The message of March Madness

Israelis would be smart to look to an unlikely source for inspiration as we face our many confrontations: “March Madness,” the college basketball tournament in the United States.

Basketball  (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel is approaching its 70th birthday with no shortage of challenges, ranging from external enemies seeking to destroy her to political struggles from within threatening to rip its population apart. Pirke Avot – Ethics of Our Fathers – teaches that a wise person learns from everyone. In the spirit of that teaching, Israelis would be smart to look to an unlikely source for inspiration as we face our many confrontations: “March Madness,” the college basketball tournament in the United States.
Each March, the top 64 college teams participate in a tournament to crown the national champion.
Teams are divided into four regions, and then seeded 1-16 in four mini-tournaments: #1 plays #16, #2 plays #15, etc. At the end, the four regional champions play in the semi-finals, and the winners of those two games play for the championship. As would be expected, the top seeds generally advance, with a handful of upsets spread over the course of the tournament.
Until this year.
The number of upset wins that have taken place so far – this weekend is the final 16 – is simply astounding. Fifteen out of the tournament’s 48 games in the first two rounds were won by the lower seed. 15! To give you a sense of just how improbable that is, 17.3 million people filled out brackets on the ESPN website trying to predict who would win those 48 games. Yet not one of those 17.3 million people predicted the correct winner for all 48 games. Not one! It was crazy. For the first time in the 79-year history of the tournament, no region had all four top seeds advancing to the round of 16. In the South Region, the seeds that advanced to the round of 16 are 5, 7, 9, and 11! This is also the first time that all of a region’s top four seeds did not advance after the first two games, as top seeds lost against much lower seeds hour after hour during the four days of the opening two rounds.
And the lower seeds didn’t simply squeak by the top seeds on some kind of miraculous last-second shot – there were numerous double- digit victories in which the higher seed simply looked out of place on the same court with the much lower seed.
History was also made inside of games: 7th-seed Nevada was losing by 22 points to No. 2-seed Cincinnati with just 11 minutes left to the game. They won by two points – scoring the winning basket with nine seconds left – for the second-greatest comeback in tournament history.
But the most incredible upset story by far in this year’s tournament belongs to 16-seed UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County). The Golden Retrievers had only qualified for this tournament one other time in its history; were ranked 188th in the country; had an offense rated 212th in the country; and lost a game this season by 44 points – against Albany – which was ranked even lower than UMBC!
THE GOLDEN RETRIEVERS only made it to the tournament because they won their league championship game (the winner of every league is granted an automatic spot in the national tournament) over top-seeded Vermont on a last-second three-pointer. As the 16th-seed in their region, their first game was not only against the top seed in the region, but in the entire tournament: Virginia.
This powerhouse team had a 31-2 record during the season and were champions of the top-level Atlantic Coast Conference. Those two universities really did not belong on the same court.
And yet, in the greatest upset in college basketball history, UMBC trounced Virginia 74-54, marking the first time a 16th seed ever beat a No. 1 seed.
What does all this have to do with Israel? For the last few months I have been hearing more and more negativity as I travel around the country.
People are upset with corruption in politics, but are resigned to it. “It can’t be changed,” they say.
People are bothered about religion and state issues but sigh, “Things will always remain the same.” People complain about the cost of living in Israel but say, “We are stuck with this problem forever.”
While the list of challenges facing Israel are immense, every once in a while we need to be reminded that nothing is impossible, that the only thing which ensures failure is not trying – and this year’s college basketball tournament is that reminder. Every one of those upset underdogs believed they could do the impossible. They ignored the naysayers, got on that court, tried their hardest – and succeeded against all odds.
It is easy to lose hope and to give up any pursuit when nothing seems to change despite years of trying. So despite it sounding like a cliché: Just like UMBC ignored decades of No. 16 seeds failing to beat No. 1 seeds and believed they could win when they walked on that court, we too have to push aside past failures in the far more important pursuit of improving our country.
After 2,000 years, with God’s help, we have returned and rebuilt our homeland. We are blessed to live in a generation where we can literally change the course of history by working to change policies and the direction of the state in every area of concern.
But to accomplish this we must ignore the naysayers, suit up for the “game,” and keep trying to “win” by changing our country for the better – regardless of the odds stacked against our success.
The author served as a member of the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party and is the author of TIMEOUT: Sports stories as a game plan for spiritual success.