Politics and Basketball

It only happens once every four years, but when college basketball season and presidential primaries align, I am one happy fan!

As a speechwriter, I love the political fray, the positioning, the personalities and the narrative.

As a Carolina girl, I love college hoops, the ACC, Tobacco Road rivalries and the UNC Tar Heels.

When those two passions bump up against one another, well, there’s just nothing finer. It’s like a double scoop of Salted Caramel, a BOGO sale on shoes, a Monty Python double feature.

If my family hears me whooping or cursing the T.V., they know I’m watching a game — or a political reckoning of some sort. They know, too, to steer clear and give me wide berth. Once we get through tournament time and primary season, I’ll calm down. I’ll dial back the decibels. Change out of my team sweatshirt, which I wash sparingly, protectively, superstitiously. I might even cook a meal or clean the house. But for now it’s game ON!

Basketball and politics are entertaining, exhilarating and dammit-all exasperating spectacles.

They both are full of drama, hubris, high stakes and low, ankle-busting blows. There are heroes in high tops, villains in Versace. There are David and Goliath matches, spoilers and freshmen upstarts. Words that soar, lobs that score.

But here’s the thing: It’s not just that basketball and politics are similar in the fervor they evoke, or the metaphors we use. It’s about this particular moment … this destiny-defining jump ball.

Here’s what I mean, and why I believe this quadrennial February is the very best of months.

1. Nothing but net, baby! In a matter of weeks, when the field is narrowed, brackets are filled, and players and candidates have been coached and trained and toughened up — the games will change. They’ll intensify. They’ll get serious, ugly, even. But for now, the players are loose; long limbs careening all over the place, grinning behind their mouthguards and having a blast.

The candidates are loose and loving life, too. They’re pumped up and primed for, well, the primary game. Presidential announcements are the best kind of speech to make — and to hear. They’re all about vision, hope, big, bold ideas and breathtaking, thing-of-beauty-to-behold long shots.

Throwing your hat in the presidential ring must feel a lot like throwing a 3-pointer from mid-court. Candidates are doing what they have long dreamed of. Their words are aspirational at this point, not tactical. They get to introduce and define themselves on their terms. The event is like a pep rally, with campaign signs and American flags taking the place of pom-poms.

The ugly oppositional research will start soon enough, along with the name-calling and no-holds-barred debates. But for now, life is good. And players and candidates get to revel in the moment.

2. The collegial nature of collegiate sports — and primary politics. There’s a certain charm and gangly grace to college athletes. Hoopsters exhibit it the most, I think, given the outsized bodies they’ve yet to grow into. They’re still eager-to-please kids, who’ve traded schoolyard Keds for size 17 Air Jordans.

Primary candidates, at least at first, are equally awed by being pulled from the bench. They seem genuinely moved by the honor and the task ahead, and they stand on the stump eager to please.

In time, when the NBA draft rolls around and political endorsements are being doled out, the blush will fade. Money and fame, favors and T.V. time will come into play. It’s inevitable, we say. It’s the way the game’s played, we say. It’s politics, we say. But when all is said and done, we’ll miss this (relatively) untainted pick-up game.

3. Homecourt advantage. Candidates get to choose where they announce, and most typically choose to make it from their homecourt — in the state or city that defined and launched them, surrounded by friends and family and supporters who don’t need to be convinced.

Elizabeth Warren went to the mill town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Amy Klobuchar stood in a Minnesota blizzard, warmed by the love of her home state. Cory Booker’s announcement video is a tribute to his Newark, N.J. roots. Soon enough, college athletes and candidates will be piling onto buses and squeezing into airplane seats, but for now, they’re not too far from home or the supporters who wear their colors with pride.

4. Sportsmanship prevails. As the stakes escalate, so will the fouls and flagrants. Elbows and dispersions will be thrown. The matches will heat up, and so will tempers and the desire to win by any means.

Candidates and players alike will sustain injury. Some will roll on an arena floor, holding a knee or staunching the stain of a bloody nose. Others will be wounded just as deeply as they listen to trash talk from talking heads on political shows.

For now, though, rules and decorum are adhered to, and opponents high five and handshake graciously.

5. It’s anyone’s to win. Every tournament season has its Cinderella story … its David and Goliath matchup … its bracket-busting games and plays. That’s what makes March so rambunctiously, unpredictably MAD. And that’s where we’ll be soon enough.

Today, the primary court is crowded with contenders — more than we can keep track of — bigger than the Final Four, Elite Eight, even the Sweet Sixteen. They’re suiting up and warming up — and revving up voters in Iowa coffee shops, South Carolina barbecue joints, and New Hampshire bars and barbershops.

As the field narrows there will be surprises: dark horses who take a lead, sure shots who get benched. Sure, there are prognosticators and pundits laying odds and picking favorites. Some candidates seem more groomed and game-ready than others. But, at this point in time, it truly is anyone’s to win, which makes it so much fun to watch.

And lest we forget: We need only look back to the last election cycle to remind ourselves that anything is possible — in politics and basketball.

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