This weekend, millions who have not seen a basketball game all winter will tune in to watch the spectacle known as “March Madness” – the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. What is it that draws people who barely give a notice to the stars playing for the Rockets or Cavaliers to cheer for unknown kids from the University of Northern Iowa and Wichita State? According to Yago Colás, it’s because the players are kids – or more accurately, kids who are in the ungainly, frustrating, and sometimes breathtaking process of becoming adults.
Everything that stirs us and causes us to cringe during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament every year can be explained in this way: adolescents using adolescence to try to overcome adolescence.
A therapist once told me that it’s hard to work with adolescents because normal adolescent behavior closely resembles psychopathology. But adolescence isn’t just a disturbed – and confusing – time of life. It is a confused and confusing idea. Conventional definitions don’t help much. The consensus is that it begins with the onset of puberty (a biological marker different for every individual) and ends with the age of majority (a legal marker identical for every individual in a given society). Even the roots of the word – the Latin adolescentum meant “growing,” “near maturity” and “youthful” – suggest confusion, and motion in multiple directions at once. If you pick a sequence at random from one of the NCAA men’s games, you’re likely to come up with an illustration of the etymological image of adolescence.
Indeed, it’s a canard among NBA observers that the college game and this time called March Madness are a massive orgy of basketball incompetence – something like clearing out the Guggenheim to make space for an exhibition of children’s finger painting and performance art. In a way, it is. On the other hand, the partisans of the college game point to that same professional efficiency, emphasizing what they perceive to be its bloodlessness, to champion the cracks and fissures in ability that allow the mad emotions of March to blow through like geysers during NCAA tournament games.
For my part, I think this dichotomous, partisan opposition between the NCAA and the NBA is a premise that actually obscures the deeper things that make a college game worth watching. It might be because I spend so much of my working day around adolescents, and, in recent years, around adolescents who are also college basketball players. Whatever the reason, when I see a college game I see not one pole in a black-and-white opposition, but rather a kind of mesmerizing eddy of adolescent veering and stability: one moment taking my breath away with its poised excellence, the next leaving me shaking my head in its tragicomic incompetence, one moment the earnest, unselfconscious performance of what a teenager imagines an adult should sound like, the next an exuberant pile of puppies romping around because the round orange thing went through the bright orange ring, again.
I see, as I do when I stand in my classroom, the mixture of children and adults that cohabit the body of the adolescent, sometimes in painfully awkward conflict, sometimes with inspiring, transcendent grace.
After all, there is not really virtue – not in my opinion – in having left behind the things of childhood, not entirely anyway. At the same time, almost nothing irritates me more than the nominal adult who has yet to master that the other human beings out there are real, have feelings of their own, and ought to be considered when we speak and act. But the adolescents, they are somewhere in between, they are on their way somewhere, clumsily exhibiting a mostly earthbound fantasy of acquiring the calm, accomplished, wisdom of maturity while retaining the energy and spontaneity of youth.
So here are these college players bounding around like colts on the hardwood for our entertainment and for the profit of their schools, their conferences, the NCAA, CBS, and myriad manufacturers of apparel, of beverages, of automobiles, of the image of their own educational institutions. Most won’t go pro, of course – the NBA will not be their “adulthood.” But they are each on their own worthy path to some version of adulthood, and this game is somehow a little storm they’ve chosen to make part of that path. And all they’ve got – in order to get through the storm: past youth, through adolescence, and along toward maturity – is the half-shaped but potent equipment of adolescence.
Unfiltered emotion, intensity, awkwardness, budding strength, energy, talent, incompetence, apathy, self-consciousness, selflessness, narcissism, volatility – these are the unpredictable forces they must find a way to draw upon and shuffle into some sort of order so as to overcome a badly arrayed version of this very same combination of forces. The volatile emotional intensity that facilitates transcendent effort also generates the boneheaded foul and the sloppy turnover. The narcissistic belief in the boundlessnesss of one’s powers generates both the heroic buzzer beater and the doomed one-on-five drive into the paint in transition.
I’m not where they are anymore. I’m middle-aged. I’m glad to be over that particular patch called adolescence, which in my case ended in some ways long before puberty and in other ways lasted long past my reaching the age of majority. But I still recognize it and encounter it from time to time within myself. For that reason, I have this great, soft tenderness in my heart for the sheer immanence of the adolescent struggle that I find embodied on the college basketball court, for the battle unfolding in rapid real time, in single plays, to use only what one has at hand, even one’s weaknesses, to make something durable and, yes, shining.
Yago Colás is author of the forthcoming book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Culture of Basketball. He teaches comparative literature and sports culture at the University of Michigan. The original version of this essay appeared on his blog, Between the Lines, days before students in his class played in the championship game of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.