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Maniacal March Madness

It’s March.

For some, the month is merely the bridge between the weary winter and the hopeful spring.

Yet for many Americans, the third month of the year can mean only one thing.

March Madness is here!

And despite our now living in the Netherlands, these American expats have no intention of missing out on the fun.

For the unaware, March Madness is the nickname for the US National College Athletic Association’s basketball tournament. Sixty five teams battle it out to crown one team the winner. And to the victor goes the spoils.

Part of the tournament proceeds are funneled back into the participating basketball conferences, based on the number of tournament games their teams play. This money can be sizeable (think millions), and helps out not only the conferences’ athletics programs, but also assists non-athletic purposes such as student scholarships.

But above all, the victorious team wins bragging rights. And not merely for that year. Forever after the winning college or university will affix ‘NCAA Champion’ to its moniker. Wannabees have to settle for talking about getting to the ‘Sweet Sixteen,’ ‘Elite Eight’ or ‘Final Four.’

Nor is the excitement limited only to basketball aficionados as well as the schools involved. The NCAA tourney becomes the topic of conversation around the water cooler at work places across the country.

Folks who don’t even know the rules of basketball will get caught up in the spirit of things, participating in betting pools. People can spend hours, if not days, debating the merits of their bracket picks.

I thought I understood what March Madness was all about. But moving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina several years ago, I learned that I hadn’t a clue how frenzied, nay, rabid, fans could be.

Home of the beloved Tar Heels (national champions in ’57, ’82, ’93, ’05 and ’09 — see, I told you everyone knows exactly when their team has won), Carolina takes its basketball lore very seriously.

When Carolina won the 2005 national title, I had only to open our back door to hear the roar of the jubilant crowd spilling out of the Dean Smith Center some 4 miles away. The 23,000+ seat basketball arena was packed with students and supporters who watched the championship game together. Everyone headed downtown to the intersection of East Franklin and Columbia to celebrate, with the crowd reaching 100,000 at its peak.

I knew the support was off the charts when I first heard game scores announced over the loud speaker while grocery shopping.

But I REALLY knew they were rabid when Daughter came home from elementary school and Son from his middle school, both reporting that they were allowed to watch snatches of ACC and NCAA games during the school day! A few years later, it all seemed so, well, usual.

Of course the famous UNC-Duke rivalry was encoded in people’s DNA. You were either a Carolina fan or a Duke fan, never both. Living in Chapel Hill made it easy to become diehard Heels fans, but when I once asked some friends why we wouldn’t want to wish Duke well (as long as they weren’t playing Carolina, of course), they looked at me as if I’d suggested we harm young animals.

It’s bad blood between Duke (championships in ’91, ’92, ’01 and last year in ’10) and UNC, destined always to remain so. What would you expect when Will Blythe’s book on the rivalry is entitled ‘To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever’??

The crossing guard at Daughter’s elementary school always dressed in Tar Heel colors and regalia every game day. When my friend B, the wife of a Duke assistant football coach at the time, asked him if he would also dress up for Duke games, he refused. Then she pressed whether he could at least have a sign that said ‘Go ACC’ (for the Atlantic Coast Conference of which both schools are members). He replied with a terse ‘Absolutely not.’

Add to the mix the long rivalries both schools have with the nearby NC State Wolfpack (’74, ’83) in Raleigh, and there’s a whole lot of hating going on.

In the end, you can take the expat out of Carolina but you can’t take Carolina out of the expat. So last night at dinner, we did what any good Heels fans would do. We set up our laptop on the table and watched the UNC-Washington game as a family. Heels won of course.

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