The tournament ticker on ESPN referred you to the war ("Tune to
ABC News for continuing coverage of the war with Iraq") and the
war ticker on CBS referred you back to the tournament ("The NCAA
basketball tournament is on ESPN"), so that the obedient channel
surfer caught in this loop--like a dog chasing its tail--never
knew if he was coming or going. The viewer became, in essence, a
palindrome personified, like IUPUI (the 16th seed in the Midwest)
or 101 (the U.S. airborne division in the Middle East).
It was difficult, for a time last week, to keep them straight,
war and basketball, so rapidly were we whipsawed between
Screaming Eagles and Golden Eagles, bracket busters and bunker
busters, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Miklaszewski. The greatest
weekend in sports coincided with what Tom Brokaw called "probably
the greatest television event in the history of mankind," and
after four days of this odd couple--of al-Jazeera and Al
Anagonye, Salt Lake City and Kuwait City, Abu Dhabi and Ebi
Ere--war and basketball began to look like each other, in the way
that old married couples, or poodles and their masters, sometimes
It was a strange and riveting combination, encapsulated in a
single Sam Houston State player whose very name was a shotgun
marriage of war and basketball: Othello Alford.
And so Sam Houston's Bearkats blurred into F-14 Tomcats, Patriot
missile hits into Patriot League champs, layups into "laydowns"
(as a retired general on NBC called the dropping of bombs on
March 31, 2003
The initial bombing of Iraq's capital was "an audible" called at
the "line of scrimmage" so as to "head-fake" Saddam Hussein,
allowing ground forces, "like lead blockers," to clear the way
for succeeding waves of infantry. All of this was said by
television war analysts, making up for, in a single weekend, all
the misplaced war metaphors in sports analysis.
CBS calls its basketball pregame show The Road to New Orleans,
and CNN called a segment of its Saturday coverage "The Road from
Baghdad," and the two roads, like a braid, were forever
intersecting, most notably at Saturday's antiwar rally in New
York City, where one demonstrator waved a sign that read WAR: THE
REAL MARCH MADNESS.
Television programs can, on extended viewing, look scarcely
distinguishable. So one might forget that the mother of a
Maryland player with her face in her hands on CBS and the mother
of a dead Marine helicopter pilot on NBC were not enduring the
Language was inadequate. You could wake, last Thursday, to Ann
Curry of the Today show repeating a briefing given to pilots
aboard the USS Constellation: "This is going to be an epic day."
And you could eat dinner that evening to Greg Gumbel, on ESPN,
saying much the same thing: "What a day of basketball. And it's
only half over." Both statements were true. The cataclysmic and
the inconsequential sounded almost identical.
While covering the Cincinnati-Gonzaga game last Thursday,
Bearcats radio announcer Chuck Machock lost his composure and was
ejected for verbally abusing a game official. Meanwhile, covering
the bombardment of Baghdad, New York Times reporter John F. Burns
was subdued and self-effacing, and grew even quieter when asked
by Aaron Brown of CNN what it was like to witness--firsthand--an
aerial assault on that city. "It was something quite Biblical,"
Burns said after a pause. "It made you think of words like
Beelzebub and Milton." Those words, more than any pictures, made
my hair stand on end.
I have, at various times, described rain delays as "Biblical,"
ninth innings as "epic" and baseball games as "historic,"
sometimes in a single story. (Indeed, this magazine foretells the
Apocalypse every week.) So when actual apocalyptic history does
come marching in--literally, in the form of Iraqi army divisions
named for Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi--there is, adjectivewise,
no place left to go.
When Dan Rather, CBS's necessary buzzkill, broke into the
Arizona-Gonzaga game on Saturday night with a minute left in the
first overtime and the score tied at 87, and announced the latest
on the Screaming Eagles wounded in a grenade attack at Camp
Pennsylvania in Kuwait, he finished, almost reproachfully, by
saying, "And now, back to basketball." To which play-by-play
announcer Dick Enberg replied in the only way that one could.
"It's tough to make a transition," Enberg said, "from Iraqi war
news to the relative security of basketball." With that, he began
to describe the game's electrifying denouement.
Said Arizona's Luke Walton, after his team's not-quite-epic
victory, "It was a war out there."
In truth, such a game was the opposite, war's photographic
negative: a celebration. Milton, in Paradise Lost, minted two
phrases so vivid that they remain--even now, as cliches four
centuries old--the best ways to summarize the bipolar week just
"Heaven on Earth" was one of those phrases. "All hell broke
loose" was the other.