Monday, March 19, 2012

Monday's Musings on Sports - Rooting for an Upset and the Clouds of the Desert

This past weekend marked the beginning of the magical period known as March Madness. Teams which had earned their tickets to the NCAA Tournament by winning their conference tournaments or qualifying for an "at large"bid all laced up their sneakers for a chance at winning College Basketball's National Championship.

From the time that I was sixteen years old, it seemed that every year the media and the nation's attention was fixed on which "Cinderella" team would advance beyond the first weekend to the "Sweet 16." Although the definition of Cinderella has changed since Cleveland State and "the Mouse that Roared" upset Indiana in 1986, there is always great interest in the lower seeded teams and their debut on the national stage. This usually translates into louder cheers at the various first round venues (when they are not hosting a local team) for the 12 - 16 seeds and boos and jeers for the 1-4 ranked teams.

This year saw an uncharacteristcally large number of upsets including two number 15 seeds (Lehigh and Norfolk State) which upset number 2 seeds Duke and Missouri. This was the first time in eleven years that a number 15 seed advanced to the second round of the tournament. Meanwhile, a number one (Syracuse) barely escaped being the first number one seed to ever lose to a sixteen seeded team.

The public's fascination with the lower seeds has always intrigued me. Although people may view an underdog as a heartwarming story, this country always seems to want to be the victor in any professional or amateur event. I have a difficult time understanding why people would root for the low ranked team, since even if they win a game or two, they will never win a national championship. Indeed, most of these Cinderellas flame out in the round of 32 or Sweet 16 and never advance to the Final Four. Still, they manage to capture the hearts and minds of the home town fans in these outlying venues. Meanwhile, the teams which will ultimately vie for the championship do not feel at home until they make their way to the Final Four.

The last pasuk of Sefer Shemos contains a similar paradox which perhaps can shed light on the fans' behavior. At the end of Parshas Pikudei, the Torah writes that the clouds would be on the mishkan by day and the fire at night during all of their travels. Rashi notices the seeming problem with this statement since these items only surrounded the Jews when they were encamped, not when they travelled. Rashi answers that where they camped was also part of where they travelled, meaning - even the encampment was part of being on the road.

Rabbi Frand commented on this Rashi that the lesson was that even when we think we are encamped, the Jews are still travelling. The Rashi implies that a seeming home is still a journey on the road (even in a hospitable place) until we reach our final destination.

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