Flipping around the dial over the weekend, looking at a college basketball game here, a spring training baseball game there and an NBA game somewhere else, one had to curse his rotten luck at being too sick to leave the house at just the wrong time. Even if you weren't sick, you were snowed in, trapped with bad sports on the television.
Cold and flu season strikes the sporting calendar at its weakest point, those five or six weeks between the Super Bowl and the NCAA basketball tournament. Try as they might, the sports promoters and television networks, who usually are so adept at pushing every button, somehow let us down when we really can't do anything except watch a game.
You're sitting in your favorite chair running a 102 degree fever, you're too dizzy to read, too scatter-brained to write, too weak for Home Depot, and the best they can do is Drake vs. Illinois State for the Missouri Valley Conference basketball championship? And it's a horrible game by the way — Drake wins 79-49.
Top-ranked North Carolina won at Duke Saturday night in a game that meant next to nothing. As hard as certain interests push every basketball contest between Duke and North Carolina, no one really remembers how they fare against each other because the results are as dispensable as any other game.
College basketball could make us a lot happier a lot more often, but the sport has placed all importance on the NCAA Tournament. Ages ago, back before there was cable, teams played hard for the regular season conference championship because that was the entry for the NCAA Tournament.
It used to be fun watching college basketball in January and February. Now college basketball is good for only about four weeks.
Turn the channel and behold the drama of the NBA playoff chase. The Chicago Bulls are playing the Detroit Pistons. The Bulls are 25-37, right in the thick of it for an Eastern Conference playoff spot as one of six teams within three games of that coveted eighth position. It's possible that three Eastern teams will limp into the playoffs with losing records.
It's enough to make a sports fan sick, though it even fails in that sense because he's already sick. Nothing wastes time like meaningless games. You'd think the networks and promoters could keep the good stuff coming, but we're not so lucky and, truth be told, it's been worse.
Once upon a time, the television networks were confident in their abilities to create dramatic sports programming for every week of the year. The networks turned the NFL into the NFL, made golf into good TV (thanks to Arnold Palmer) and grew basketball. The growth potential for sports seemed unlimited.
But the networks ran into trouble at the end of football season. When ABC lost its NBA deal in 1972, the network's lead sports producer, Roone Arledge, swung into action. Having turned the NFL into a prime time success with Monday Night Football, Arledge pushed the "sports as entertainment" angle to the next level with a series of programs called The Superstars.
Basically, he grouped a bunch of athletes together in a variety of competitions to establish who was the best athlete. You could watch a 300-pound football lineman go against a 100-pound jockey in the 100-yard dash. The stuff was awful, but it caught on and numerous similar events started going up across the dial. Thus was born the era of "trash sports."
Happily, fake sports proved to have little lasting value, and they mostly went away by the mid-1980s.
So we haven't been getting real good sports for the last few weeks, but at least we haven't endured these manipulative and disgusting inventions. And the tide turns a little this week.
College basketall might save us this week with the conference tournaments, which are the final audition for some terrible team to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. Even that possibility works up a thin proposal for thrills. This is the week when the University of Cincinnati can show up on a five-game losing streak and win four straight to regain the March madness.
No expects that to happen, especially considering that UC managed to lose against the likes of DePaul and Providence back to back last week. The Bearcats have picked a bad time to run into a lull. Maybe they just don't have the depth or variety to last for an entire season and have nothing left to contribute.
But it was just a couple years ago when Xavier entered the Atlantic-10 Tournament with three losses in their last four games, finishing with an 8-8 conference record, then busted through the tournament to win the championship. Thus the Musketeers made it into the NCAA Tournament, where they almost pulled off a nice upset in a 79-75 loss to Gonzaga.
In 2006, Xavier entered the conference tournament with everything to gain. This year, the Muskies go to the tournament with nothing to lose. Nothing is going to keep them out of the NCAA Tournament — the only question is how far they can advance with their uniquely balanced attack.
There's no drama in the Atlantic-10 Tournament, and the Big East Tournament loses its appeal once UC takes a loss. The Big Ten Tournament arrives with little at stake except an NCAA berth for Ohio State, which probably needs a win or two.
Indiana is in, Louisville is in and Kentucky probably is in. What's really on the line in these conference tournaments? Nothing but the off chance that some team from the depths of its league will play four straight days of inspired basketball and win the championship.
It doesn't seem very exciting, even if it's less miserable than the tested alternatives. It's not any kind of a sports season, though it makes for a uniquely agonizing cold and flu season.
Contact Bill Peterson: [email protected]