Villanova’s Game-Winner: Why We Watch Sports – Wall Street Journal
Here is a not-so-hidden hidden truth about sports: most of us watch a lot of stinkytown garbage.
We really do. We love to rhapsodize about the good stuff, the great stuff—the Game 7s, the overtime thrillers, the buzzer beaters—but for every example of greatness, we will watch a hundred sporting contests better suited for an alleyway dumpster. Maybe a few hundred. I’m not saying it’s an awful experience—it’s sports on TV, after all, it’s better than sitting in the dark and folding your own socks and underwear—but there are many times we get to the end of a game and wonder: What on earth was the point?
If you accumulate the hours spent, it’s thoroughly depressing. I’m telling you now: don’t do the math. I could have learned a second language in the time I’ve logged watching lousy New York Knicks games. I could have learned to juggle. I could have found and started a secret second family. A secret third family. I could have taught my secret third family how to juggle.
It isn’t just basketball. It’s every sport. I know the NFL is supposed to be America’s most popular entertainment, a cultural force, but there are many NFL games, especially the ones at 1 p.m., when the sun is shining outside, and I am seized with the profound guilt of a life lost to meaningless misery. The quality of play is so mediocre I’m not even sure that what I’m watching is football. It looks like 22 people wandering around a picnic trying to find a contact lens. And still, I watch.
It’s a crisis, I’m telling you. And nobody’s immune. Nobody lies on their deathbed and says, I wish I had never watched sports. They lie on their deathbed and say: It may kill me, but I think the Knicks are on at 7:30 p.m. Where’s the remote?
But every once in a while—years and decades, really—you get a game like Monday night’s NCAA men’s basketball championship between Villanova and North Carolina. Did you stay up and see that ending? I hope so. If you didn’t, by now you have had at least 100 people come up to you and ask if you saw the ending. If you didn’t, they look at you like you vacationed in Italy and forgot to eat food. It’s brutal. They look at you like a fool.
Don’t give me any nonsense that you DVR’d it and watched the final shot in the morning and it was really exciting. It’s. Not. The. Same.
(I know a significant portion of you live on the West Coast or other wondrous time zones, where sporting events like Monday night’s game end at such a civilized hour you can go out for a meal afterward. You have my admiration and envy. If you live in an especially beautiful and cloudless place, I hope it rains for a week.)
If you did stay up, battling sleep and inertia and those infernal time outs—college basketball has to stop giving each coach 9,000 time outs, turning the flow of the game into a dentist’s waiting room—you are certain it was the correct choice. You are a changed person. A better person. You saw history, the good stuff, the kind of event you’ll talk about 20 years from now. It’s exactly what makes sports so compelling—the collision of live action and the chance to witness greatness—that makes all the lousy stuff worth it. It’s why television networks pay billions for the rights to these games, why so many of us put up a shield of cognitive dissonance to enjoy them despite their abundant hypocrisies (for big time college sports, that shield needs to be three-foot-thick steel).
Let’s just do the sequence again…North Carolina’s Marcus Paige hits a circus 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left…easily one of the craziest, off-balance shots you’ll ever see, an astonishing act unto itself…it ties the game, improbably…only to have Villanova take it the length of the court, Ryan Arcidiacono looking to take the shot when he turns and flips a beautiful pass—they will teach that pass for decades—to teammate Kris Jenkins who…as time expires…ice cold…swish. Villanova coach Jay Wright coolly struts the sideline like he’s getting on an Amtrak quiet car with a book of crossword puzzles.
The whole deal was as brilliant as it gets—heartbreaking for Carolina, which had wiggled its way into back into a game it looked like it had lost 10 times before, and a well-earned thrill for Villanova, a long 31 years after it had stunned Georgetown in what is Suddenly the Second Wildest Villanova Victory of All Time.
And for the rest of us? For the rest of us, it was a perfect memory, which is all anyone can ask from a lifetime of watching sports. That, and maybe the Cubs or Cleveland can get a title one of these years.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com