War, terror put March Madness in perspective


PHILADELPHIA - March Madness, a.k.a. the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, has tipped off, and it's "awesome, bay-bee." Well, this year, it's not quite as awesome. Something is missing.

The outbreak of war in Iraq and the continuing threat of terrorism at home have put things in perspective.

After Sept. 11, many commentators predicted that the tragedy would shift people from focusing on frivolous. For a while, that seemed to be the case.

Yet our society soon returned its attention to the trivial. Who would win American Idol? Who would The Bachelor or Joe Millionaire choose to be his mate? What did Michael Jackson do this week to make the cover of the tabloids?

As a lifelong, die-hard sports fan, I never thought I would conclude that, in the scheme of life, sports and the NCAA tournament are frivolous and trivial. It's only a game. I still like to watch sports, but my emotional investment in the game isn't nearly as high as it was before Sept. 11. After all, I'm not on the court playing the game.

The NCAA tournament is my favorite sporting event. Every March, I go into a cocoon and try to watch nearly every hour of television coverage. I've also seen many tournament NCAA games in person, including the 1992 classic Duke-Kentucky NCAA Regional Final that featured Christian Laettner's miracle buzzer-beater. I've traveled to Hartford, Conn., and the Meadowlands to watch Temple play in tournament games.

When I was a kid, my dad took me to Penn's Palestra to see Joe Bryant (Kobe's dad) and LaSalle play Louis Orr and Syracuse. I just love basketball.

As I've done for 10 years, I took off work Thursday and Friday to watch the first round of this year's NCAA tournament. But I almost felt guilty. Why was I watching No. 14 seed Holy Cross trying to shock and awe No. 3 seed Marquette with a war going on?

During time-outs, commercials and halftime of three close games, I clicked over to news coverage. While Marquette's Travis Diener was hoisting up three-pointers, Iraqi oil fields were being set afire, explosions erupted around Baghdad and American ground troops entered Iraq from Kuwait.

While I watch the games, the real world is in the back of my mind. Frequently, I think about the brother of one of my high school soccer teammates who was one of the World Trade Center victims, or about the guy I know from my gym who is fighting in Iraq.

There's nothing inherently wrong at this time of war with losing ourselves in the NCAA tournament as a diversion. The NCAA made the right decision to permit the games go on. There will be many shining moments in the tournament, and new stars will be born.

That said, the past couple years should have taught us that sports is a diversion. It's fun, but it's not life or death. Many of us have made the mistake of living vicariously through our favorite teams. March Madness is fun, but this year I won't be taking it so seriously. After all, only life and death are really life and death.

Larry Atkins a lawyer and writer who lives in Philadelphia.

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