“The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that is the way to bet.”
That line is usually attributed to Damon Runyon, but he credited Hugh Keogh, a Chicago sportswriter who died in the early 20th century as America was becoming a nation of fans. Chicago is the perfect venue, by the way, for cynicism about sports. It is the only town that is home to a team that threw a World Series. So far.
Chicago is also home to the Cubs, a team that set the Platonic standard for futility until finally winning the World Series — after a drought lasting more than a century, in 2016, by which time the Cubs were the favorites and the race went, predictably, to the swift and the battle to the strong. Too bad for Cleveland, a town which has experienced its own sports woes. One cannot imagine, even in a parallel universe, a Super Bowl victory for the Cleveland Browns. Even a regular season win against, say, the New York Jets seems a reach.
But upsets do happen. Sometimes the race goes to the slow and the battle to the weak and it isn’t even fixed. And this may be, in part, why a certain kind of fan keeps coming back. It may be that he thinks, “Hell, the Browns just won a game and if those dudes can do it, then maybe there is hope for me.”
When the heavy favorite, coming off a long unbeaten stretch, wins the championship game in a rout, it is possible to admire the artistry, the skill, the sheer dominance of that team. But unless you were already a fan, you do not experience a thrill of possibility. That sense, to quote the film version of Lawrence of Arabia, that “Nothing is written.”
When a Chicago Bears team had almost gone undefeated in the 1985 regular season — losing, just once, to Miami — beat a hapless New England Patriots in the Super Bowl by a score of 46-10, there wasn’t much you could take away from the game. Except, perhaps, a regret that you took the Patriots and the points
Ah, but how about the Patriots of 2007, when they did come into the Super Bowl undefeated. First (and only) team to do it since the Miami Dolphins of 1972. The Patriots were about more than just winning that game. They were about making a statement. They were going to establish themselves as the greatest pro football team of all time.
They had some help with the matchup. Where the Pats had gone 16-0 in the regular season, the Giants had struggled to finish 10-6, making them a wild card team. They didn’t, it seems, even belong in the Super Bowl. Not matched up against the formidable Patriots. This was Henry V and his raggedy-assed bowmen against the mounted nobility of France at Agincourt.
Well, of course, the Giants won: 17-14. No contemporary Shakespeare got it down on paper but, even so, the memory of it endures. Most games in the world of modern sport are quickly forgotten. But not that one.
It was one of the great upsets and those are what we remember.
Which brings us to the Final Four, the last act of March Madness.
If you are, by nature, a basketball fan, then there is nothing not to like about this tournament. The best (arguably) sixty-four college teams in the country. Every game a “win or go home” situation and with the frequent possibility that some little school that nobody has ever heard of — and that even those who have are giving no chance — will somehow get it done and send off packing some powerhouse team with a roster full future NBA stars.
You need not have followed the regular season faithfully — or even at all — to get into March Madness. You don’t even need to have a favorite team. You can just watch, with interest and feeling that familiar sympathy for the underdog. The play will be good and there will be plenty of close games. And there will be those stunning, memorable upsets.
There was the time — 1991, to be precise — when UNLV came into the tournament undefeated. By the time the “Running Rebels” reached the semis, they had won 45 straight. And the previous year, they had beaten their opponents in the final game by 30 points.
You almost had to feel sorry for Duke, a team that had never won an NCAA championship.
Before the game, the sense was that Duke was soft and culturally elite. UNLV was street tough. There was a sort of racial undercurrent at work but, then, when isn’t there?
But Duke played tough and hung in. UNLV folded under the pressure. Duke won 79-77. It was a totally shocking upset. UNLV dropped off the tournament map. Duke won four more championships and became the team that everyone loved to hate.
But Duke is not in the final four this time around. The team seems to have lost its old discipline and cohesion. But, then, this is college basketball, these days. The kids arrive on campus, brimming with talent and short on discipline and the fundamentals. After a year or two of flashy individual play combined with weak teamwork and fundamentals, they are gone.
There are no teams especially memorable in personality or intimidating in execution. None with distinctive players who seem to blend unconsciously into a single unit. None who have become the instrument of an inspired coach’s will. Not even Coach K’s.
So we have two number one seeds — Villanova and Kansas — along with a number three seed, Michigan. All good teams but none likely to be remembered long after the last whistle ends the tournament.
And then, there is Loyola-Chicago. An eleven seed. The team is the favorite of everyone who wants an underdog winner, not least for Sister Jean, the team chaplain, a 98-year-old nun.
The feel good stories almost write themselves. The team is even from Chicago. You wonder what Hugh Keogh would have made of that.