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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Mad, Mad Rite of Spring

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Many Americans are currently suffering from a seasonal ailment as predictable as it is difficult to explain: March Madness. Even if you can convey its what to your Russian friends -- start with "glorified juvenile basketball tournament" and embellish in all directions -- you are still faced with a why that leaves many sports-loving Muscovites baffled.

The what part combines elements of Athens, Sparta and Aretha Franklin, as 64 U.S. universities send the best and the brightest, or in any case the tallest, of their diploma candidates off to a month-long series of televised duels for nationwide recognition and athletic r-e-s-p-e-c-t. Nobody else stages anything like this neo-Homeric saga of young men and hoops -- not even Russians, whose love of basketball and sagas is profound and genetically encoded, respectively.

It even surprises us. Somehow, the National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual basketball playoff has evolved into "the greatest sporting event in America" and a "cultural and societal touchstone," as The Washington Post recently noted, only slightly hyperbolically. Without March Madness, the Post's writer held, Americans would face a month without "screaming profanities at teenagers who miss layups." There is clearly a genuine "civic need, especially here in Washington." No wonder half of Europe thinks we're barmy.

The explanation why begins with the month. March offers little that's scream-worthy to U.S. sports fandom: The American football season is over, the baseball season has not yet begun, and professional basketball and hockey are still far from their playoffs. Enter NCAA basketball, a perfect storm of amateur competition. Every region of the nation is represented, every tournament game is single-elimination life-or-death, and every office in the country, it seems, runs a betting pool on the ultimate winner and richly rewards the swami employee who gets it right.

Second, there's the multiple ritual-rivalry-marketing context of U.S. collegiate athletics. This is hard for outsiders to grasp and equally hard for Americans to imagine its absence. When a group of exchange students I was part of arrived at Leningrad State University in 1975, many were surprised to learn there was no big game against Moscow State. Not even in chess. The two schools had no fight songs, mascots or even team names -- the Big Red? the Bears? -- and you searched the city in vain for a "Leningrad State" T-shirt or bumper sticker. The university literally wasn't in that business, leaving high-visibility competitive athletics to other organizations like specialized clubs, civic groups and the military that continue in this role today. For many Americans, you are where you went, and your college's athletic teams are a part of your life for the last four-fifths of it.

That leaves the third leg of the Madness stool: gambling. This is common in Russian and European professional sports, but rare in an amateur venue. Yet how amateur is this? The ubiquitous office pools represent the tip of an iceberg, and it's not pretty below the water line. U.S. college basketball has produced gambling-related scandals intermittently for over a half-century now, which is hardly surprising given an equation involving unsalaried young athletes, fanatic adults and big money at play in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Is March Madness popular? Is reality television?

So there you have it, non-American friends, but not quite all of it. In a sport where the gambling, broadcasting and advertising industries meet, you'd expect to find hype, exaggeration, unvarnished falsehoods and politicians. And you'd be right: "full-court press" and "fast break" have long been part of the U.S. political lexicon. Even the latest invasion of Iraq was justified with a basketball term, as the presence of world-threatening weapons of mass destruction was proclaimed a "slam dunk."

This term cropped up again earlier this month, when a Washington court, in a refreshing burst of March sanity, convicted former vice presidential henchman I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby of multiple felonies. A presidential pardon for Scooter before day one in the slammer is also a "slam dunk," wrote a New York Times observer. And while this travesty-dunk probably will go through the hoop, we can perhaps console ourselves by winning a few bucks from it via one of the new "two-track" office pools joining Scooter's impending sentencing with the NCAA tournament. I'm betting on an 18-month sentence, full pardon and Scooter walks, coupled with UCLA over Ohio State by three points in the Madness finale.

I've got a better shot than anyone in a Moscow pool on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's release date.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.