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College Basketball

Only Bill Walton’s Bracket Dares To Be Great

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If ESPN’s Dave Pasch is telling the truth about this, Bill Walton is our Che Guevara. If on the other hand he is lying, it’s still brilliant and so for the purposes of this missive it will be taken as gospel.

Anyway, Walton did what many Americans have done: He filled out his NCAA Men’s Tournament bracket and told the careful constructed ladder of lines to piss right off. His Final Four is not only extraordinary in that he picked an all-Pac-12 final, he doubled down in that impish powdered-peyote-on-the-Cap’n-Crunch way of his and took a fifth team. Which because he is Walton and gets direct cranial messages from Invader Zim is the best idea of all.

Walton, who would sell you this year’s Washington men’s basketball team as a cancer cure, put all five Pac-12 qualifiers, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and USC in his Final Four. More to the point, he already got UCLA out of the play-in round in what will be known as The Day Tom Izzo Lost At Losing His Mind.

This might just seem for most like the coward’s way out—picking too many teams for not enough spots in a tournament in which none of them actually has a chance just so fans of every school will be stripped of their right to faux outrage by a snub that doesn’t come close to being one. But I believe the brainworms that serve as Santa’s elves inside Walton’s head (if only for showbiz purposes, we grant you) actually told him to take five teams, to take them all from the conference he represented, loves, and on whose behalf he broadcasts, and in doing so lash out against the inflexibility of the bracket structure. This is more than just being goofy for effect, I tell you. This is Walton speaking for us all. “Take five teams. Take eight. Take 23. It doesn’t matter. You’re thinking outside the fascism of the regional structure. Rage against the machine.”

But it even goes beyond acknowledging that the NCAA ruined the bracket structure when it added those four extraneous play-in games. If it needed more money to keep from the athletes, it should have just gone to 128 and done business with more off-brand television networks and streaming services. Or better still, 256. Or even better than that, all 357. Let chaos reign. Give us the 0-9 Chicago States against Michigan with the winner getting the winner of Duke and Duquesne. Bring back Michigan State, Wichita State, Appalachian State and Mount Saint Mary’s even though they’ve already been eliminated because losing is just an artificial construct anyway, created by a society that thrives on keeping the basketball underclass underfoot.

No, Walton dares us to think even further, to pick USC and UCLA to both come out of the Old Spaghetti Factory regional or whatever it is in this new Indianapolis-centric universe. He is daring us to think of a five-way final game in which 25 players are on the court at any given time, shooting at and defending five different baskets simultaneously in the Pentagon Of Hell (copyright pending, DanaWhiteCo.). He is guiding us out of the rigidity of the sports we know toward the sports that would only confuse us because ratings are down anyway and if you can televise cornhole and make four-hour movies out of two-hour movies about DC comic book characters that don’t even include Ambush Bug, rules are all bullshit anyway, and standard-def reality eats metric tons of ass.

In a way, this is Walton’s true magnum opus. All the stream-of-conscious analysis of turgid games you wouldn’t watch at gunpoint, all the stream-of-unconscious Grateful Dead lyric references, in the ways that he has turned Pasch into a more sharply dressed Oliver Hardy—they’ve all been leading to this eureka-on-psilocybin moment. Taking the sports business’s greatest and most successful iconographies, like winners, losers, the tyranny of the funnel of competition and finite places for infinite possibilities is him asking you if there isn’t a better way to do this, and if there isn’t, well, screw it. It’s not like anybody cares about the brain bubbles bursting in your head. Go on, give it a go. Who is harmed in this scenario?

Either that, or you can have your small, constricted little world, in which the highlight of the night is Tom Izzo trying get one of his players to unscrew his head in uncontrollable rage. Frankly, I’ll take basketball as envisioned by the folks who gave you Hungry Hungry Hippos.