Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Sense of the NCAA Tournament

The NCAA Tournament kicks off today, and as my bracket comes apart at the seams (pull it together, Xavier!), I find myself thinking of the best book I've ever read about the tournament or college basketball in general. John McPhee's first book, A Sense of Where You Are, is a portrait of Bill Bradley before he became a Rhodes Scholar, played for the Knicks, served in the US Senate, or ran for president. It's a study of the man in early adulthood, balancing athletics and academics at Princeton University.

Much is made now about the fiction of student athletes. Too often, this time of year brings forth a flood of editorials decrying poor graduation rates and the loss of the true amateur in college sports. I won't add fuel to that fire, since, frankly, it's tedious and tinged with racism and elitism. McPhee's book addresses some of these issues, showing how hard it is to be both a first class athlete and a student at a top flight academic institution. The scheduling alone proves insurmountable for some. Bradley's success, according to McPhee, stems as much from his intense self-discipline as from his equally prodigious talent.

The book is full of incredible anecdotes of Bradley's time at Princeton, both on the court and off. While it borders on hagiography -- McPhee stops just short of prescribing super powers to Bradly -- it is a thrilling read for fans of the game. Bradley led Princeton to the Final Four in 1965, where he was named Most Outstanding Player for scoring 41 points in a semifinal game against Cazzie Russell's Michigan Wolverines, then following it with an NCAA Tournament record 58 points in the consolation game against Wichita State. Princeton in the Final Four. 58 points in a college game (before the three point shot, remember). Maybe he really did have super powers.

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