April 02, 2010

Every year on the first Monday in April, as the national champions brush confetti from their eyes, college-basketball fans revel in the musical phenomenon known as One Shining Moment.

The three-minute song-and-video production is a fast-paced, colorful affair. It is also one of the sappiest creations ever to grace modern television.

Not that this matters. One Shining Moment has been the iconic capstone to the CBS Sports telecast of the NCAA's men's basketball tournament since 1987. It airs shortly after the conclusion of the championship game, a montage that pulls together dozens of video clips from the three-week tournament and finishes with footage of that night's game.

Featuring an ensemble cast of athletes -- with coaches, cheerleaders, and fans in supporting roles -- the video is cheesy, sentimental, and, for many fans, irresistible. It is a power ballad without peer, they say. It is the anthem of college basketball.

My introduction to One Shining Moment was accidental: I was at a bar in Chicago, watching the 2003 championship game between Syracuse and Kansas with two male friends. Shortly after the buzzer sounded, I stood up to leave. My buddies, still seated, looked at me in disbelief.

"But we have to wait for One Shining Moment," they said.

I had no idea what they were talking about. I had always switched off the television as soon as the game was over. What else was there to see?

We stayed. I was not impressed. So unimpressed, in fact, that I remember nothing of the montage itself -- only surprise at my friends' obsession with a song performed by Luther Vandross, a silky R&B crooner.

After that, I managed to steer clear of One Shining Moment until last year, when I went to Detroit to cover my first Final Four. Shortly after arriving at the airport, I boarded an NCAA-chartered bus ferrying reporters and staff members downtown, only to hear those shimmering opening bars of piano, then the zealous horns, and finally Mr. Vandross, as he sang, "The ball is tipped/and there you are ..." There it was, on boxy televisions suspended from the ceiling of the bus: row after row of One Shining Moment.

Stuck in traffic on the Interstate for nearly an hour, my bus-mates and I were a captive audience to the canon of One Shining Moment on a continuous loop. By the time we pulled up at the hotel, we had traveled back through the years, one montage at a time, to land somewhere in the early 1990s. We had also gone a little bit insane.

The song's opening verse is all about inspiration and hard work. As it unfolds, the montage shows plenty of scoring, breakaways, and the moxie of that year's Cinderella team. The second verse tackles adversity: Cue the missed shots, the injured players limping off the court, the bowed heads. But the bridge takes top honors for cheese. "Feel the beat of your heart" often accompanies a player thumping or tapping his chest; "Feel the wind in your face" is apparently a euphemism for a drive toward the basket or a charging foul, with the victim skidding backward across the court.

We have David Barrett to thank for that melodrama. A folk singer from Ann Arbor, Mich., he says he scribbled the lyrics on a napkin while waiting for a friend in a restaurant. He composed the music shortly afterward, and the subsequent recording soon caught the attention of CBS Sports. "Writing this song changed my life," Mr. Barrett says on his Web site, at oneshiningmoment.com. "I knew immediately after that I had something special on my hands."

Of course the songwriter thinks his song is special. But what about the legions of fans who admittedly go weepy when they hear it? Why the obsession over lyrics that compare a basketball player to "a shooting star"?

I have a few theories. Maybe it's an invitation to look away from some of the more troubling aspects of college basketball, plagued as it is by seamy recruiting and dismal graduation rates. Perhaps it conjures memories of fans' own athletic exploits. It could be just one last guilty pleasure to top off three weeks of bracket-busting and cheap beer.

Or maybe it's just an excuse for grown men to cry. Why such reverence among men? Aren't women the usual targets of programming that tugs at the heartstrings? In this case, most of the gushing commentary on the Internet is from dudes: "One Shining Moment makes me cry like a baby," one man wrote in response to a YouTube tribute to the video, "and I am not afraid to admit this."

But women, too, have trouble resisting its saccharine charms. My friend Chiemi grew up in Pasadena, Calif., was a ball girl for the UCLA men's team in the 1990s, and has long been a staunch Kansas Jayhawks fan. For her, One Shining Moment is the chill-inducing climax to "the most wonderful time of the year."

Shortly after Selection Sunday last month, when Kansas nabbed the overall No. 1 seed, Chiemi sent me an e-mail message to say that she had just watched, online in her New York office, the 2008 edition of the video, showing the Jayhawks defeating Memphis. "I'm now crying," she wrote. "Awesome!" (With Kansas' loss in the second round this year, she has since shed tears of a different sort.)

Still, even traditions, no matter how revered, get a face-lift every now and again. After seven years of Mr. Vandross as the voice of One Shining Moment, a new version of the song will make its debut on April 5, in Indianapolis. For the first time, it will have a feminine lilt, courtesy of Jennifer Hudson.

As might be expected, the change has induced plenty of indignation. For me the announcement exposed an uncomfortable truth: One Shining Moment has grown on me. I've been humming it for weeks. And I'm a little apprehensive about the new rendition.

But maybe my unwitting affection isn't all that unusual. After last year's championship game, I went to a party in the hotel suite of another reporter. A couple of dozen sportswriters passed through as the night wore on. They drank beer and swapped stories -- as One Shining Moment looped endlessly on the special NCAA television channel. One newspaper reporter later confessed to me that he had left the party at 4:30 a.m. only to return to his room and watch the loop for another hour while he packed his bags.

The syrupy tune, it turns out, can hook even the saltiest of sportswriters.

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