The Box Seats: March Madness, History, and Memory

Laettner's Shot

By Cory Barker

Welcome to The Box Seats, a hopefully regular feature where I discuss televised sports. The two things I love most in this world are sports and television. I especially like sports on television. My goal is to bring up some older sports events, games, telecasts, etc. and try to think about what they meant then, what they mean now, and whether or not our infatuation with sports has changed at all.

By accident, this column has become about memorymy personal memory, and hopefully if these pieces appeal to you, larger cultural memory as well. In some ways, returning to memories of older sports events is different than returning to older television shows, if only because it’s a bit more challenging to find full games. While I can access a number of great websites that will provide me the statistical breakdown of a game or event I want to discuss, the remaining visual evidence is powered by highlights, the big moments. Sports and sports media play into that. Not only are we given basic highlights of flashy plays on a nightly basis on SportsCenter, but player, team, and sport histories are told to us through these highlight packages. The ups and the downs, the trials and the tribulationswe see it all not through full games, but edited snippets of success of failure, contextualized for easy consumption (unless we’re exclusively talking about ESPN Classic).

What’s most interesting to me about this is how these packages, clips, and montages can shape our memory and sense of history even if we didn’t actually experience these events ‘live’ to begin with. Obviously, this isn’t an novel idea. There’s all sorts of great work out there about cultural memory and collective memory, and I urge you to check them out. Nevertheless, for me personally, much of my knowledge of sports history has come from the media’s representation of that history.

Next week (and really now, if you count conference tournaments), March Madness begins. And for me, there isn’t another sporting event that understands and uses its history to its advantage. If I wanted to, I could list the last 20 winners of the men’s tournament (and a number of the women’s winners as well). There are few individual sports moments ingrained into my mind more than Isiah Thomas’ dance after Indiana’s 1981 championship and Keith Smart’s shot to give the Hoosiers another title in 1987. Of course, Indiana is my alma mater (and current mater, I guess) and on a list of Important Things in Cory’s Life, “IU Basketball” is always in the top three. But I was born in 1988. I didn’t watch the 1981 or 1987 championship games live, nor have I ever seen them in full to this day. But anytime I see Keith Smart rise up and take that corner jump shot over the outstretched arms of Syracuse defenders, I get chills. It’s a legitimately important moment in my life, and my life didn’t even exist when it happened.

I look back so fondly on this moment not just because of my personal connection to the school and the team involved, but also because the NCAA and CBS are so damn good at keeping the hyperdiegesis of March Madness alive. When the tournament comes every year, CBS (and advertisers, who now smartly use clips or stand-out players from days gone by to evoke certain nostalgia) contextualizes, re-contextualizes, and flashes back as much as possible. Certain tournament plays are now completely immortal and it doesn’t even matter if the teams who won because of that play didn’t win another game, or if the players who made that play never made it to the NBA. The Christian Laettner shot in 1992. Bryce Drew in 1998. Jordan in 1982. Tate George in 1990. NC State in 1983. I could go on (and certainly did when I got stuck in a YouTube hole for about an hour while writing this piece).

The audience loves CBS and the NCAA’s curation of history so much that they can’t wait for the two parties to sum every the last three weeks of the tournament up, all set to “One Shining Moment.” It’s an almost instantaneous selection of who and what mattered (and who and what didn’t) over 63 to 67 games in less than four minutes. In future years, maybe only a few of those moments, cut down even further, make into the March Madness canon.

Previously on The Box Seats: The Malice in the Palace and Sports Characters

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