A part of me feels shame even though it feels so good. It happens every spring in these halcyon days for those of us who love college basketball. Even those indifferent to March Madness fill out a bracket and spend countless hours watching it go up in flames. For three weekends, the nation sits transfixed as college teams we’ve never heard of commit a string of Herculean feats and miraculous upsets. It’s a time to cheer for that season’s Cinderella story, the little guys who overcome all odds to show us we can accomplish anything if we set our minds to it.
Except I don’t. In my old age, I’ve become uncomfortably aware I’m no longer rooting for the long shot to win.
In the men’s tournament, I’ll root for the underdogs. I still get goose bumps when Northern Iowa hits a buzzer-beater or Middle Tennessee State springs the big upset.
No, it’s in the women’s tournament that my dirty little secret comes to the fore.
I don’t root for Cinderella — I root for her stepmother.
There was a time I applauded the upstart whenever I watched the women’s tournament because early-round upsets were so much rarer than in the men’s game.
After Geno Auriemma became the coach in 1985, UConn provided me a local Cinderella for which to cheer. I shouted on Kerry Bascom and her green teammates as they struggled to become relevant on the national stage. By the mid-90s, a young Rebecca Lobo led her team to the first of 10 (and counting) national championships. I learned to love women’s basketball.I convinced myself UConn was still a Cinderella in the years that followed because Pat Summit remained the head of what Auriemma dubbed “The Evil Empire.” She’d coached the sport’s most decorated program: the most titles, the most awards, and the gaudiest resume. Writers had to make up words like “winningest” to describe Summit’s seemingly insurmountable records.
Soon, however, UConn gained the upper hand. Where Tennessee once won three titles in a row, UConn would soon accomplish that on two separate occasions. Where Tennessee was once considered dominant in its sport, UConn soon became one of the greatest dynasties in all of sport. Along the way, they beat Tennessee five times out of seven in the NCAA Tournament, going 4-0 in the title game. The Evil Empire was dead. Long live the new Empire.
UConn’s women’s program now has the three longest winning streaks in the history of the sport and stands on the precipice of a fourth straight national championship. Many bemoan this level of supremacy, something not seen in college basketball since the days of UCLA in the 70s. Rather than appreciating the marriage of perfect execution and enduring determination, they wonder if this kind of dominance is good for the sport itself.
Well, did Picasso ruin things for other painters? Did Beethoven’s success signal the decline of musical composition after his Ninth Symphony? I’d rather people celebrate the history that Breanna Stewart and the rest of this year’s UConn squad is making, for make no mistake: this is art. We are witnessing the elevation of the sport.
The problem is that cheering for a team this dominant is like rooting for the house in Vegas. I can’t help it. I’m rooting for the Huskies because greatness should be rewarded, not reviled. Like the old joke says, there’s a reason Cinderella is so bad at basketball: her coach is a pumpkin and she always runs away from the ball. Don’t be afraid to root against her this weekend as UConn continues its tournament run in Bridgeport.
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