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Tuesday, March 18

Pending military action casts big shadow over NCAA Tournament

By Mike Lopresti

In these nervous days, we know something is about to happen. March Madness will soon start. A war, too, maybe.

The young people of America are ready. The point guards. The power forwards. The Marines. So how should we spend these hours ... cheering or praying?

It is a strange time. Life, almost, in twilight. Look one way and there are basketball games. Look the other, there are bombers.

Now we wait for tip-off. And for takeoff.

What are the water cooler issues now? The strength of the West Regional, or the threat of chemical attack in Iraq?

Or, in a country with wandering moods and short attention span, both in the same coffee break?

The man on television Sunday was speaking about the dire consequences of some outrage.

He was talking, of course, about Kansas being a No. 2 seed. Or was it Boston College not making the field?

On the same channel Monday night, the president said that time was running out. There might be combat very soon.

The rest of the world holds its breath for war, and where it might lead. So do we, as we fill out the office pool bracket.

It brought back memories of another NCAA Tournament, oddly paired with real life.

Philadelphia, 1981. The media dining room was full just before the championship game between Indiana and North Carolina. The patrons noisily forked in the roast beef, eating and chattering while the TV sets perched above ran replay after replay of President Reagan being shot on a Washington street that very afternoon.

The game went on. The president lived. Indiana won.

This is even a more jarring contrast. That was just one crazed man, and one gun. Now the NCAA shares the headlines with the WMD. Weapons of mass destruction.

It was an unusual Selection Sunday. First, the NCAA released the tournament bracket. Then, it repeated that the games will go on.

Oh, the channels might have to change. Maryland might be on MTV, Duke on TNN, Arizona on BET.

That's because Baghdad could be on CBS.

At least, that's the plan. In truth, the future of this tournament is a little iffy, not to mention scary.

War might come. Terrorists might strike back, in this very land.

What will we do then, with our field houses full of people?

You'll pardon me, then, if I am not totally absorbed by the pressing question of whether Texas should be a No. 1 seed.

Who'll be the national champion? Part of me wants to say Kentucky. Part of me is wondering if there will even be a championship game.

Play the games. Life must go on. That is a prerequisite of the modern world, where it can be so dark outside sometimes. It is the only thing we can do.

Still, sport can't live in a cave. There will be no battles this week in the first or second rounds. The battles could be elsewhere.

I'll still fill out my bracket. But not without a pause to remember this:

There are young Americans making their last preparations right now, for the bright lights and big crowds and excitement of the NCAA Tournament.

We will soon know the winners among them.

But there are also other young Americans making their last preparations right now, for the fury and solitude and terror of war.

We may soon know the lost among them.

A tournament begins. A war, too, maybe.

On one channel, the basketball announcers will talk of poise, pressure, courage, sacrifice.

On another channel, those words could mean something very different.