If you let history tell it, it all started in a bar in New York.
1977. Jody's Club Forest. Staten Island. Is where the whole damn problem began.
Fifteen thousand dollars was the pot, the pool, the take for the person who had the best bracket -- who predicted the most wins of the teams in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Now, 37 years later, there's a $1 billion pot, pool, take, for anyone who "guesstimates" every game correctly.
Bracketology, the new science of sports.
I stopped studying the science of college basketball in March a long time ago. Straight dropout. About a month after Kanye dropped his debut album. As a basketball purist, the love had disappeared; the brackets had stolen everything that the game during that time of year was supposed to be about. I was a victim. I was caught up, held hostage to my predictions on a piece of paper, and everyone else around me was too, I noticed.
As was everyone else around them and everyone else around them! There was no escape, no Samuel Bass, no freedom from the hold "being right" had on what seemed like the entire country. It had become a numbers game. The number of games lost compared to the number of games won. All played out on the brackets.
By the end of any Thursday first round of games: "I'm 12-4," "I'm 14-2," "That 5-seed I had going to the Sweet 16 messed up my bracket," was all that was heard. No one cared if Iowa State happened to upset UNC or really paid attention to how it happened. Or about the choke of a 2-seed. Bryce Drew was just a highlight. By the end of any Friday's first round of games: "Thirteen of my 16 teams are still in it," "At least all four of the teams I picked for the Final Four are still alive," "My bracket is done." The University of Kentucky might have one of the greatest college basketball teams we've ever seen? No one cared about that.
All most cared about was their brackets. All most pulled for when watching the games was their brackets. The dependency on being right more than the next person or anyone else became the driving force behind what was supposed to be the shining moment of every college basketball season. What we had love for because of its unadulterated purity had become a sideshow to the gravitational pull of the narcissistic nature of people choosing their own personal involvement in something over the sport itself.
It almost made me appreciate the BCS.
Bracketology became counterproductive to what the tournament was supposed to be about. Brackets, and the entire psychology behind them, forced people to pull/root for their predictions as opposed to emotionally investing in teams they really felt passionate about or generally rooted for or believed should win as the games played out. And once I realized that that was happening to me, I never filled out another NCAA men's basketball bracket again.
Brackets stop you from falling in love with a team or the games being played. At their worst, they stop you from changing your mind about a team that doesn't deserve to advance because another team -- that underdog, lower seeded, mid-mid-major, playing their ass off team -- is outplaying the team you had picked to get to the Elite Eight.
The nature of filling out and following a bracket redirects the philosophy of staying true to what you want and believe, and makes people more overtly concerned with being correct instead of enjoying each round as it unfolds.
That -- being right in predicting who wins games -- is not why I love the game or the NCAA tournament. That's not why I fell in love with it. It's not what the format of the tournament or the tournament itself was designed to be about. No disrespect to any bracketologists or companies/organizations (like mine) that take pride in galvanizing the country to fill out brackets hoping to reap the dividends. There are some of us who have to divest in order to get back to the essence of why these games are being played in the first place.
This tournament is about flow. About "feeling" each game one game at a time. About the improvisation and unpredictability that take place when sport imitates jazz as an athletic art form. About the appreciation of 10 days over a three-week period of athletic pride in its purest form. Before money taints it all and begins to jade the players.
The NCAA brackets were cool, I totally got the attraction, but I could no longer be their servant, no longer a casualty of their force. I had to let go. I loved the game far too much to put myself, my predictions, my analytic, strategic and "scientific" guesses fleshed out on a printable March Madness sheet, ahead of what I felt, outside of the World Cup, was the best event any sport had to offer.
Ten years ago, I did what I feel everyone should do at one point in their lives: Realized that for once it's not about me.