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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Madness envy

I grew up loving two games.

Lacrosse was the sport I played with devotion. I also attended every college lacrosse game anywhere near Baltimore throughout my youth. I lived at Homewood Field. There was always a family member playing Division I lacrosse somewhere, so on weekends I could be found on fields anywhere from Long Island to Charlottesville. Lacrosse was geographically limited to the stretch of turf back then.

The other sport I was truly addicted to was college basketball. I did not play basketball, other than local neighborhood pickup, and I was never very good. But I knew the names of every player in the ACC for years and worshiped the Maryland Terrapins, the local team, and the Syracuse Orangemen for some reason. Keith Smart broke my heart when he hit that shot to defeat the Orangemen in the NCAA final. I hated Indiana ever since. But my basketball addiction was limited to watching college ball. The NBA, to me, is still the most boring and boorish game around and high school basketball just never drew my attention.

When I was in college at the University of Maryland, Lenny Bias was my hero and I was among the thousand or so people camped outside of the Riverdale hospital just praying that the news we heard was wrong when he died of cocaine-related heart failure. I still think he was better than Michael Jordan at that level. When he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, I was resigned to finally follow the pro game, at least one team.

Once out of college, I was known around the workplace for taking the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA hoops tournament off, well in advance, so I could sit at home and watch every moment I could. The only games of the NCAA tournament that I missed for years were the ones that coincided with a lacrosse obligation. I coached for a while so that would interrupt my March Madness with Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon games.

When I started E-Lacrosse, I never even considered this conflict. I guess it just slipped my mind, as March was months away. But the day the seeds were announced I realized that I was really in trouble. I had lacrosse games to cover both Thursday and Friday of the tournament's first week and every Saturday and Sunday of the tournament after that. It was a crushing blow when I realized that my entrepreneurial endeavor had destroyed something I considered sacred.

I had the VCR working overtime, using extended play settings to record a six-hour block of basketball madness while I trudged around from one early-season lacrosse game to another. This was back when March was the early lacrosse season. There were no February games back then. I would avoid all talk of basketball at the lacrosse games so no one would reveal the winners of that day. I needed to watch my late-night games without knowing the results. I once yelled at a booth announcer for giving the basketball scores to an entire college lacrosse audience over the loud speaker at a Friday-night game. I wasn't the only one upset. When the he reeled off the scores quickly on during a timeout, boos filled the small stadium. He thought they were booing the outcome of one or more of the basketball games he was reporting, but they were not. He had ruined the rest of their night like he had ruined mine. My life was, in fact, Madness for a few weeks every spring. I would film lacrosse all day and watch basketball all night. I slept in April.

TiVo saved my life. I can now watch every game, albeit after the fact, every year. And I do. But paying all of that attention to basketball's March Madness often makes me envious of the game for my beloved lacrosse. The lacrosse Final Four enjoys great success and fanfare. That's for sure. It's a great event and I would never miss one. I have been to every lacrosse Championship since I was five or six years old. But in all that time, the game at that level has not grown and it is disappointing. The incestuous perennial pipelines of great schoolboy lacrosse players to only the top four to six college teams in this Title IX-tortured sport leaves us with a game that, while great, pales in comparison to the vast possibilities of the basketball tournament. And since the tournament and our season coincide, the stark comparisons are impossible to ignore.

I was filling out my March Madness tournament pool, just like you were, this week and what an adventure. I could fill out twenty different outcomes on twenty different bracket sheets and still likely lose the pool. The outcome is wide open. Hope abounds and is only narrowed after each exciting game for three weeks. I could hit the lacrosse outcome on the money with about three bracket sheets on any given year, quite easily. Only there would be many ties for the top spot, because every lacrosse fan could do the same. In fact, I could make those picks on the same day that I make the basketball picks, some six weeks before the seeds are announced. Especially with the new conference based seeds filling most of the spots. Just add Johns Hopkins and Syracuse and you've got a pretty complete bracket.

The exact outcomes of the first-round games would be hard to predict because we don't know precisely who's playing who, but we know who will get through to the next round. And we know who will play in the Final Four, within a one-team margin of error. When I picked Syracuse last year as an "upset pick", it was one thousand times easier than picking Carmelo Anthony's Syracuse hoops team to win in 2003, the school's first and only title. Syracuse will be in the Final Four of lacrosse this year. They might be in the basketball Final Four, but I would never bet real money on it. I would get some good odds if I did. But if I were to bet a lacrosse fan that the Orange would be in the lacrosse Final Four, I would have to give them 5-1 odds or better for them to make the bet against Syracuse making it. And in all but seven years over the last three decades I would have won. Over the last ten years I would have lost the bet only twice. That's where I get the 5-1 odds this year.

The odds are similar for Johns Hopkins and Virginia. If I were to bet you that Hopkins, Virginia or Syracuse would win the tournament, meaning you would take every other team in the nation, I'd have to give at least 10-1 odds and maybe far more. And you'd be a fool to take the bet. It's a known entity in lacrosse. That's why the best kids keep going to the same schools. A top kid who chooses to attend a Maryland, Duke, Georgetown or any other top-ten-but-never-brought-home-the-medal team has my respect but not my headline the day after the Memorial Day holiday. Every so often, like 15 years, a new team breaks in like Princeton or North Carolina, so the field of possible champions spreads to four for a few years. But that's not real growth. There are, after all, four spots in the Final Four. And that fourth team is sometimes a Cinderella like Delaware with the player of the decade, John Grant, or Duke and Cornell, over the last few years, carrying top rankings into the tournament. But on Monday they never hoist the trophy.

Some say that the hardest thing in sports to do is to hit a major league baseball pitch, which even the pros do far less than 50 percent of the time. But I suggest to you that it is far harder to take lacrosse's top prize from those who hoard it. It has been done only twice in the modern era.

March 10, 2009
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