MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Even at this late date – bracket deadline day — I don’t know that I’ll be filling out a bracket this year for the NCAA March Madness that is now under way.

Other than just wanting anybody but Duke to win the championship, I have no strong feelings on the matter, frankly. I only really watched Maryland and West Virginia to any extent this college basketball season and, well … yeah. But based on what I did see this season, I think Arizona passed my eye test more than any other team, and I absolutely love watching Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji. He is quite a player.

Whether I fill out a bracket or not, I’m looking forward to watching the NCAA Tournament – men’s and women’s. And by the way, the games that were played on Tuesday and will be played tonight are not play-in games, okay?

Those games and the teams that played and will play in those games are in the NCAA Tournament, as the NCAA expanded the field several years ago (one of the few things the NCAA has done that I have no problem with). They are not play-in games. They are already-in games.

Anyway, there is a reason it’s called March Madness, and the reason might just be the brackets. They make us mad. They even make us angry. Gambling will do that, you know.

Whenever, though, I watch my friends obsess over filling out their brackets and then following them as closely as they do, I think of my late mother. My mother was a tiny (physically), but enormous (in heart and in temper) sports fan. She loved sports. She loved to compete, and she loved to win.

Mom filled out a bracket every year and was actually the big brackets winner at my previous workplace several years ago, which was great, and would have been perfect if I hadn’t been the sports editor of the newspaper. Some sports editor, right? Can’t even beat my own mother.

Neither was it made easier by the keyword she used to enter her bracket — “BURKE’S MOM.” Thus, every week when the standings were posted at the paper, “BURKE’S MOM” sat all alone at the top, while “Burke” floated about somewhere in the middle.

That said, she was pretty good. She did love her sports and she knew her sports.

The brackets, though, made my mother mad, as in loon mad, obsessed mad, greedy mad. She poured over and studied her bracket (she filled out just one) more intensely than she ever studied for her master’s degree. Of course, my mother was pretty smart, so I doubt earning a master’s was much of a sweat for her. But even though she was pretty smart, and even though she sometimes didn’t have a dog in the fight (Maryland), the NCAA Tournament bracket had become her dog. It had become her fight. And my mother loved to fight. The little ones always do.

But she seemed to thrive on it, and she did absolutely love it.

As I have said many times before, the Burke family crest reads, “We’ve hated Carolina longer, but we hate Duke more.” My mother, though, made an exception to that when it came to Jay Bilas, a former Duke player, but her favorite college basketball analyst since the great Al McGuire.

Every time Jay Bilas was on television, my mother would look at me in a pitying way (the pity being for herself) and once said, “Why couldn’t you have been a lawyer?”

“Because,” I once said, “I knew Jay Bilas would be the only lawyer they’d hire to talk about college basketball and I’d be stuck in traffic court for the rest of my life.”

Don’t get me wrong. My mother adhered to our strict family code of hating Duke, although she rooted for Duke when Steve Vandenberg played there, she did like the Duke teams Bilas played on before she even knew who Jay Bilas was (she liked Johnny Dawkins), and she also liked the Bobby Hurley-Grant Hill Duke teams. Other than that, she played by the rules and rooted against anything Duke, unless, of course, it involved Mike Krzyzewski coaching USA Basketball.

At this time of the year, though, Jay Bilas might as well have been Gene Kelly in my mother’s eyes, because when Jay Bilas spoke March Madness my mother saw the choreography of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

The third week of March when Jay Bilas spoke, life in my mother’s house came to a dead-stop standstill. The oven could have been in flames, but the fire extinguisher would be turned off for five minutes so she could hear Jay break down the Midwest Region.

Stop! He’s talking about Kansas!

“I don’t think Kansas can beat Duke,” she said one year, not even looking up from her bracket.

“Neither do I,” I said.

“Who asked you?”

“What’s the deal with (any team that came on her next line)?” she would ask, apparently rhetorically since she and I would be the only ones in the room. “They’re so up and down … Well?”

“They lost their last four games,” I remember saying. “But they didn’t have their best guard.”

“Why not?”

“Broken left hand,” I said. “But he’s going to play.”

“He’s a guard,” she said. “How in the (heck) is he going to play with a broken hand?”

“It’s fixed.”

“How does a broken hand mend that fast?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll take (the other team).”

And so it went. And in the end, despite having never asked for my opinion, she and I often went different routes to arrive at the same point. But it wasn’t pretty for anybody if a team she was originally considering to reach the championship game reached the final game after she had erased it as her pick in the semifinals.

“Who do you have?”

“I have (this team) beating (that team),” I would say.

“Really? You really think that’s going to happen?”

“I just have a feeling,” I’d say. “Like I did with (so and so) last year.”

“Well they didn’t get out of their region.”

“I didn’t say it was a good feeling. Stick with the team you had to begin with.”

“No,” she snapped, erasing that team from the title game. “I’ll go in a couple of other directions.”

“Well, if what you originally thought happens, you’re going to be (very angry) and it’ll end up being my fault.”

“Here,” she would say, flipping her bracket my way once it was completed. “Take it before I change my mind again. And, yes, everything usually is your fault.”

“Don’t overthink it,” I remember saying. “Go with your hunch. Stick with what you had.”

“What do you know?”

“That’s what Jay Bilas said this morning on the radio,” I said. “He said nobody really knows who’s going to win, so just go with your gut feeling.”

“Jay Bilas,” said my mother the retired English teacher, “you ain’t.”

Of course, other than Gene Kelly, who ever was?

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT