Duke won the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2010. I know this fact off the top of my head because as the Blue Devils hoisted that trophy, a 10-year-old girl in Chicago had just won two cookies and $200 — and with that, an all-encompassing obsession with the last two weeks in March every year. I was in fifth grade, and I had not only beaten all the boys (and girls — but in fifth grade in 2010, the boys ran the sports scene) in my class with my bracket picks, but I won the pool of an entire insurance office in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My uncle, for reasons still unknown to me, had entered my bracket from our annual family pool into his office pool, and no one told me until it turned out that I had won. I like to imagine that quite a few middle-aged men had the shock of their lives upon finding out who had beaten them.
My parents didn’t let me keep my winnings — something about gambling being “illegal” — so we used the money to go out to a nice dinner together. This was 11 years ago now, but that win lives in my memory like it was yesterday. Being a young girl who loved sports was far from unheard of, but there was definitely a sense of exclusion at that age when it came to discussions about college and professional sports with both my peers and with adults. That Duke win — my win — made me stand a little taller that year.
Ever since, March Madness has been a bright light for me at the end of a long winter. The first kids to get smartphones in middle school would pull up games for everyone to sneakily watch during our independent reading time with a cry that became a refrain: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have color!” In high school, I would be in biology or English watching one game on my computer screen and another on my phone which I had propped up on my laptop. The thrill of those first tournament days of straight basketball, of upsets and quickly-changing pool positions and the shared excitement of watching with my classmates has always been something really special.
There’s something about anyone being able to win it all. Many of us witnessed the first-ever No. 16-seed upsetting a No. 1-seed in 2018. That same year, Loyola, one of my hometown teams, made it on a Cinderella run to the Final Four. In 2015, I sobbed when the Notre Dame men’s team lost in the Elite Eight by a single score, and my freshman year here, I jumped up and down on a hotel bed on Easter Sunday when the women’s team won the 2018 national title on Arike Ogunbowale’s buzzer beater. These memories are cemented so clearly in my mind. Perhaps the reason I look forward to the tournament so much every year is to be able to make more of these memories and deeply feel the joy and heartbreak that only sports can create in me.
Maybe I am overly sentimental about a college basketball tournament, but I know what an upset win feels like. I don’t think anyone would argue that a 10-year-old who only casually watched college basketball wasn’t an underdog, and I have never lost that childlike wonderment at joining millions of Americans in watching the impossible become possible every March.
Grace McDermott is a senior American studies and French major from Chicago. She is a former intern at this magazine.