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My phone rang ’round midnight last Thursday. The comically Caucasian Princeton basketball team had just eliminated UCLA—in Hoosierville, no less—on the opening night of the NCAA men’s tournament. I knew it was Bill.

“My boys came through! My boys came through!” gushed my buddy, who felt compelled to remind me that he’d picked the Ivy Leaguers in our betting pool. True enough, Bill—who normally doesn’t give a damn about college basketball—had the shoe on this year’s Cinderella, while I, being a student of the game, thought the defending national champs would crush the melanin-challenged Jerseyites. I had two big-league problems with his over-the-top gloating. Firstly, Bill had also picked Monmouth and Northern Illinois, teams with less of a chance to get out of the first round than Peter McNeeley. His willingness to ride with the dogs in the opening round indicated to me that my pal would rather make late-night I-told-you-so calls than actually win the pool. And secondly, since when did Princeton become his “boys”? I reminded Bill that he’d gone to school in College Park, which isn’t exactly draped in ivy, and hung up.

Guys like Bill, I was thinking, shouldn’t be allowed to enter pools without floaties. Once a year, they divine their choices through the use of coin flips or goat’s blood and chicken feathers, and then step into the pool, messing it up for true believers like myself. The truly hateful thing is that it doesn’t seem to hurt their chances of prevailing in the pool.

Then again, the pools and all the stupid gloating they inspire are a huge reason the 64-team, 63-game, two-and-a-half-week tourney is what it is: simply the premier soiree on the American sports calendar. The burgeoning March Madness phenomenon is to some degree a token of the escalating dissatisfaction sports fans have with the millionaire ingrates of the professional ranks; despite the ubiquitous Swooshes ™, college players still project an illusion of amateurism, of playing for a love of the game. The single-elimination aspect of the college competition makes it far more dramatic and followable for the casual observer than the NBA playoffs, which rely on best-of-five and

-seven formats. (Princeton, less Phi Slamma Jamma than Phi Bounce-Pass Lay-In, does not have a prayer of coming out on the winning end of an extended series with UCLA.) The uncertainty, the possibility that anybody can whup anybody once, is what puts the Madness in March. The Houston Rockets have proved two years running that watching the best team become champion doesn’t make for thrilling post-season basketball.

While its playoff structure gives March Madness a huge assist, there is no denying the extent to which betting pools have helped boost the boosterism surrounding the annual hoopfest. The NCAA gets on its high horse when Georgetown coach John Thompson looks into gaming investments, but more bets are placed on its college b-ball tournament than anything other than the Super Bowl. And all that wagering is a major reason the monopolistic, nonprofit NCAA can demand millions of dollars in exchange for the broadcast rights to its pre-spring social. (My buddy Bill, for example, wouldn’t have been anywhere near a Princeton-UCLA telecast absent a fiscal/competitive interest.)

An overwhelming portion of the March Madness bets are nickel-and-dime, but whatever they lack in zeros, they make up for in ubiquity. Everybody’s got a pool. Offices, bars, health clubs, social clubs. Everybody. But small-time as they are, the pools are nevertheless taboo in the eyes of John Law. “Pools are just like running a numbers game as far as the law in the District is concerned,” said a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police Department. “It doesn’t matter if it’s for $1 or $5 or however much. Unless there’s a license provided for it, any kind of gambling operation is illegal here.”

Yeah, well, murder’s illegal in this town, too, and the morgue hasn’t been flashing any “vacancy” signs that I am aware of. (As a matter of fact, if the MPD wants to crack down on the pools, it wouldn’t have to look too far to find them: An informal survey of cops I know revealed that most divisions of the department are holding their own.)

For hoops hard-cores, the highlight is the first round of the tournament, broadcast (for now) on free television for 24 hours over two weekdays. Even absent a wager, true junkies are more likely to end up in pools of their own fluids than to leave the couch and risk missing a buzzer-beating basket during any of the 32 first-round games.

But thanks to the pools, March Madness isn’t just for habitués. People who otherwise don’t give a damn about college basketball or any other athletic endeavor all of a sudden want to talk roundball around the water cooler.

“Way to go Drexel! I had Drexel!” a young slackerette at the paper barked all day Friday, the day after the Philadelphia school knocked off highly touted Memphis. I, being a student of the game, had chosen the Memphians. When I quizzed Dick-less Vitale about what had prompted her to divine that Drexel would burn ’em, she conceded it had nothing to do with Xs and Os or conference ratings or strength-of-schedule comparisons.

“Well, I grew up in Philly,” she said. End of explanation. In other words, the opposition was darn near irrelevant; Drexel would have just as quickly been chosen to defeat the Chicago Bulls or the Dallas Cowboys or the Red Army. To connoisseurs, that approach seems jaw-droppingly stupid.

But then it hit me that the unknowing pool shark, like my buddy Bill, was culling a whole lot more enjoyment out of March Madness than I was. In hopes of achieving their level of zest, I plan to use a vote-with-the-heart strategy in the next pool I’m a part of (how many Oscars is Showgirls up for, anyway?).

And when my boys from Kentucky cut down the nets, I’m gonna give Bill a call. CP