I watched basketball Thursday, not war. It felt a little weird at first; my friend Neville wondered if it was inappropriate for us to spend the day knee-deep in brackets and buzzer-beaters with our neighbors and family members and countrymen risking their lives overseas. And then I read some e-mails, all of them from servicemen that told us, with conviction and even authority, that the games not only should be played, they'd better be played.
The first one came from Sean Allen, a drill sergeant at Fort Leonardwood, Mo., who wrote, "In March 1991 I was a private on duty in the deserts of Iraq. The only thing I looked forward to every night was listening to the NCAA games being broadcast on (the American Forces Network).... The soldiers need to hear and see something different than the war.... We participate in it every day. It's great that some people would like for the games to stop for a while. But have those people ever asked real soldiers what they want? Trust me, if we wanted sports to stop we would let someone know."
Jeremy Willingham, a Marine stationed overseas, wrote, "Thanks to the Internet, when troops are away we can still follow the sports teams and events that (we) love. I know that for me, checking the scores and reading the articles was a highlight of my day. And for those few minutes, I wasn't miles away from home and family.... I was home."
Sean Higgins, from Arlington, Va., and a member of the Navy, wrote, "In the days before satellite TV and e-mail, the most important news coming off the teletypes were the sports scores. No matter what time of the day somebody was stopping by the communication center and asking if the scores had come out yet. We serve for the American way of life, and anybody who thinks that athletic events should be cancelled ... obviously has no idea what it is like to be in the military, away from home, or why most of us serve."
The most compelling e-mail came from Lt. Cmdr. John Rickards, a damage control assistant aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, who identified himself as an Oklahoma fan, and who wrote, "As someone who is forward deployed to the Arabian Gulf ... there is no greater support the NCAA could provide than holding March Madness as scheduled. Sports are a great escape for many and a connection to home for all."
There were more, and there's never unanimity of opinion, but we should all get the picture. I hope Rickards was able to see or hear some portion of his Sooners victory over South Carolina State in the first round of the tournament Thursday. If not, he should know that Oklahoma hit 10 of 18 three-pointers and his team's star, Hollis Price, got to rest his injured groin much of the game.
Perhaps, if there's such a thing as a down moment during war, the men and women who are interested in such a thing would like to know that the first three games were decided by a total of 11 points, that the Cal-North Carolina State game had as fine a back-and-forth ending as they'd ever want to see. There was a British kid named Richard Midgley, whose layup was blocked at the end of regulation to force overtime, who swished a three-pointer to take Cal from down by one to up by two with 3.9 seconds to play in overtime.
Some of the servicemen and women, maybe just the officers, are old enough to remember that 20 years ago N.C. State won the NCAA championship on one of the great last-second plays in basketball history. And perhaps with a sense of history in mind, N.C. State skillfully worked the ball to Scooter Sherrill, the same kid who'd blocked Midgley's layup and the same kid who'd given N.C. State the lead with 12 seconds left. The Sherrill kid had enough time to line it up ... but he missed and Cal won, 76-74.
It was like that all afternoon, regardless of who was seeded where. It seemed some games, such as Missouri-Southern Illinois, had lead changes on every possession. Missouri held on to win, 72-71, when one of Southern Illinois' best shooters fired a three-pointer off the front rim. Marquette, a No. 3 seed, needed every one of Travis Diener's career-high 29 points to beat 14th-seeded Holy Cross by four points in a game that just as easily could have been won by the Crusaders.
And don't tease anybody from Cincinnati about the way the Bearcats lost. Not only did Coach Bob Huggins, a wild man if there ever was one, get himself two technical fouls and ejected over a traveling call, but one of the team's broadcasters got tossed, too. That resulted in four free throws for Gonzaga, which won by five, and only after blocking a Cincinnati three-pointer that would have tied the game and perhaps forced overtime. What a clown, Huggins, giving away a tournament game with that undisciplined rage. How silly it is to think he has the temperament to be a successful coach in the NBA, especially with a sorry outfit like the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Nobody should suggest for a moment that this matters the way war matters, the way life and death matters. But my parents always said that in World War II it was stressed that everybody had a job to do. And so do ballplayers and entertainers. If the scores from the first-round games matter as they pop up on computer screens and as they are relayed to troops in the fields, then these games are of great importance to the men and women who should matter most in the coming days and weeks, maybe months.
One of the games that had very little drama was Connecticut's victory over Brigham Young. Connecticut won easily. And while I have no allegiance to either school, my first cousin, Brian Anderson, does. He grew up in Simsbury, Conn. I'd take him to see Connecticut-Georgetown games at Hartford Civic Center in the 1980s when he wasn't yet in his teens. Brian is Sgt. Brian Anderson now, in Bravo Company in the U.S. Army, a communications specialist. He's in the desert in Kuwait; he called home Thursday to tell his mother where he was and that he's doing fine. If UConn winning gives Brian some measure of satisfaction, or even makes him relatively happy while he goes about such serious and life-threatening work, then UConn winning makes me happy, too. If what appears to be a game to some is actually a lifeline to others, then by all means, let the games continue.