March Madness, A Return to Innocence

St. Mary's' Chris Hutchinson

St. Mary's' Chris Hutchinson

Sports Saturday

March Madness begins this weekend. Actually, to be exact, it begins for the big schools. Division III colleges are in the final week of their tournament. I know because my college was one step away from making the final four.

For the first time ever, St. Mary’s College of Maryland sent a team to the Elite Eight. Then the dream died as we were trounced by a very accomplished Middlebury team that is ranked second in the country.

As I watched the games through a poor computer feed, it struck me how innocent Division III games are compared to those we associate with March Madness. No student at the Division III schools has a sports scholarship and no one is good enough to go on and play in the professional leagues. Students expect to graduate. Their coaches, meanwhile, are not earning seven digit salaries, nor are they being fired when they have losing records. Large television contracts are not at stake. As a result, the pure joy of the game shines through.

All of which reminds me of Thomas Gray’s “Prospect on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” The poet is on a hill gazing down at children playing in a field and is struck by how they are unburdened with adult cares.

As I read the poem, I am able to imagine that the boys are playing the three sports that my own sons played in college. Toby rowed crew (his pliant armed cleaved the “glassy wave”), Darien played soccer (he chased “the rolling circle’s speed”), and Justin played baseball (he urged “the flying ball”). I can even imagine my father the birdwatcher enthralled with linnets (finches), albeit not captive ones. In the following passage, Gray is addressing a Thames River that has witnessed generations of young athletes playing by its banks:

Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen
Full many a sprightly race
Disporting on thy margin green
The paths of pleasure trace—
Who foremost now delight to cleave
With pliant arm, thy glassy wave?
The captive linnet which enthral?
What idle progeny succeed
To chase the rolling circle’s speed
Or urge the flying ball?

Gray basks in this idyllic scene for only a moment, however. From his vantage point on the hill, he witnesses oncoming storm clouds that the children can’t yet see. These become a metaphor for the depressing adulthood that the boys will one day encounter. Gray’s gloomy reflection contains what has got to be one of the most depressing lines in all of literature:

Alas! regardless of their doom,
The little victims play;
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond to-day:
Yet see how all around ’em wait
The ministers of human fate
And black Misfortune’s baleful train!
Ah, show them where in ambush stand,
To seize their prey, the murderous band!
Ah, tell them they are men!

Thank you, Professor Gray, for just having turned a joyous occasion into a downer. It seems I must look elsewhere to find a sports lyric that ends on a positive note.

Coming to the rescue is one of my favorite childhood poems, much of which I can still recite. Technically it’s not about basketball, but since it features “a big, red, india-rubber ball” it comes close enough.

In this poem by the author of Winnie the Pooh, the movement in Gray’s poem is reversed. Instead of being wrenched from sports as we grow older, sports allow us to become children once again. Maybe “King John’s Christmas” attracted me when I was young because it reassured me that adults had a child somewhere inside them.

Each year at this time, the big, red, india-rubber ball of March Madness comes hurtling into our wretched lives like a moment of grace, and suddenly we are filling out brackets and talking excitedly with fellow office workers and celebrating upsets pulled off by schools we’ve never heard of. We may not deserve this happiness but it arrives anyway.

For three gray weekends, forget about your troubles and lose yourself in the joy and innocence of a simple bouncing ball. That is what sports should be all about.

Here’s the poem:

King John’s Christmas

By A. A. Milne

King John was not a good man –
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air –
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

King John was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon…
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And fortune in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.

King John was not a good man,
Yet had his hopes and fears.
They’d given him no present now
For years and years and years.
But every year at Christmas,
While minstrels stood about,
Collecting tribute from the young
For all the songs they might have sung,
He stole away upstairs and hung
A hopeful stocking out.

King John was not a good man,
He lived his live aloof;
Alone he thought a message out
While climbing up the roof.
He wrote it down and propped it
Against the chimney stack:
“TO ALL AND SUNDRY – NEAR AND FAR –
F. Christmas in particular.”
And signed it not “Johannes R.”
But very humbly, “Jack.”

“I want some crackers,
And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don’t mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

King John was not a good man –
He wrote this message out,
And gat him to this room again,
Descending by the spout.
And all that night he lay there,
A prey to hopes and fears.
“I think that’s him a-coming now!”
(Anxiety bedewed his brow.)
“He’ll bring one present, anyhow –
The first I had for years.”

“Forget about the crackers,
And forget the candy;
I’m sure a box of chocolates
Would never come in handy;
I don’t like oranges,
I don’t want nuts,
And I HAVE got a pocket-knife
That almost cuts.
But, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

King John was not a good man,
Next morning when the sun
Rose up to tell a waiting world
That Christmas had begun,
And people seized their stockings,
And opened them with glee,

And crackers, toys and games appeared,
And lips with sticky sweets were smeared,
King John said grimly: “As I feared,
Nothing again for me!”

“I did want crackers,
And I did want candy;
I know a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I do love oranges,
I did want nuts!
And, oh! if Father Christmas, had loved me at all,
He would have brought a big, red,
india-rubber ball!”

King John stood by the window,
And frowned to see below
The happy bands of boys and girls
All playing in the snow.
A while he stood there watching,
And envying them all …
When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An india-rubber ball!

AND, OH, FATHER CHRISTMAS,
MY BLESSINGS ON YOU FALL
FOR BRINGING HIM
A BIG, RED,
INDIA-RUBBER
BALL!

Enjoy the basketball games.

This entry was posted in Gray (Thomas), Milne (A. A.) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Thank you for both poems. Milne passed with flying colours when I read it to my daughter.

    “As I watched the games through a poor computer feed…” reminded me that not everything is available through the regular channels, even over there. In case you’re curious: March Madness is all over ESPN Europe. This must seem mad indeed to populations unfamiliar with the concept of university sports and athletic scholarships.

  • Robin Bates

    I love the European perspective on American sports, Jason. And glad your daughter loved Milne. I think much of the humor of the poem lies in an adult having desires that a child can relate to.

  • A truly wonderful post, Robin. I love how you compare poetry and sports and comment on both. The Gray poem is a downer: growing up can be a bitter pill. Especially with wars around every corner. The Milne poem made me misty. I’d never read it before. In many ways King John reminds me of me, except that I hope I am a ‘good’ person. 🙂

    I am a fan of March Madness basketball. I just pick the underdog and stick with ’em.


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