By: Shannon Ralph
I am from Kentucky. Though I have been away from my home state for fourteen years, I am a born and bred Kentuckian. My heart has always, and will always, lie in Kentucky. The great state of Kentucky is known for many things. Thoroughbred horses. The Appalachian Mountains. Fried Chicken. Bluegrass—both of the musical and lawn variety. Fort Knox and its abundant stash of gold. Bourbon, tobacco, obesity, Oxycontin addiction, and other vices we prefer not to mention.
Above and beyond all of these, however, college basketball reigns supreme in Kentucky. University of Kentucky basketball—and, to an equally rabid extent, University of Louisville basketball—is the lifeblood of the state. Kentucky basketball fans are some of the most loyal, fanatical, virulent fans you will find in all of sports. And rightly so. The University of Kentucky has the winningest record in all of college basketball. UK leads all schools in total NCAA tournament appearances with fifty-one, and is second only to UCLA in tournament wins, with seven. Needless to say, I am a fan.
Each year, hope springs eternal in my house come March. As we enter March Madness, I wrack my brain trying to put together the perfect bracket. I rabidly peruse websites that I rarely visit with names like ESPN.com, CBSSports.com, and SportsIllustrated.com. I read the “expert” projections. I delve into rankings and scores and statistics. Until the exact moment I am required to turn in my bracket, I continue to tweak it. I obsess. I make myself crazy debating the 8-9 match-ups. I try to use my impressive psychic powers to predict which #12 seed will beat a #5 seed—there’s always at least one. Who will be this year’s Cinderella team? Who will win it all? How far will Kentucky go before they inevitably crash and burn, leaving me utterly devastated? In the end, I go with my gut. I excitedly fill out my bracket, absolutely certain that I have picked THE winning teams. Certain that I have defied the odds and picked every single game correctly. I hand over my twenty bucks. I visualize in my mind the adorable sandals I will be purchasing with the $160 jackpot I will inevitably win.
As the cold and dreary days of March progress, I dutifully watch every single game. I will start out strong, typically in the lead after the first round. By the time we get to the Sweet 16, my lead will begin waning. I will employ my decidedly rusty higher math skills to determine exactly how many games I need to have guessed correctly to overcome the leader and win the bracket challenge. I will cheer for teams that I did not pick and do not like simply because they will improve my overall chance of winning. I bite my fingernails down to mere nubs. By the time we get to the Final Four, I will come to the realization that it is mathematically impossible for me to take home the jackpot. I will lose interest quickly after that, especially considering that the University of Kentucky will have disappointed and not made it to the Elite Eight. In the end, I typically will not even watch the championship game. I will read the next day about who won and will unceremoniously hand over the jackpot, including my wasted $20, to the winner. Every year it is the same. An exercise in futility.
Historically, my children have not been fans of college basketball. Every year, my children are forced to watch basketball game after basketball game in March. They complain. They whine. They lament the utter unfairness of America’s Funniest Videos being pre-empted by basketball. Quite frankly, their whining gets on my nerves. And it interferes with my focus, and upsets my completely and totally unhealthy obsession with the games.
This year, in an attempt to bring them into the fold—to try to ease the whiny tirades—I decided to allow the children to fill out brackets. In actuality, it was Lucas’s idea. He begged me to let him do a bracket this year. Of course, he is too young to gamble, so he was not involved in our pool. But I had no problem with him picking teams and cheering along with the rest of us. He is a Ralph after all. Gambling is in his nature. It’s the family business. Despite being a born and bred Midwesterner, he has Kentucky blue blood coursing through his veins. He may be the farthest thing from an athlete you’ll ever find, but that blue blood has to count for something. Right? The time has come to start grooming the next generation of poker-playing, basketball-loving, money-hungry Ralphs so that one day in the not-too-far-off future, I can happily take their hard-earned cash.
So I let Lucas fill out a bracket. Though disappointed that the University of Minnesota did not make the tournament (my eight-year-old was the only one bewildered by that fact), he was surprisingly thoughtful and deliberate about his choices. In the end, he went with his heart and chose Kentucky to win it all. At the time, I shook my head. My poor little guy…banking on a team that is bound to disappoint. Their performance this season was sketchy, at best. Moments of utter basketball brilliance followed by disappointing half-assed-ness. I assumed Lucas would quickly lose interest in the games when Kentucky bowed out early. I planned on watching the games in peace—all alone.
To my surprise, however, Kentucky did not bow out early. As a matter of fact, they played quite brilliantly throughout the tournament this year. Lucas and I watched every single game together. I smiled as my altogether UN-athletic son whooped and hollered and cheered for my home state. I laughed out loud as he made his first tentative attempts at “trash talk”. Constant chants of “Bring it on!” accompanied by the shaking of his hips and jazz hands in the air. (Yea, I need to teach him to put a little more venom—and a little less showgirl—in his trash-talking retorts.) When Kentucky beat Ohio State, we were in a hotel room in Rockford, Illinois on our way home from vacation. Everyone else had fallen asleep, but Lucas and I stayed up until 11:00pm watching the game. When Kentucky won, Lucas practically woke the entire room bouncing up and down in the bed. Over and over again, he kept repeating, “I can’t believe Kentucky beat the #1 seed. Momma, can you believe Kentucky beat Ohio State?” His excitement was infectious. Like his mother before him, he had been bitten by the basketball bug.
To my surprise and to Lucas’s absolute delight, Kentucky made it to the Final Four this year. This past Saturday night, we snuggled together on the couch to watch Kentucky play the University of Connecticut. The game started off rough, but Kentucky rebounded in the second half. In the end, after weeks of talking about nothing but basketball, Lucas’s beloved Kentucky Wildcats lost by one point to Uconn in a nail-biter of a game. Lucas was devastated. He burst into tears. His anguish was palpable. His disappointment potent. Tears rolled down his face as he looked at me and asked, “How could they lose?”
How do you explain to an eight-year-old the agony of defeat? I was the one who introduced him to the madness of March basketball. I was the one who encouraged his excitement. I was the one who delighted in his basketball-induced revelry. I was at least partially complicit—if not completely to blame—for his pitifully huge crocodile tears. What is a mom to do in that circumstance? I pulled my big eight-year-old son onto my lap. I cuddled him like I did when he was a toddler—his big feet dragging the ground. I kissed the top of his head. I wiped his tears. I told him that Kentucky played an awesome game. I explained that he was incredibly smart to pick Kentucky because they went farther in the tournament than anyone ever expected them to go. I explained that sports is sometimes hard. Sometimes the teams we want to win with all of our hearts will lose. Some days the other team just plays a better game. I explained that the whole purpose of sports is to have fun, and didn’t we have fun watching Kentucky play this year? In the end, Lucas wiped his tears and nodded his head. He walked to the living room to retrieve his bracket. He grabbed a piece of tape and hung his bracket on his bedroom door. He went to bed dreaming of basketball hoops and buzzer shots and Kentucky blue.
At the beginning of March, I let Lucas fill out a bracket so he would leave me alone. I decided to let him participate so he would stop whining and I could—maybe—watch my games in peace. A few short weeks later, I realize that I achieved infinitely more than I bargained for with that decision. I rediscovered a love of the game through Lucas’s eyes. I delighted in my son’s excitement. He and I connected on a new, deeper level. We truly enjoyed one another’s company. I found a basketball-watching partner—hopefully, for life. I introduced my son to the thrills of victory. And Lucas had his first lesson in the agony of defeat. A hard lesson, but a necessary life lesson. Once again, the month of March has earned its title. March Madness…you got to love it.