"In one way or another all men are mad. … All the whole list of desires, predilections, aversions, ambitions, passions, cares, griefs, regrets, remorses, are incipient madness, and ready to grow, spread and consume, when the occasion comes."

Mark Twain was talking about the human condition when he wrote this. He didn't know, however, that he was really talking about the annual NCAA basketball tournament, commonly called March Madness, that two-week game within a game within the most important game of all.

The first game is basketball, the play in the arenas where young athletes from 64 teams compete for the national championship. Every team there is touched with madness. It is madness because only one of these 64 teams will actually finish the tournament a winner. The other 63 are doomed to go home with the sure and certain memory that the last game of their season was a loss. Every team there has sweated and strained and pushed to get to a tournament where there is a very high chance that they will go home losers.

The second madness is that each losing team goes home knowing, knowing I say, that if only they had done this or that in the second half, they could have made it to the next round.

The third madness is that all the teams—even those seeded 16th in their region—secretly believes that if they can get the right match-ups and play the game of the season and have a little luck, they can actually win this thing! They are coached to play one game at a time, but these are bright athletes, and they know what one win plus one win eventually leads to.

And the fourth madness is that the favorites even believe they can win this thing. Ah, but the gods can be crazy themselves, helping 14th seeded Cleveland State defeat powerhouse Indiana (ranked 2nd) in 1986, or helping 15th seeded ranked Santa Clara squeezed by 2nd seeded Arizona in 1991—and on it goes. The history of this tournament is full of broken dreams of sure things.

And then the final madness of this first game: Ask any player from the 63 losers, whose dream has been swatted away on the court, whether it was all worth it, and the answer will surely be, "You bet."

Full disclosure requires me to reveal that at Christianity Today International we have a multi-cent March Madness basketball pool. Well, it isn't really a pool, because we don't actually pool any money. And for the winner—essentially the person who correctly guesses the winner of most of the 62 games—it's worth somewhere in the neighborhood or 700 or 800 cents—meaning a free lunch sponsored by the losers.

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This is about as risky as it gets in an upstanding evangelical organization, which is fine with me, because I have never done well at this sort of thing. I'm usually out of the running by the end of the first round. That's why I dropped out of the office bracket guessing game for a few years. I realized it was madness to think that I could predict with any sense of confidence who was going to beat whom. I mean, the people who follow this day in and day out all year long, who establish the rankings that begin the tournament are always wrong a number of times during the tournament. What makes the NCAA tournament so exciting is that every year there are a significant number of upsets! How can you beat a system that is premised on defying the odds?

But I realized this year that there is a third game of March Madness, with it's own craziness, that I was missing out on when I abandoned the bracket guessing game. If February, with Valentine's Day, celebrates romantic relationships, March has become a celebration of old-fashioned friendship. Once you enter one of these office pools, relationships take on a new dimension. It isn't that we all bond or become intimate in some startling way—nothing so ominous and frightening as that. We're talking about easing into friendships. We're talking bluster and light-hearted trash talk as we each announce our picks. We're talking playful argument and laughter. We're talking about bolting into each other's offices with "Did you see that game last night?" and "Could you believe that call?" and "I can't believe XX has gotten this far." We're talking about, well, talking to each other more than ever.

Is this nothing but small talk? When I was a younger man, I despised small talk, thinking only serious conversation to be worth the air we breathe. Anything less was bad stewardship of my vocal cords. I've come to realize that deep conversations have rhythm and depth only when preceded by lots of small talk. Small talk is like lay-ups before a basketball game—routine, mundane, predictable, but absolutely necessary to stretch tight muscles and get one's timing down, so that when the real game begins you do not pull a muscle or lose the grace of your jump shot.

And this is the final madness. That a bracket guessing game about a bunch of athletes trying to toss a leather ball through a metal hoop, players we don't know from schools we hardly care about playing in arenas we've never visited, all striving for an ephemeral title of only a fleeting glory, that this ultimately meaningless and arbitrary game, can become a means of grace, a means of small talk, by which I ever so gradually stretch more deeply into relationships, find my relational timing with Jennifer and Collin and Mark and others—why its madness—"an incipient madness, and ready to grow, spread and consume, when the occasion [March!] comes."

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Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today.

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Galli's previous Play Ball columns include

Spectating as a Spiritual Discipline | For those who have eyes to watch, let them watch something more than highlight films. (Mar. 11, 2005)
The Grace of Sports | If Christ can't be found in sports, he can't be found the modern world. (March 4, 2005)
Baseball Isn't Entertainment | The sooner we stop thinking sports are about the spectators, the more enjoyable the games will be. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)
Salt and Light in the Arena | It's going to take more than a few good Christians to clean up sports. (Feb. 18, 2005)

Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
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