March Madness: The Pleasures of the Crowd

It’s dark and loud, with a hot wet tang of beer and crowd in my nostrils. A couple to my right screams. To my left a hefty elbow pins the waitress against the bar. The clock ticks, the roar goes up… and as the first dunk slams home, I roar too, along with a hundred perfect strangers in a town that could care less.

During these days of late March Madness, New Yorkers are largely oblivious to the crucial ascent of my team: UCLA. And yet last week, a long way from home, I encountered Bruins aplenty in the back room of an East Village pub called Professor Thom’s. Stumbling onto the Alumni Association was dumb luck, but as I talked my way past the fleshy wall of bouncers, I felt the strange thrill of finding people as fiercely excited as I was about our team’s chances to win another championship. For an hour, I managed to forget I wasn’t actually invited, until a woman in powder-blue thigh-highs distributed UCLA pins and pennants. She could barely squeeze past the broad-shouldered consultants and nascent bankers. The shifting mass of bodies jostled for a better view of the screen. I couldn’t see so much as feel Darren Collison’s three-point shot, rolling through and between each of us. We held our breath. Then we let out a moan that became a growl and then finally, ecstatic, the roar.

But after the victory, what’s a crowd to do, swooning with possibility and assiduously drunk? What might we see, perhaps, two games from now in the streets of Los Angeles or, God forbid, Gainesville? A cautionary note about auguries of doom: avoid the burning dumpster. Let me explain.

In 1995, as a freshman in Westwood, I scorned the basketball season tickets my parents bought me. That was for the swaggering set on Fraternity Row, young men who slept through lecture and proselytized the virtues of brotherhood. I had far more important things to do, like drugs and Mongolian barbeque. It wasn’t until the tournament began that I noticed that the Bruins were actually really good. With each improbable, underdog victory, March Madness was suddenly the proving ground of men. For my friends and me, used to shooting at one another in networked games of Doom, watching UCLA’s fierce teamwork in each tournament victory was an indelible revelation. The final shot went in, Arkansas went down and the entire dorm roared floor by floor, a beer-drenched Marco Polo call and response. We won, we won, came the call (though all we’d done was watch). And then: come outside, get outside. Join us.

Have you ever been pulled into an exultant crowd of thousands? The singing, shouting, 8-clapping mass, a strange swaying giddiness. There’s an electric current, a surge as people seem somehow to know where to go. Downtown, in the streets, where the celebration can most properly be held. Before it all turns ugly, there’s a moment when you understand the freedom of groupthink and you believe in the power of an event to unify all peoples.

It’s about that time when you notice that someone has set a dumpster on fire. A girl tosses in an Arkansas effigy and the flames erupt into the night. Ha, you laugh, such fun. The crowd thickens at one intersection and you see people climbing up light poles. You admit to yourself this is odd. And then, as if you were a piece of debris shot out by a geyser, you find yourself at the front of the mob – and there is the LAPD. Two hundred police in riot gear, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets. At you. It’s a solid wall of armored visors and shotguns, and cheering turns to shouting. There’s a pop and the kid next to you goes down. A purple welt starts to spread. You look around expecting outrage or confusion, but mainly it’s another sight: a wild-eyed hunger for the ultimate drinking story. Young men taunting the cops, running in circles but not away, daring them shoot me, shoot me…

It has been said that we need sports, in part, because the feudal need for public bloodletting is unseemly in the modern age. Pitched battle between Boston and New York, or for that matter, Watts and Westwood, gets in the way of any semblance of civil society. And college teams in particular allow us to vent regional tensions, celebrate rivalries through exceptional skill, while retaining the songs and colors, banners and ritual chants that young men have favored for centuries. With the exception of the occasional brawl in the stands, Americans let our teams do the infighting for us.

And yet, what happens when we gather together in the name of our team? How is it that celebration turns so quickly to something darker – and that the police, those guardians of commerce and tranquility, turn a crowd into a mob by simply assuming it’s still hungry for further victories? The Riot of ’95 was a short, strange event after a wild, improbable win. It should be noted that the Rodney King riots were still fresh on every young person’s mind – with the Lakers victory riots of 2000 not far off at all. What is it about the pulse of the packed crowd straining to win that leads to that dumpster on fire?

Perhaps we gather because momentum attracts us. And once we’ve gathered we become like a river rushing; we roll ahead only wishing to move forward, until we are blocked, and then the water crashes into that dam. It may be that we don’t fully know why joining the mob of fans feels so vital, so exhilarating in its aimless urgency. We may not even agree with the mob as it flows downhill – but it’s easy to forget this as the triumphal call rings out.

UCLA keeps moving onward. I won’t lie, I’m thrilled. The Final Four is this Saturday and I’m headed for Professor Thom’s once again. I do have an Alumni pin, after all. And if we win, if the cheer goes up, if the crowd of strangers flows out onto the streets to consecrate our victory to the gods with a roar and a riot… I know better, but I’ll come along. This is what we sometimes do in the throes of March Madness. And it feels so good.


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