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March Madness 2021 ends chapter fans will gladly forget

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It’s funny, if you think about it. We’ve been welcoming normalcy back in starts and stops for well over a year now. We’ve been receiving sports back into our lives in small-bite increments — games in front of no fans, games in front of some fans, games in front of more fans — since June, when the Belmont Stakes started to fill the calendar up again.

And yet this was the moment when so many of us who care so deeply about sports could actually exhale again, with a simple sentence from the CBS television broadcaster Greg Gumbel:

“These are first- and second-round games on Saturday and Monday and the overall No. 1 seed is Gonzaga …”

And with that, the NCAA Tournament was back.

With that, it was time, at last, to close the door on one of the most difficult aspects of the early part of these past 12 months, when the 2020 Tournament was slowly chopped up, in pieces: first reduced fans. Then no fans. Then postponed games. Then canceled games.

Bing. Bang. Bop. Boom.

They never even made it to Selection Sunday last year, never bothered to fill out the brackets because there was no way to pull a tournament off in those early days of the shutdown. I remember setting up shop in front of my television on what would have been the first day of the tournament, the First Thursday, always one of the best and busiest days of the sporting calendar, and toggling between the usual suspects: TNT and TBS, CBS and TruTV.

Andre Curbelo spreads his arms wide at center court.
Illinois’ Andre Curbelo celebrates winning the Big Ten Tournament.
AP

No hoops. A “Friends” rerun. A “Supernatural” rerun. An “Impractical Jokers” rerun. And “Young and the Restless,” followed by the “The Bold and the Beautiful.” But no hoops.

Strictly from a sporting standpoint that was the most depressing day of these past 53 weeks. Baseball would come back, in abbreviated fashion. The NBA and NHL would come back in a bubble. Most of the major golf and tennis tournaments would be played, and the NFL started and finished on time. We got all three Triple Crown races, in unique order.

But the 2020 college hoops season just sort of dissolved, like a cookie tossed into a bowl of battery acid. It vanished without a trace. In some places — notably Dayton, Ohio, where the hometown Flyers had a season for the ages — it meant the end of what to that moment had been a dream ride that had lasted four months. Done. Gone. Over.

“I realize there are worse things going on right now,” a friend of mine, a Dayton graduate, texted me last March 12, a text I dug up Sunday. “But my heart is breaking right now.”

Now, once more, we have brackets. We have pairings. We have people scouting out attractive 5-12 upset specials. In New Rochelle, Iona fans are readying themselves for another NCAA Tournament, their fifth in a row. In Stillwater, Okla., and every NBA city desperate for a point guard they are scouring the listings, searching to see when Oklahoma State’s gifted freshman, Cade Cunningham, will play.

In Spokane they believe: This is the year for those mighty Zags to finally make it all the way to top of the Monday-night ladder, cutting down the nets — same as the true believers in Waco, Texas, home of Baylor; and Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Champaign, Ill.

In Syracuse and Hamilton and Olean, denizens of the campuses of SU, Colgate and St. Bonaventure prepare to represent New York alongside the Gaels.

(And in my house in North Jersey, a unique treat: St. Bonaventure, the No. 9 seed in the “East,” will play LSU, the eighth seed. I may have mentioned that I am an alumnus of the former; my bride of 25 years graduated from the latter. I’m pretty sure the marriage will make it to 26 regardless of what happens Saturday. Emphasis on “pretty sure.”)

And look: This will not solve anything, will not cure anything, will not get the vaccine in everyone’s arms faster or minimize the virus’ stubborn refusal to simply go away and leave us be. But it’s something. It’s a start. Much about our sporting landscape was altered in the last year but college basketball, the NCAA Tournament, was one of the few things that actually just left without saying goodbye.

Starting with the play-in games Thursday, in Indiana, it will say hello again. We already have brackets. Soon we will have games. One more small step. One more increment. When it comes, you’d better believe we will have earned this One Shining Moment.

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