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The Big Dance

Sportswriters Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport tell how March Madness grew from an eight-team tournament in a rickety Illinois gym to a $10-billion business.

By Anna Clark / March 5, 2012

The Big Dance By Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport Taylor Trade Publishing 304 pp.

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What we now call March Madness began as an eight-team tournament in 1939 in a rickety Illinois gymnasium. The University of Oregon won a championship that had an audience of 5,500 and lost $2,531 – half the tickets were given away. By 1973, the first year the tournament was televised, 39 million viewers tuned in to watch UCLA pound Memphis State. Today, the tournament is a 68-team behemoth, with every match-up covered by four television networks. The NCAA collected a staggering $10.8 billion in its most recent broadcast deal; more than 95 percent of the NCAA’s revenue comes from March Madness contracts.

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Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport, longtime sportswriters, aim to tell how we got from there to here in The Big Dance: The Story of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The authors draw from the wealth of sources cultivated over their courtside careers. Through excellent interviewing, they let the stars of tournaments past tell the story in the first-person. Among others, we hear from UCLA’s John Wooden, Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, UConn’s Geno Auriemma, Indiana’s Bobby Knight, and Cathy Rush, who had a 149-15 record coaching the Mighty Macs at Immaculata long before the NCAA got around to organizing a women’s championship in 1982.

The sportswriting background of Wilner and Rappoport is evident in the text’s short paragraphs, crisp sentences, and rhetorical questions, as well as their taste for quips. Game play is narrated in close-up detail, full of vibrant verbs and endearing anecdotes, as when we see the father of UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) celebrate his son’s 1969 championship by leaving his bleacher seats to play first trombone with the school band. Wilner and Rappaport’s fan energy is the book’s driving force: they glow in the light of a game they love. Their eagerness to talk ball is contagious, and their detailing of game-by-game strategy is enlightening.

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