The Walrus Blog

March Madness

The ball whizzes around the perimeter, inside, back out. The talls battle for position. On defence, they contest the pass and guard against back-door cuts. The centre pushes down towards the basket, shoulders bruising his opponent, and receives the ball. Help arrives. Back out. Sinewy, powerful arms stab into the passing lanes. Deny. Deny. On offence, the guards, the smalls, are hard at work, the ball handled as if on a string. Time runs down and the defence asserts itself, intimidates when necessary. This is it: Number one North Carolina versus number two Georgetown, and every advantage must be sought. When it was over, it was not.

Tie game. Overtime, five minutes of nerve-wracking hell. The teams regroup, exhausted but exhilarated. In the extra frame, Georgetown soars, or North Carolina collapses, it’s impossible to tell which. A defensive assignment missed at the front end of the shot clock results, painful moments later, in an opposition bucket. A crossover dribble, an opening, another basket. A bold step, a risk, and suddenly there’s a Hoya taking the rock to the rack. An imperceptible lapse and Georgetown scores again. The minutes pour by. North Carolina finds the net but once, with eight seconds remaining, an inconsequential three to end their season. The Hoyas are off to the Final Four.

For years, I’ve watched “March Madness,” the annual sixty-four-team Division I US college basketball tournament for national bragging rights, and at this level there is nothing like overtime. In the huddle, the coaches plot strategy. No one hears them. The players are back in their playgrounds, nervous but ready. They are intense, strong, balletic, and lightning quick, and better still, they are human, not yet salaried, robotic, professional, and their play is often governed by emotion or chance or accident. North Carolina showed a vulnerable side and Georgetown pounced. It was primal, like a boxer hitting again and again knowing there will be no counter-attack. In five minutes, a confident, proud squad lost its way entirely, leaving us only with a sense of injustice and wonder. The game still lingers, beautiful, raw, and unpredictable, but the narrative is strangely complete. On a small court, over forty-five minutes of stop time, the intimacy, the sweat and closeness, rendered the players, their flaws and talents and fears, knowable. The court as public square, the playground as life, overtime as lovable crap shoot, and a vision emerges.

On the national stage, March was full of madness of a different kind, our storyline unfolding irregularly, in stops and starts, not unlike a basketball game, but all things appeared unknowable. Historians will point to this month as when Canadians, both citizens and their representatives, embraced ambiguity. One could feel the calibrations, the hesitations, the risk-averse handlers preparing spokesmen to appear spontaneous, the image consultants having their determinative say, all focused on the winning conditions.

The industry proclaiming Canada’s specialness continued its daily toil, but the 2006 census dropped and described the nation as increasingly urban, or suburban, or exurban; that is, described it as much like the rest of the world. More so than most, we are an immigrant society, and like Europe we are producing few babies of our own (a phenomenon described without irony by Canoe.ca‘s cnews with the line, “Canada’s influx offsets a flacid (sic) national birthrate.”) Unlike Europe, we are said to be sanguine about immigration as destiny, but perhaps this is because we are younger and have a vast canvas on which to hide, that our cities are less sponges than constellations of ethnic-box settlements, that we do not, in fact, go shoulder-to-shoulder. While the economy chugs along, we are not coupling enough to replace ourselves, and maybe, like North Carolina in the dying moments, this is because we see the end of day and are finishing out the string.

The Conservatives’ budget dropped as well. In oral presentation, its rhythms were staccato, each line a promise or a self-congratulatory boast. But purposeful elisions could not mask the truism that this was a Liberal budget, and that the “new government” would become our natural resting place by appealing to Joliette, Quebec and Aurora, Ontario, as much as to Lethbridge, Alberta and Fernie, British Columbia, by appealing to the ambiguous middle. A caretaker budget from a caretaker government, gifts for many, but characterless and without narrative thrust.

In this strange and altered land, the Bloc Québécois guaranteed passage of the budget by announcing its support before the ink was dry. Still, federal election talk was in the air, the pollsters got busy, and eyes focused on swing ridings in the March 26 Quebec contest. If Mr. Harper could be a Liberal backed by separatists, and if Premier Charest could turn federal largesse and the “fiscal imbalance” cheque into a tax cut, then, Mario Dumont surmised, he could be an “autonomist” backed by the disgruntled. Like Harper, no one knows what he is or what he stands for, but Mr. Dumont was rewarded at the ballot box nonetheless.

Despite Harper becoming a cipher into which all beliefs and anxieties can be poured, Canadians seem destined to split three, or five, or ten ways. As such, the national vote has been shelved for another day, and the people are left to follow games more newsworthy, coherent, and knowable. I recommend the Final Four: Georgetown versus Ohio State and Florida versus UCLA, 6 p.m., Saturday, March 31, 2007.

Ken Alexander
Editor, The Walrus

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