Mark Lyons of Ironi Nahariya calls it the greatest basketball tournament in the world and many people in the U.S. claim it as the premier event of America's sports' calendar surpassing even the Super Bowl. The NCAA's college basketball championship tournament hyped since the 1980's as March Madness, will begin this week, with 68 teams and 65 games over a three week period.
Like P. T. Barnum's famous circus, basketball's "Greatest Show on Earth" is a mix of hyperbole, substance plus a heavy dose of breath taking thrills. The tournament dates back to 1939 and by the 1980s's became an American cultural phenomenon reminiscent of Rio's Carnival and New Orleans' Mardi Gras.
Around the "Ides of March," the gaze of American basketball fans switch to the college game while the NBA becomes a temporary afterthought and even the casual and non-fan gets caught up in the excitement through parties and office betting pools.
In Israel, interest in the tournament is more or less limited to ex-patriot Americans following their alma maters and to chronic basketball junkies. The wealth of teams and action allows a chance to see not only the NBA's future stars but also players who are slightly less talented and will be appearing in the Euroleague and often in the Israeli league in the future.
Many of the Americans currently playing in Israel today, participated in March Madness themselves and several shared their memories and emotional experiences with Haaretz English Edition. All interviewed will be following the action but with varying levels of intensity due to the physical and sometimes emotional distance.
Lyons, who played in March Madness 4 times (3 years for Xavier University and in his final season with Arizona) will be rooting for both teams and in particular Arizona where he helped recruit two of their present stars. He described the intense highs and lows of his experience. "There is nothing like it in the world. It is single elimination, one and done, and all the best teams and players are there playing their best ball. You feel the whole world is watching and everywhere you go you are treated like a rock star". But of course, nothing is really over until it's over. "We lost in my final year on a buzzer beater" added Lyons. "We all sat in the locker room speechless for minutes and then it dawned upon me that this was the end of my college career".
Khalif Wyatt of Hapoel Eilat appeared in the tournament during each of his 4 seasons at Temple University. He also described the uniqueness of the experience. "There is nothing quite like it. You have a Media Day, the practices are open to everyone and you know the whole country is watching you". Wyatt and his Temple team attained national attention in his final season, battling top seed Indiana to the wire in March Madness during a season ending tournament loss. Wyatt scored 31 points in each the two games he appeared in and remembers it as the biggest thrill of his career. Since Temple wont be appearing in this year's tournament, Wyatt will be following it less closely than usual.
For Julian Wright of B'nei Hasharon, March Madness meant an emotional homecoming. A native of Chicago, Wright played in the tourney during his two seasons at Kansas University before embarking on a 4 year NBA career. Kansas made it to the final 8 teams in his second season, and Wright played his final college game at Chicago's United Center before at least 50 friends and family members.
Since ESPN went off the air in Israel, it's no longer possible to watch March Madness in its entirety but selected coverage can be seen on Channel 50 and on Middle East TV.