I’ll never forget an advertiser – a used car sales lot – on a Wayne County radio station during its high school basketball tournament broadcasts some years ago.
With a friendly twang in his voice, the owner wished all the local teams the best of luck in what he called "terminate basketball."
He was, of course, trying to say "tournament basketball," but his accent altered the way it came out.
Perhaps, though, it was a great Freudian slip, or a malaprop.
Because although it is technically tournament basketball, it is just as much terminate basketball. That is, it’s single-elimination, lose-and-you’re-out, no second chances, no room for error. It’s winner-take-all. The team on the other side of the score – and the scoreboard – is terminated.
That’s what makes it so much fun.
And that fun is here – actually, everywhere in Ohio – right now, tonight, and every night, and some weekend afternoons, for the next several weeks. The boys tournament begins this week with sectional play. As usual, it’s a week behind the girls tourney, which is now moving onto the district level.
Whether it’s the boys or girls tournaments – or both – that you’re most interested in, it – this high school March Madness – is just the best. Unlike the postseason football tournament, where a lot of teams don’t do well enough during the regular season to qualify, every member school in the Ohio High School Athletic Association that fields a basketball team, or teams, is in.
No matter their record – whether it’s 0-22 or 22-0 – they get a chance. What happened in the regular season doesn’t matter one bit. Everybody starts the tournament the same, at 0-0.
Jackson is the defending boys Division I state champion, but that was last season. That big trophy means nothing this season – only that the Polar Bears have an even bigger target on their backs. Every other school in the biggest-school division is out to get them.
That’s especially the case for the lesser teams, for they know that if they can beat Jackson, it will make their season right then and there. The joy invoked would be greater than all the disappointments they endured the regular season -- combined.
Think it can’t happen? Think it’s just theoretically possible – but not actually possible in the real world -- for the defending state champions to go one-and-done the following season?
In 2009, Columbus Northland, led by Jared Sullinger, one of the top players in Ohio in the last two decades, won the Division I state title. But in 2010, with Sullinger back a senior and on his way to Ohio State and eventually the NBA, the Vikings lost their sectional opener – their first game.
It sent shockwaves throughout the state.
That left the door wide open for another team to win the championship. It ended up being a team coached by Mike Fuline, the Jackson Polar Bears. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. Perhaps you remember that year’s team.
Indeed, it’s not what you’ve done coming into the tournament that counts. It’s what you do when the tournament begins.
Take, for instance, Youngstown Ursuline in 1994. The Fighting Irish finished the regular season just 10-10. As such, they weren’t exactly the favorites to win the Division III state crown.
But they got on a roll and made it all the way to the state tournament, where they won by two points in the semifinals – over Indian Valley, a former member of the Principals Athletic Conference – and by two points again in the finals over Lima Central Catholic, with the winning shot coming at the buzzer as the kid who made it was sliding backwards into his own bench.
Folks, you can’t make up that kind of stuff. The movie directors in Hollywood would laugh at it. Too trite. Too magical. Too cheesy.
But also too true.
Every kid who has ever picked up a basketball has dreamed of doing exactly that. He ended up making it come true.
Whose childhood dreams will become reality this season?
And whose dreams will be – gulp – terminated?
No one knows right now. We’ll just have to wait and see.