The real Madness of March is that not enough are willing to be on God's Team!

     The trilogy of weekends that one either loves or hates; the time when wagering reaches its zenith in the office pools with the pairings; the time when Almighty God must be working overtime: We're speaking of course about the NCAA Basketball Tournament, otherwise known by all as MARCH MADNESS. It begins innocently enough with a round of sixty-four teams from over a thousand universities throughout the country from a bevy of conferences and leagues; from enrollments topping 40,000 to under 3,000. By Friday evening, the tournament is whittled down to 32 teams and by Sunday the line-up for the "Sweet Sixteen" is set. That is what we're in this weekend and if you've ever been there or cheered with all your heart for one of your teams in this set, it's akin to the way you felt when you were sixteen and puppy love struck. Again, by Friday night the teams are down to the "Elite Eight" who slug it out, sometimes literally, for the extreme privilege of reaching the "Final Four." The latter will then be played out on two days in San Antonio next weekend. Only one team will emerge as the National Champion. Everyone else goes home a loser.

     That's the sentiment of those who take it so seriously, those who spend a bundle either to put a bob on their hunch or to travel to the various sites throughout the country and live the experience. That's the sentiment of those coaches and players who, for the most part, consider it a business - big business - rather than a game. That's the sentiment of college presidents who bank on millions in the coffers from accommodating alums, but that usually only comes if their team wins. So the pressure turns into a vicious circle. And in this pressure cooker of college sports - both mens and womens, God is so often forgotten, except when throwing in a Holy Mary from half-court. Yet there are a few this year who haven't forgotten the Heavenly Presence, even attributed the Latter to helping them win. Invariably there is always a "Cinderella" team, and this year is no exception. Also, invariably that "Cinderella" team will give credit to a "Higher Power" for getting them there and winning the game with an "impossible shot" that defied all odds, and this year, of course, is no exception. One player even attributed an "angel to guiding the ball into the bucket" when it looked like it would be well short of its target; it was like it defied the laws of gravity and stayed airborne another foot until it found its mark between the netting as the game clock expired. To some that may seem far-fetched, but take it from personal experience, we believe it!

     Against all odds, this editor coached his sons and a group of teammates from the Boys Club league in Bentonville, Arkansas to the State Tournament in Arkansas five years ago, the same year the Razorbacks won the NCAA. In fact, just after the Regionals we took the whole team to Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, thirty miles south of Bella Vista, to watch the Hogs practice before heading for the Final Four. It was quite a thrill not just for the boys, but coaches and moms, as well. Though we got blown out in the first round of the State Finals in Little Rock by a Little Rock school rated ninth in the nation whose style was run n' gun playground ball, we had a ball and the kids lived a great experience. But back to "Divine Intervention." It wasn't meant that the Bentonville "Gators" go further in the State Tournament, but it was important that they got that far. Two weeks earlier we had to win the last four in a row at the end of the regular season just to qualify for the local playoffs. Then we had to win three more in the playoffs to earn the right to go to State. Not an easy task, many said "impossible," but we believed. Not only in this ragamuffin group of eight to ten-year old lads, but also that if it were God's Will, they'd go further. That they did partly because they started playing better as a group, but largely because of mystical occurrences on the court similar to the NCAA shot last week that was, by all accounts "short" and yet still went in. Credit prayer and lots of it. While yours truly paced the hardwood shouting encouragement to the boys, calling out instructions to switch from zone to man-to-man to a box and one trap, my better half was high in the stands giving the Rosary beads a steady workout. While others were shouting from the top of their lungs, and sometimes things not too nice, my bride and the boys' mom was calling on Heavenly intervention, invoking her guardian angel "Joseph" to perch himself on the rims and swat away opposing shots while guiding the Gator's attempts into the net. Mind you, it didn't always work, but it did enough times that I was a believer! We can't begin to explain the phenomenas that enveloped this team which no one expected to even make the playoffs, let alone win it all in Northwest Arkansas. There were shots taken by opposing teams that couldn't miss, but somehow they did; there were shots, ill advised I might add, taken by our team that I would scream out "Nooooo!" and then give an emphatic "Yes!" when, defying all logic and probability, it banked off the glass and in or swished through the chords. If you have ever seen the movie "Angels in the Outfield" it gives you a good indication of what was going on out there on the court back in 1993. Many called it a "magical year;" we called it "miraculous!" After my wife convinced me it was the prayers, not the talent, I really started to believe and transfered that confidence to the kids. Everytime the other team missed a sure bucket, I'd look up and say "Thank you, Joseph!" Everytime one of our kids made a play that seemed impossible, I'd give Cyndi a wink in the stands and we'd mouth together "Thank you, Joseph!" Those who caught on to what we were doing after awhile thought we were crazy. It didn't matter, we knew what Jesus said, "Knock and it shall be opened to you." We also knew God didn't like our team better than the others, or want us to win more than the others, just as He doesn't favor any special team in the NCAA's. But He does like acknowledgment of Him, He does appreciate when we pay attention to Him and call on Him and that we did that spring of '93.

     The point is those shots last week that were attributed to "Divine Intervention" were not "luck" but an answer to their prayers. Does that mean God wants them to win it all? Hardly, for we'd bet they don't get out of the Sweet Sixteen. Let me rephrase that, we'd count on them not getting to the Final Four. After all, we don't wager on games, because then God sure isn't going to respond. He's not going to contribute to anything that promotes the Seven Deadly Sins. But He sure appreciates any attention to Him when the mass majority are thinking about everything but God. He intended the game to be for recreation, to learn teamwork so that man could work with one another, grow and love one another as He asks. He didn't promote the slam dunk, the Nike phenomena, the "in-your-face" style of ball that permeates the game and society today where almost every player flaunts and taunts, forgetting that whatever talents he has have been given to him by God. Without God, he or she would be NOTHING! How many of the players and coaches, and fans, for that matter, realize or recognize this fact? That's what makes March so maddening that so many have forgotten God's role in life, His vital and necessary participation in the daily lives of everyone. The Triune Divinity is impartial when it comes to one team or another, but They are not impartial when it comes to recognizing Them. Maybe that's why the Father is the fair Ref, the Son the "Great Recruiter," and the Holy Spirit the masterful Coach Who will guide us through the Master Game Plan. Those who do, move to the head of the class; those who don't...well, wait in line and think about it. Think about why God isn't answering their prayers. The reason is very simple. God doesn't stack the deck, but He does deal the right cards to those who put their faith in Him by living as He Wills. Whether it's at work, prayer, or play - or the NCAA's - remember to remember Him and thank Him and His chorus of angels and saints whether or not your team wins or loses. But before you hang your head in despair if and when your team comes up just a little short in the big "Dance," remember that you can never lose with God on your side. After all, playing on God's team assures us of victory! It's a sure bet! It's sad so many don't realize this, because win or lose, the real Madness of March is that not enough are willing to be on God's Team!

Michael Cain, editor

Daily CATHOLIC          March 20-22, 1998