consider: In 2006, only four of ESPN.com's 3.1 million brackets correctly predicted the Final Four, the year bracketbuster George Mason made it all the way to the national semis. Two of the link people, lined up at a bar and connected at the elbow like responsible geniuses were George Mason alumni. A third -- paper dolls. Russell Pleasant of Omaha, Neb. -- could not tell a lie: He meant to select George Washington. The Pleasant error won him $10,000.

[+] EnlargeJim Larranaga
Robert Seale/Icon SMIGeorge Mason, which advanced to the Final Four in 2006, is the ultimate bracket buster.

Dozens of websites now offer bracket tip sheets every March, and so-called bracketologists are so ubiquitous that the satirical newspaper The Onion ran the following headline: BRACKETIATRIST MISTAKEN FOR BRACKETOLOGIST.

And still, Johnny Gilbert of Salt Lake City was one of only two entrants to pick all Sweet 16 teams in ESPN.com's 2008 pool, even though Gilbert was 13 years old and didn't get ESPN or any other channel that wasn't carried over the airwaves; his family didn't have cable TV.

Bracketology, like theology, is a faith-based discipline. It requires belief -- in what you hear on TV, in what you read on the Internet, in the guy two stools down at the bar using his bracket as a beer coaster on the first day of the Tournament, when 64 teams and a few trillion combinations are still alive. Hold down a barstool for 12 consecutive hours at Vaughan's Public House across from Hartford's XL Center, home of the two-time NCAA champion Connecticut Huskies, and you'll see them -- hooky-playing office workers filing in all day, fingering their brackets like worry beads.

Tom Steed fled his office at Prudential with two co-workers. The systems analyst ducked into Vaughan's, where he found himself systematically analyzing a pint of Harp.

"Two years ago," said Steed, "we went into McKinnon's to get a quick beer and catch up on the scores. When we walked out, we ran into our boss on the street. She asked us where we'd been and one of my buddies said, 'We just gave blood at the Red Cross.'"

That's what brackets are all about. They don't just link the round of 64 to the round of 32 to the round of 16. They link people, lined up at a bar and connected at the elbow like paper dolls. In 2009, the basketball-loving Barack Obama -- that first name practically bracket anagrammatized -- made good on a campaign promise to fill out a tournament sheet for ESPN. In doing so, Obama became responsible for another milestone in presidential history: The first Oval Office pool.

Alas, finishing first on Election Day is no predictor of success on Selection Day: Obama did pick eventual champion North Carolina to win it all, but was right on only 65% of his other choices -- good enough to place him 903,125th in the ESPN.com pool. The audacity of hoop.

More Americans might vote if political candidates were placed into brackets. There is a simple joy in filling them in, in making multiple office pool entries -- like playing two bingo cards at once -- and in the little epiphanies they elicit as the Tournament rolls on.

When Bradley played Pittsburgh in the 2006 Tournament, the brackets -- and the CBS scoreboard graphic -- revealed the name of the biggest movie star in the world and gave a whole new meaning to the phrase marquee matchup:

BRAD

PITT

The names were inked in by millions of men, women and children from every region (and sub-region) of the continent and points overseas -- a diversity of interest that is the ultimate testament to the brilliance of brackets.

Each individual bracket resembles a tuning fork. And for people all over this pebble-grained globe, brackets do exactly what tuning forks do: They resonate.