Keys to hoop victory: emotion, control

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There's a sports fervor ablaze across the land these days.

It is, of course, created by the NCAA's major college basketball championships, which is simply the best tournament in all of sport.

It started yesterday with 64 teams, a huge number that in itself makes it more fun for more people than the NFL playoffs leading to the Super Bowl; lose and you're eliminated, which leads to far more drama than playoffs that are decided by who wins, say, a best four-of-seven game series, as in Major League Baseball and the NBA.

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There will be no weather delays and no wind making a mockery of the competition; there will be no question about the champion because the victors will have marched through a brutal bracket of all the best, unlike sports such as golf and tennis in which there is no single championship tournament.

The only possible argument against the college hoops extravaganza being tops can be waged by those who simply prefer a sport of another flavor. But, honestly, this tournament, like vanilla ice cream, is the best.

Why?

At root, it's the white-hot emotion generated in the hot-house environment of fans, coaches, and players who really care about the outcome. Watch a few minutes of any NBA game in the next few weeks, then switch back to the NCAA Championships, and you'll witness the disparate intensity levels.

There will be, between now and the title game April 3 in Indianapolis, a wall-to-wall panoply of shots that win games at the buzzer, stunning individual performances, controversies over calls, laughter, and tears. It's always thus.

No fan can erase the vision of Michael Jordan's jumper with 15 seconds left that won the 1982 hoops title for North Carolina over Georgetown. Nobody forgets the late Jimmy Valvano racing around looking for someone to hug in 1983 after his North Carolina State team upset Houston. There are so many moments like these.

A rollicking emotional peak in the history of the game of basketball - if you include all levels, both genders, all time - was March 20, 1954. That was when tiny Milan (Ind.) High School, with just 73 boys enrolled, up and whomped big and proud Muncie Central High for the Indiana state championship.

With three seconds left, one Bobby Plump hit a jump shot from the edge of the free throw line to produce a 32-30 win. The emotion was of avalanche proportions because of the passion Indiana has for its basketball and because of the improbability of David bringing down Goliath. Years later, Plump told an Indianapolis newspaper, "I knew it was going in." No he didn't. But, glory be, it did.

Yet, because so many care so completely, the emotion during games routinely gets out of hand. The result is that these powerful feelings raging in the competitors' hearts lead to self-defeating results.

For example, Indiana University coach Bob Knight, who again has gotten his team into the tournament, has many huge successes. Notable was 1976, when he coached the Hoosiers to a 32-0 record and the national crown. Many other times, however, his emotional outbursts - including fiery invectives - have contributed mightily to defeat.

We saw similar behavior in tennis star John McEnroe, whose over-the-top emotions - and temper - caused him repeated difficulty, including once being disqualified from the Australian Open.

This is the problem with emotion. When it comes in the right doses, it is a fierce ally. But when it erupts over the top, it is a monstrous hindrance.

We will see the players this year wildly celebrating a good shot - thus making themselves slow getting back on defense, which will abet the other team. We will see players get wrought-up protesting fouls - which, most of the time, they are guilty of - when they should be focused on what's ahead. We will see coaches make spectacles of themselves, carrying on about a call they can't change when they should be devoting themselves to the game ahead, which they can.

All of us know the folly of this kind of behavior. When our emotions aren't in control, it's hard and often impossible to think clearly. An inner calmness and outward stoicism almost always produce better results. Yet, triumph can't come without emotion.

And so, the team that will be cutting down the nets April 3 most likely will be the one that, somehow and some way, was able to play with gripping emotion - but not too much. Such is the dichotomy in sport.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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