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a brief & sordid history
You knew in the beginning it was folly, no good — like that girl who lived around the corner your Momma said was “fast.” “She’s gonna take your money and your stomp on your heart,” Momma said. You knew it too … but you went anyway.
You promised yourself you would not get involved this time.
You knew all about the probabilities … the impossibilities, really. You knew all about the odds against success, heard Nate Silver — or somebody — use $5 words like “implacable,” “infinitesimal” and “asymptotic” to assure Charlie Rose the odds were ridiculous.
And yes, you knew it was a Fool’s Notion for a grown man — someone who should know better — to think he had even a ghost of a chance of predicting the outcome of a 63-game string. There were too many X-factors a mere mortal couldn’t possibly know. Even the players and the hangers-on had no clue. Not even that Neil DeGrasse Tyson guy or Johnny Cochran, if he were still alive, could manage it.
You powered yourself through the too logical, too rational argument of it all though, especially after Warren Buffett of the Warren Buffett/Quicken Loans NCAA 2014 Basketball Bracket Challenge enters. Warren promises $1 billion to anyone who can score perfect brackets — i.e., correctly predict the outcomes of all 63 games before the Annual NCAA Basketball tournament starts (You figure a guy like Warren would have better things to do than get involved with fun … or something like this anyway. Then again, it’s been a long, insufferable winter for everybody, even guys who have more billions than Oprah).
But once ol’ Warren did get into the act, your reasoning was, well … cosmic. Assume for a moment you’d filled out your March Madness basketball brackets and then you didn’t bother to follow-up and turn in your “paperwork” to Warren Buffett before the deadline because you were being all reasonable and sensible and grown-up about the thing and you’d again considered the impossible odds. But also assume fate decided to smile upon you for the one and only time in your otherwise heretofore, uneventful boring-ass life and you struck pay-dirt. You figured to look damn silly and you doubt ol’ Warren was gonna take your word for it — i.e., that you’d gotten it all right. Thus, the one and only occurrence in the whole history of chance (i.e., “pure dumb luck”) that you actually knew what you were talking about would be lost … forever — unrecognized and unrecorded by history as well as the regulars over at Marvin’s Barber Shop.
MONEY (AND SEX) CHANGES EVERYTHING
A billion dollars is serious money, serious jack … Kiss My Ass Money. To be sure, your expenses are low since you learned from the recession how to live on fumes. But still, you remind yourself you have student loans from back in the day. Student loans, at least your student loans, have the same half-life as Uranium-235, about 700 years. Hell, if you did get all the brackets, all the games right and paid off those mofos at the Department of Education, you’d probably even have enough left over for a deluxe Reuben on Rye at Maury’s deli. So that’s why you did it this year.
That’s why you broke the promise to yourself, filled out your brackets and hit “SEND” to get them over to Warren in the nick of time — because you didn’t want to get T-boned by fate, because of the student loans, because of the possibility of a Reuben on Rye and because of one other truth. It’s fun, like the fast girl, who lived around the corner when you were in junior high, the one who Momma said “ … was fast and who was gonna end up takin’ your money and breakin’ your heart.”
THE ERA OF NO
Your first encounter with the tradition of office pools, “brackets” and other such came three weeks after college graduation. You’d landed a job at a big Atlanta bank and finally entered the real world, the thing you’d been preparing for (and been warned about) for four years. As different as the real world was from college, it was a far cry from “ … life as we know it.” The “Era of No” is better understood by today’s milieu of conveniences that didn’t exist at the time. There was no Internet, no ATMs, and no cable TV. There was no such thing as a personal computer. No one except for Mr. Wizard on TV had ever seen or sent an e-mail.
PIN numbers and passwords were only needed by secret agents. From the looks of some of the pages you’d read in the bank’s New Employee Manual, certainly no one had even conceived of spell check. In those days, no family, not even the Jetsons, had a cellphone or an AT&T monthly data plan. The only cell phones people ever talked about were land-line telephones said to be owned by the more well-heeled inhabitants of Alcatraz. There were scads of other things that didn’t yet exist — e.g., bottled water, GPS, Starbuck’s — but those were the biggies.
Thus was the state of things in that wedge of time in which you entered the real world. Richard Nixon was neck deep, drowning in Watergate. It was the same period in which Americans were outraged that the price of gas had sky-rocketed to $0.54 a gallon. Most everything was different from today. About the only things that endured the test of time are James Bond movies, the crazy-ass U.S. Congress and the fact that you still can’t buy a Chic-Fil-a sandwich on a Sunday afternoon.
FUN AND GAMES
In your specific situation, you noticed that the real world bankers, the ones Andy Young sometimes referred to as “Smart-Ass White Boys,” the ones who ran the banks (and everything in town), were a lot different behind the scenes than they ever were in public, say when you were sitting in their offices trying to get a loan or opening a checking account. Besides being creative geniuses when it came tothinking up new bank fees and novel ways to charge customers for babysitting their money, bankers -— at least these bankers — were veritable wizards at fun and hijinks.
These bankers put a lot of energy in maintaining bank employee morale and something (French) they repeatedly referred to as “esprit de corp.” A preferred method of building this esprit de corps stuff , says one of your new bosses — ” … and you do want to help us do that don’t you, Mark … er, uh, I mean … uh Cantrell?” was to actively participate in the many unofficial or “intramural” employee activities going on inside the bank such as frequently conducted office pools “It’s not mandatory that you participate, but everybody else does. It’s only $25 a throw and you can enter as many times as you like. Who knows, you might win it all,” said the smiling banker assigned to guide my new employee orientation. “Now let me show you how to fill out these brackets,” as he handed you a blank bracket sheet and told you to whom to make out the check.
Xs AND Os
Over two decades, you with the encouragement and sometimes the guidance of the SAWBs explored new and different ways of constructing winning brackets. One method they dubbed The Approach of the True Believers depended upon exhaustive research of the teams, the players playing, careful consideration and lastly, Zen-like meditation. It was the preferred technique of rocket scientists, scholars, TV analysts and some SAWBs whose families owned large blocks of bank stock. Right off, you dubbed it the Whose Got That Kind of Time? Method and later determined it was no more reliable for picking winners than the Blind Pig Method in which the office pool participant tries heroically to complete the bracket form while blindfolded, drunk and hurling late on a Boys (or Girls) Night Out.
Another popular device was called The Whisper Method in which you consult with a guy in the mail room, said to be a “brackets savant,” and who whispers winners in your ear. You tried this method once and was stunned to find, after giving him the required donation of $20, you couldn’t understand a thing Clyde said. Afterward, you figured Clyde was not only some kind of whisperer but was also necessarily some kind of mumbler too! Getting advice from Clyde produced no better results than Wanda, the department secretary, who had the basketball IQ of plankton and who picked winners based upon team colors and the “cuteness” of the school mascots.
SHIT HAPPENS … AND HEARTS GET STOMPED
Over the years, no matter which team selection method you employed, something remarkable happened once tournament play officially started. Invariably some team no one had ever heard of, say McGillicutti State Teachers College would emerge from nowhere and thrash one of the big favorites—at least one of your big favorites. Or, a team you desperately need to win to keep your brackets intact would remarkably (tragically, you say) morph into a group of arthritic old men who got up and down the televised basketball court as if they were treading in quicksand.
Fast forward several decades later after the Era of No. If there was no bank esprit de corps, they certainly couldn’t blame you. You’d written more $25 checks than Carter had “little liver pills” and more than contributed your share of the esprit de corps stuff. You’d participated in dozens and dozens of office pools using numerous methods of picking teams, all producing varying degrees of failure. You’ve still never won a thing in an office pool.
This year, after you’d spent all that time choosing teams and followed up with Warren, on the first night the team from Macon, Georgia, goes out and upsets one of the leading contenders. Mercer, this year’s McGillicutti State Teacher’s College, beats Duke and blows everybody’s brackets to hell and back. To be honest, you were expecting it even though you would’ve liked to last one more night than the guys in the office. You’re not mad though, even though you could’ve used a billion dollars. And since you still haven’t experienced that one time in your heretofore uneventful boring-ass life and hit the mother lode, you are certain you are not responsible for setting off the cosmic tripwire of Armageddon. And more than likely, you’ll be back next year even though brackets are folly, no good, and like that girl in the neighborhood Momma said was “fast” and who, if you weren’t careful, was “ … gonna take your money and stomp your heart.”
 French word for everyday stuff that we take for granted in 2014.
The SAWBs ran office pools on golf, baseball, football, basketball, Atlanta traffic as well as the over/under on the number of times the new secretary in the Marketing Department would come in late for work again today.
- Images: Bracket belongs to a Like the Dew editor; NCAA game photo by JM Rosenfeld, licensed via Creative Commons; Whispering photo licensed from iStock Photo; Blind pig graphic created by a Like the Dew editor