Tuesday, April 05, 2011

SPORTS >> Like Mike, we savor Big Dance

Leader sportswriter

My co-worker Mike Kwang-keow is a man of refined tastes.

I guess that’s why I felt vindicated a couple of weeks back when he mentioned his love for March Madness.

Mike is a student at Pulaski Technical College who does page design here at The Leader part time. He is a new citizen to this country, a native of Thailand, and just an all-around good dude. And just like me, he likes good basketball.

To paraphrase, Mike said he loved the NCAA Tournament, but did not care for the NBA so much anymore. It was like music to my ears. Many of my sportswriting colleagues have long teased me over my anti-pro sentiment. Yes, I do make an exception for the NFL, but with the lockout it’s starting to look like that won’t be necessary this year.

Still fairly new to the country, Mike has the luxury of picking and choosing whatever elements of our culture he wishes to follow, and he doesn’t pick up on just anything. So when he says something is entertaining, you can bet it comes from a discriminating source.

Connecticut’s ugly victory over Butler in the championship aside, this year’s NCAA tournament was one of the best in recent memory, complete with stunning upsets and nail-biting finishes that has made the tournament a perennial favorite.

March Madness has reached a level of intrigue and anticipation that is trumped only at this point by the Super Bowl and maybe, the World Series, but it has to a heck of a series matchup. The tournament doesn’t even require “your team” to be in the dang thing for it to be enjoyable.

Well, those reading this space (all four of you) are probably Razorbacks fans, so no need for further elaboration on that one. Hopes for the Natural State this year hinged on both UALR teams, who advanced by winning the men’s and women’s Sun Belt Conference tournaments. Especially heartbreaking was the Trojan men’s NCAA first rounder against UNC-Asheville in which UALR watched a second half lead evaporate into a tie at the end of regulation as UNC-Asheville took an 81-77 victory in overtime.

Still, it was a strong finish to the season for UALR, which lost seven of its final 10 regular season games before catching fire at the Sun Belt tourney in Hot Springs. The Trojans beat South Alabama, rival Arkansas State, perennial Achilles’ heel Middle Tennessee and then squeaked by North Texas 64-63 in a thrilling championship finale.

The Trojan women’s team also fell out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round with a 59-55 loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay.

The excitement of March Madness increases with every round.

In fact, the round of sweet sixteen was so compelling this year, sports editor Todd Traub held off from having his first martini until well past 1 p.m. the first day. Willpower? Heck no, just some good basketball.

Everyone expects upsets in the first two rounds, but Arizona’s 93-77 victory over Duke to make the East regional finals had to be the most shocking.

My personal favorite was Kentucky’s 62-60 victory over overall top seed Ohio State. Not that I carry some big loyalty to UK or coach John Calipari, but when I watch the Wildcats, for some reason, it reminds me of the Sylvan Hills High School varsity team.

It’s probably just the fact that the uniforms are similar in color. I can’t think of any other reason why I would connect Sylvan Hills or any of its players — like, oh, five-star recruit Archie Goodwin, let’s say — with Kentucky.

But now that Connecticut has claimed the national crown over Butler, the runner-up for a second-straight year, it marks the end of basketball season. Yes, I know there is still the NBA, but I say no thanks. And the same goes for Mike.

Mike can wax poetic about the NBA’s glory days of Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and the like, but as far as the league in its current state goes, he takes the same pass I have taken since sometime around the early 1990s.

I’m not denying the incredible talent in the NBA. It just seems strange to me how a player who can jump 18 feet to the rim and dunk, jump over sedans and dunk, turn a flip in mid-air while cooking waffles and dunk, text all six of his girlfriends and eat a bag of popcorn while spinning on the way to a dunk, can be absolutely clueless about how to play proper defense.

Or is playing defense simply not permitted in the NBA? Maybe I’m not up on all the rules of pro basketball. I do know it is legal to dunk.

Granted, it is impressive to see players hit three pointers from the obnoxiously distant three-point line that arches to a peak somewhere near mid-court, but again, rarely are any of those shots contested other than the obligatory hand wave from five feet away.

If someone wants to help pay a guy $6 million a year to dunk a basketball, more power to you — I prefer to watch the game with a few more dimensions. You know, good basketball.

So, until the college and prep hoops start back up sometime in mid-November, it’s off to the baseball and softball diamonds, racetracks, and yes, soccer fields.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around soccer; I guess that’s the one sport Mike, who is so smart he built his own computer, and I will have to disagree on.

Traub has always suspected that instead of building a computer, Mike is building a giant robot in his basement he will someday use to conquer the planet. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but at least if Mike is in charge we’ll still be able to watch good basketball.