Through the Trifocals

March Madness is in full flower, and it is perhaps the best time of the year for us basketball fanatics. But there are some drawbacks to the season as well, and problems can sometimes result for the committed fan. <br><br> Illinisports offers an alternative way of viewing games that might just help you avoid the problems and enhance the enjoyment of the season. Perhaps it isn't for you, but then again, maybe it is just what the doctor ordered to find some balance and peace of mind.

Hi, basketball fans. Are you ready for basketball overkill? Are you looking forward to vegetating by the TV as myriad men's and women's teams vie for bragging rights and championships? Do you long for upset stomachs, sleepless nights, anger managment assistance, tirades on message boards, hangovers, reduction in finances and all the other assorted "injuries" endured by fans at this time of year? If so, then this is your favorite time of year.

I know, the above is not the description that most people use to describe "March Madness". They say it is a time of fantastic excitement. It is a time when the cream rises to the top and fans of winning teams develop bragging rights for the next year. Advertisers and media moguls are literally salivating with visions of unlimited profit dancing in their heads, the result of knowing they have a captive audience whipped into an emotional frenzy that guarantees sales. Bookies from the largest casinos on down to the local office or liquor establishment entrepreneurs with their bracket pools can't wait to benefit from the gambling fever of basketball fans.

So which description is accurate? In truth, both are. In fact, many fans will both enjoy and suffer simultaneously, although they may deny the suffering and remember only the fun. But if you are one who remembers some personal difficulties from past games, I wish to offer you an alternative way of watching the games that might be enjoyable but less aggravating. I am not saying this alternative is preferable, and I know a number of people will call me crazy for even mentioning it. But there are choices.

Perhaps some background will be helpful before I make any recommendations. Maybe some of you will recognize yourselves in my personal story. I was always one who lived and died with Illini sports. I took it personally, and I placed tremendous importance on Illinois' successes and failures. In other words, I did like many people do. I got emotionally involved with every little play, going from heights of euphoria to depths of depression, often within just a few minutes of each other.

I would pretend Illinois' superiority with every victory, no matter how unconvincing. But I would also fear our demise with every loss. I would criticize every officiating "mistake" despite not always seeing each call from a balanced, unbiased perspective. I would get angry at opponents, thinking they had it in for us. I took everything personally because I allowed Illini success to define my personal existence. Of course, had I been a fan of UCLA in basketball during Johnny Wooden's reign, or Michigan during Bo Schembechler's dictatorial dominance, I would have found my emotional extremes limited by frequent success.

But being a fan of the Illini had downs as well as ups, especially right after the Slush Fund when we were pushed down so low that we were literally fighting for our very survival. I literally began to make myself ill with concern, and I would overreact toward every failure to the point I couldn't sleep, my stomach was always upset, and I took my misery out on family and friends.

Everything came to a head on November 17, 1973. I was working that Saturday afternoon as Illinois played a weak Minnesota team on regional ABC television. It was football coach Bob Blackman's third year, and he was trying for our first winning season since 1965. The Illini totally dominated on that day, with a yardage total over 400 compared with 80 some yards for Minnesota. But despite that seeming superiority, a couple of weird reversals of fortune caused us to lose 19-16. And a walk-on from Illinois helped beat us.

I was in the middle of seeing customers at the time, and I just lost it when the game ended. I screamed unmercifully at the poor woman I was supposed to be helping. She had done nothing wrong, but I was lashing out because I was so mad. It just exploded out of me, months and years of pent-up frustrations spewing forth like Mount Vesuvius.

I wanted to punish the team for hurting my feelings and delaying our return to prominence. I wanted to hire another coach, even though Blackman offered us much more potential than his predecessor Jim Valek. I wanted to howl at the moon at the lost opportunity with recruiting (after all, we did not appear on TV often in those years and needed all the help we could get). But since a great opportunity was lost, I took it out on the first person I saw. I wasn't too much better with my wife later that night, and no sedative could help me sleep.

I finally realized that the problem was with me. Regardless of Illini records, I had to change my ways or lose my job and family. I didn't figure out an alternative right away, and I admit to a few more difficult days after that. It was such a dark time that it wasn't until the late seventies before Illini basketball finally started to reestablish its usual place among Big 10 elite, and it wasn't until Mike White arrived on the scene in 1980 that optimism penetrated our football fortunes. Alternatives were slow to develop as I sought peace of mind while still trying to root for my one-and-only team.

At some point, I let down my guard and just "gave up". I could never really lose my love of Illinois, no matter how hard I tried to rationalize a switch in allegiance to a "winning" program, but I let go my extreme need to win at all costs. Lo and behold, something really amazing happened. Once I stopped my emotional attachment to the team, I found I could watch a game and actually enjoy it. After all, I had no expectations, and I wasn't living vicariously through every up and down moment. And you know something, we won anyway? I didn't do anything to help us win, but we still won!

I know it is illogical for any fan to think he can alter the outcome of events. But that is exactly how many of us behave. If you doubt that statement, then think of how many times announcers and fans are convinced they "jinxed" a free throw shooter by commenting on how good a shooter he is. What arrogance! Of all the factors that go into individual and team performance, this one person declares himself so powerful that he changed the player's destiny.

That is sheer rubbish, but it is just one of many examples where we behave as if we have some influence on a game's outcome. Another one is all the demands fans make toward coaches and players on message boards. You know, as if someone was going to follow the advice of total strangers!

Anyway, once I let go of my NEED to see an Illini victory and my NEED to help them win, I felt a burden liftng from my shoulders. I no longer had the feeling that the entire future of Illini sports rested on this one game, or that the outcome should dominate everything else I did that day or for the next few days until I let go of my attachment to the result.

I was suddenly free to see games from the alternative perspective I am suggesting you consider as an option today. That option is to ride the river of the energy of momentum. I cannot tell you what creates momentum, and I am not enlightened enough to judge why some players and teams appear to be given more "luck" and more momentum than others. But I do know that we each have at least two different choices as to how we perceive games, and each choice has merit. So since you all know about the emotional attachment method already, let me describe the momentum method.

When you tune into the momentum of a game, it is like sitting in a boat floating down a river. Instead of rowing or paddling to get you where you need to go, you just relax and let the river take you where it is going. You might get into areas of great calm and then areas of rough rapids. You might be tossed by conflicting currents as two rivers merge. You might feel at times like you are flowing downhill rapidly or sitting still unable to progress. But if you trust that the river knows where it is going, you get to the end of the game unscathed. Even if your team loses, you simply observe the outcome rather than feel like you played the game yourself. You remain safe and secure inside your boat.

Instead of looking at each shot, rebound, foul and official's call as a function of your team only, try to imagine an invisible energy pushing each direction, one for your direction and one for the opposing team's direction. Then look for indications as to which team's momentum energy is pushing harder than the other.

Certainly, shooting percentage is part of it, but also look for the more intangible aspects such as who gets the loose balls and long rebounds, the success or failure of potential assist passes, and the benefit of the foul calls. Look for the emotional changes such as early foul trouble, frustration reactions by players to situations that go against them, the attitude of the players, the degree of bounce the players show, crowd excitement from great plays (or depression if the opponent produces a great play) and the degree of calm of the coaches.

The momentum changes in any basketball game can be frequent, but it is usually possible to sense the changes benefitting one team over another. Games with extreme momentum advantages of one team over the other are easy to spot. As recent evidence, the Illini game Sunday held an obvious advantage for Wisconsin. Everything seemed to go the way of the Badgers from the start, like they were floating downhill and we were paddling against a strong current. Whatever success the Illini had was brief and immediately reversed by new Badger runs. One can say that Wisconsin is the better team, and certainly Devin Harris is a special player who has had much personal momentum this year, but on another day the momentum could have been reversed and the Illini could have prevailed.

Most games are not that obviously one-sided, but when they are it is difficult to get too angry at the officials, players or coaches because it soon becomes obvious that a reversal of individual plays, decisions or calls would not have reversed the final result. The problem comes when the game is closer, and we become caught up in the adrenalin of the competition. Then, we can't always distinguish whether we are observing or participating in the game. But if we can relax, step aside and let go of our emotional attachment momentarily, we can begin to notice subtleties that are not otherwise obvious. A breakdown of the Illini 71-59 victory over Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament can serve as an example.

The Illini enjoyed a strong early momentum starting with Luther Head's dunk, and despite some back and forth where two opposite energies were colliding, overall momentum continued to favor us. A James Augustine steal, a jump ball that Illinois created to regain possession and a George Leach foul on an Augustine rebound were all indications of favorable energy toward a 14-5 lead at the 13:22 mark.

Momentum then reversed, and Indiana prospered for awhile. An Indiana steal, Nick Smith's ball to the head incident, a Nick travel, a Marshall Strickland basket right at the end of the shot clock, a theft of Augustine when ready to dunk, and a Head charge all were examples of Indiana momentum, giving them the lead at 15-14 with 5:33 left in the half.

Momentum then changed strongly back toward the Illini as evidenced by a Dee Brown steal and layup, and this continued with an Augustine steal, a Strickland travel, an Indiana shot clock violation, an Ingram steal, and a Nick steal toward a 28-17 lead at 1:46. The Illini were shooting well, but there were many signs favoring the Illini at this time. A brief, small momentum reversal for Indiana ended the half with the score 28-21.

I won't go into all the details of the second half either, but if you should watch it again you will note that the first ten minutes or so were somewhat back-and-forth, but even then Illinois slowly increased the point differential until it became 47-35. Only an extremely strong momentum reversal in favor of Indiana was going to give them any chance of victory. And that is exactly what happened.

It all began with a Dee foul, upon which he became upset and also sat down for awhile. Illinois started missing shots and Indiana started shooting better, getting their percentage closer to their usual average. In fact, they made nine shots in a row at one point. One could say Illinois became lax on defense, but Indiana also began gaining confidence and thinking winning was possible. There were few turnovers or other negative situations for Illinois during this segment except for their sudden shooting woes, with only an Ingram foul and Leach block on Augustine aiding the Indiana cause. When Mark Johnson hit a 3 at the 5:42 mark, the score was suddenly tied at 52-52.

I was listening to the radio broadcast while watching TV, and Indiana was celebrating during the timeout. Stephen Bardo, the color commentator for the Illini network commented that Indiana was celebrating too soon. He was certain that the Illini would reverse the trend, and his intuition was absolutely correct. He was in tune with the Illini's river of victory. In fact, premature celebration is a common sign of the end of a momentum advantage and presages a reversal.

Sure enough, that is when Deron took over, and even a concussion to Roger Powell couldn't prevent momentum from continuing to favor us. The Illini got loose balls and benefitted from Indiana fouls, Indiana returned to its shooting woes, and the Illini concluded an 11-0 scoring run that finished Indiana's hopes. The rest of the game was anticlimactic.

Many details and most of the scoring of that game are excluded here, but the back-and-forth nature of basketball still often favors one team over another despite alternating possessions. And that favoritism does not appear to be controllable by players, coaches or fans. If it could, one could predict the outcome of all events based solely on a statistical analysis. The intangible factors may not be quantifiable, but they can be estimated during the event in question. And in many cases, a sense of the outcome can be felt prior to the end of the game.

Perhaps some of you were worried when Indiana made its run, but there was too much energy favoring Illinois throughout that game to fear the temporary reversals. In other words, using the momentum method of viewing, my family and I had confidence in the outcome the moment Head dunked to begin the game. And that confidence was maintained as it felt like we were riding the crest of a winning wave despite some temporary obstacles along the way.

Perhaps a good way to describe how to tune into momentum is to realize its similarity to "touch" in shooting a basketball or "feel" of putting and chipping a golf ball. As another analogy, it is similar to the consciousness-altering change one needs to see three-dimensional images hidden within two-dimensional paintings. In all these cases, one must allow their conscious mind to relax so that their subconscious can contribute an alternate perception.

When we watch a game that is important to us, we become focused in a way similar to the athletes themselves. We become acutely aware of a need to win, and we use the part of our brain that tries to control muscles and events. We do this because we are in a kind of survival mode and fear loss. However, we often tense up much more than the athletes because we have absolutely no control over the outcome.

Because we are so tense, we suffer when we begin to put ourselves into the game as completely as the players. When something bad happens to our players, we take it personally. Our perception of events is usually distorted because we want the outcome to go our way so badly. We see things the way we want them to be rather than as they are. Athletes are encouraged to remain relaxed at all times to prevent the problems of tight muscles and distorted perceptions, but fans are not trained to do the same.

When a basketball player shoots a shot, he must not only use his active muscles to make an athletic move, but he also must use "feel" to get the ball to fall gently through the hoop. This "feel" requires enough confidence in his ability that he can relax and trust that he can make the shot without forcing it toward the hole.

Nick Smith took two foul shots in the Michigan game in the Big 10 Tournament that demonstrate the differences well. If you remember the technical foul shots he was given after Courtney Sims hung on the rim, Nick made the first with proper technique and the ball gently tickled the twine. He used great feel, the ball getting enough of an arc to fall through the hole without touching the rim. However, he bricked his second shot. It looked like he suddenly lost his touch and tried to dunk the ball from 15 feet.

These two shots were as different as night and day. Nick has great touch most of the time, but it departed from him on that second free throw. He also needed to force up a too-long 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring, and his feel escaped him then also. Again, a lack of relaxed trust accompanied by a need to make something happen prevented success. Just like the players, we benefit when we can relax and use "feel" while watching the game, and we suffer when our muscles tense up and we try to force things our way.

I don't expect anyone to make an immediate switch to momentum watching, but you might at least try it while watching a game about which you have no vested interest. Perhaps a pro game or high school game you don't care about. Regardless, you will never know what is possible if you don't at least give it a try.

And please let me reassure the doubters that you do not miss a thing. You still witness all the action and sense the thrills. You just don't get as out of balance and suffer from the long recovery periods you might now experience. And you can care just as deeply about the Illini as always. You just get to do it while sane.

But if you are fully committed to riding the emotional roller coaster and posting your euphoric and critical experiences afterwards on the Illiniboard, be my guest. If you enjoy throwing your remote through the TV set, then be sure to stock up on replacements ahead of time. If your family and friends like you best when obnoxious, then you truly are blessed. Regardless, I hope you enjoy March Madness, and I hope those around you do also.

Go Illini!
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