Commentary : We Have Lost Our Hearts to Hoops

The Baltimore Evening Sun

Has anyone ever figured out what it is about basketball that turns us into lemming?

Granted, coming out of the winter and before baseball gets started, we’re on the prowl for something to wrap our interest around. But this mania for hoops shows no bounds year after year.

Late arrivals to the situation will conclude the whole thing got under way when the television networks began shoveling money into the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s coffers for tournament rights a quarter century ago. That only nationalized the phenomenon.

Taking it step by step, we see the wave begin to form just about the time a kid tries out for and makes his first team. It seems there’s always something to shoot for beyond first place. It is here, in subsequent tourney games, that youngsters have the experience of being small fish in a big pond. It serves as an incentive.


At this level, parents and coaches are the only ones who really care, and they assume the roll of disciples.

Even before the movie “Hoosiers” and national ratings became part of hoop lore, high school ball has been where emotion and true fanaticism are developed in player and spectator alike.

Every state has produced legendary performances similar to tiny Milan winning the Indiana state championship in 1954 (“Hoosiers”). What really enlists the masses, though, are the simple league title games and invitational tournaments that dot the landscape.

As if interest in city, county and regional play weren’t enough, there was a time in New England when teams had the opportunity to go head-to-head in Boston. Imagine, vying for the title of best over an entire six-state region.

Massachusetts and Connecticut provided the powerhouse teams, so they were accorded two spots. The other states got one each, and while Vermont probably never had a team that did anything but get slaughtered, the folks from White River Junction or Rutland would walk barefoot over broken glass to get to the game site.

Indiana, of course, is noted for its statewide high school tourney, which gives every school, no matter the size, a shot at the brass ring. In Evansville, Ind., 15 years ago, a magnificent Morgan State team, Marvin Webster presiding, won the NCAA College Division title with a 67-52 victory over Southwest Missouri State on a Friday night.

The game, finishing off a week of excellent play, drew about 6,000 fans. Next morning, the schoolboy semi-states were scheduled for the same arena. Every two hours a new and enthusiastic capacity crowd of 10,000 would file in to see their kids play. I swear, some of the spectators pulled up on buckboards.

That sight convinced me that had there never been a network, a Billy Packer or a Dick Vitale (God forbid), basketball would still be our national passion.


Several years ago, Sports Illustrated did a story on the high school girls’ tournament in Iowa. That little hoedown might be the test that qualifies for the description “more important than life itself.”

Before TV came along with its dough, the No. 1 tourney was the National Invitation Tournament for a very simple reason: New York.

Before news became instantaneous around the globe, a single-site tourney was the way to go, and the NIT, in effect, challenged the land to bring its teams in for a shot at the best from the Northeast.

The Big Apple, of course, never wanted for at least one good team. But if it had, chances are it wouldn’t have mattered because the city was providing most of the best players at schools from Boston to Washington and as far west as Buffalo and Pittsburgh.


All roads led to Madison Square Garden come March, be you a student or fan of Duquesne, Niagara, Temple, Holy Cross or Seton Hall. It’s amazing how far a true believer could make a couple of bucks, a quart of milk and a dozen doughnuts go while taking rest in the Hotel Chevrolet on 46th Street.

Graduation was the only thing more joyously anticipated than official word that your school had indeed been invited to compete for the first time. It was classes as usual back on campus, but the prospect of those all-night rides back from New York never seemed to dim the desire to be there.

One of the great concessions of all time befell the students of Providence College in 1961 when, after the Friars won the NIT title, it was announced over the Garden public address system that Monday morning classes were suspended. Just the morning classes, guys. What do you think this is, Christmas?

While it’s money -- the NCAA has grossed $340 million over the years -- and exposure that have boosted the collegiate championship to World Series proportions, it is the riveting quality of the game itself that sustains it at all levels.


What else could possibly explain 32 NAIA teams showing up in Kansas City to complete a tournament in a week’s time, with many staying to view every three-point attempt, slam dunk and bad call by an official.

The NAIA tourney and the one for junior colleges in Hutchinson, Kan., have the same number of teams and the same format. They start out with eight games on each of the first three days. Eight games means 16 hours minimum, right? That’s 9 a.m. to past midnight, not including overtimes.

To do it, teams waiting to play the next game come out and warm up during halftime of the preceding contest. I once was able to sit through a first-day program and half the second, 12 straight games, before breaking to see if the rest of the world was still outside the arena.

A gent named Norm Kendrick, attending his 26th straight NAIA tourney in Kansas City last week, did the first 24 games in about 64 hours with barely a yawn. Now that’s scary.


There are thousands like Norm, and the number increases every year as the local high school team or a favored college makes a breakthrough and heads off to a tournament seeking fame and fortune. Siena, Middle Tennessee State, South Alabama, Ball State, the parade goes on and on. And so does our addiction.


Obviously, ours is not to reason why ...