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A Very Loving Hater’s Guide To The NCAA Tournaments, With Maitreyi Anantharaman

Gonzaga's Corey Kispert, seen here honestly kind of mad-dogging The Distraction logo.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

It is a serious thing, after a few decades of living without much in the way of discernment, to call anyplace The Grimmest Bar I’ve Ever Been In. It’s not an honor I bestow lightly, and if it’s also arguably not an honor at all, it is also not quite a criticism. There is a time and a place for a depressing bar, and when the moment and the venue meet each other perfectly, there is even a sort of bleak poetry to it. Drinking a beer in The Blue Comet Bar in Newark’s Penn Station and watching groggy fish swimming around in its fish tank is not something I would ordinarily choose to do if afforded any other option, but when facing down an hour’s wait after a missed train connection, it was perfect. Not pleasant, not anything but grim, but perfect all the same.

The same can be said for the place I think of as the actual Grimmest Bar I Have Been In, New York City Division. During the first days of the NCAA Tournament, while working a job at the very bottom of Manhattan, I would sneak away for an hour-long lunch and a responsible two beers while immersing myself in pure basketball overage and the sublimely terrible vibes of a bar called B4, that was located directly across from The New York Stock Exchange. The bar’s staff more or less ignored me; a ponytailed trader came in, paid for a double shot of Malibu spiced rum, and the bartender dumped it straight into his thermos. Baylor, in uniforms the color of original-flavor Gatorade, blew a tenuous lead against some Southern Conference team. The bar was purgatorial, charmless, possessed of all the bleary anti-energy of a long bus ride but I was, in the hours I spent there watching basketball games I only sort of cared about, deliriously happy. Against my better judgment, against every ethical impulse and bit of aesthetic snobbiness in me, I love this shit.

This NCAA Tournament, more than any other, feels wrong—stilted, unearned, phony, and cynical. There is a lot to hate in it, even by the usual standards of loathsomeness that apply to NCAA Productions. And yet I was not surprised, in the conversation Drew and I shared with our own Maitreyi Anantharaman about both the men’s and women’s brackets, to find that there was a lot of love mixed in with the hate.

The actual basketball, as always, is pretty much incidental to all this. College basketball is, beyond its fundamental ethical ugliness, generally just a mess. It happens to be one that I love, that exists sloppily in the red in all the ways that my other favorite things do, but this year’s games should be sloppy and strange in all the ways that an experience crafted in real-time by screaming old men and wild-eyed teenagers would invariably be. As basketball, it is often inexcusable; as the signature extractive gambit of a truly vile institution, it is even worse. But as an excuse to feel things, it is just fucking peerless. And that’s true even when you have to look at Mike Krzyzewski grimacing and whinging on the sideline! He’s not even there this year!

Still, the usual Hater’s Guide fodder is very much in place as we approach the first days of the tournament—programs and coaches and players about whom I and many other otherwise reasonable people have developed heated and utterly unjustifiable opinions; weird vendettas and even weirder affinities; good, strange players who have otherwise been brilliant in out-of-the-way programs and conferences getting a moment to show out. All the gross stuff, too, but also everything that works. Both the women and the men have labored, for free, through a plague-squashed season, and that is impossible to justify on its merits. To varying degrees, this is true every year. But also this is the part of the year where all those deficits are made up—when this unjustifiable thing almost justifies itself through sheer ungovernable overage and volume and strangeness. The reasons to hate it are plain to see, but it is just not in me to do anything but love it. Even in the worst bar in the world, or especially there, it is an escape—fantastical, unreasonable, janky, inarguable.

Also one extra note: I said in the podcast that Dan Majerle was still the coach at Grand Canyon University. That’s wrong, it’s Bryce Drew now. I regret that error, and nothing else.

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