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March Madness basically the same in 2017 as it was in 1991

One city, two tournaments and thousands of happy basketball fans. With the ACC Tournament at Barclays Center and the Big East Tournament at the Garden, over four days in March, local fans got to see the best in college basketball. (Newsday: Jeffrey Basinger, Robert Cassidy)


What if, after I covered my first Final Four in Indianapolis in 1991, the boss had told me to take the next 26 years off and report back to Indy for the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament?

First of all, I would have had time to take up macramé, with plenty left over to brush up on my Portuguese and binge- watch “Bonanza.”

Secondly, I could have showed up last week without bothering to consult the schedule for games, practices, media availability and general procedures.

That is because almost nothing has changed about the NCAAs in the intervening decades, and some things have come and gone and gone back again, with shorter shorts and taller hair now trending toward 1991 standards.

This is no small thing for an old-timer. Mostly we spend our days boring younger folks with stories about how the world used to work — for better or worse.

On Thursday night, I was seated next to a young Los Angeles Times reporter and never once was tempted to tell him what life was like courtside before he was born, when my NCAA experience and the World Wide Web both were brand, shiny new.

Because it was pretty much the same, albeit with bulky phones plugged into jacks courtside rather than small, rectangular phones plugged into . . . the air, I guess.

And this is exactly the way the NCAA and its TV partners like it.

March Madness — trademark, please! — is the comfort food of the sports calendar, a hokey, wholesome celebration of Americana that helps us forget how many players are not Americans, how none are paid (legally) and how many stars are not in it for the long haul of a four-year education.

At least in 1991 we watched star players who stuck around for more than one season. Oops, old-timer nostalgia alert! So that is one thing that has changed. Where have you gone, Christian Laettner?

Anyway, back to the sameness.

There is no more fastidious operation in sports, in which players never are players but only “student-athletes,” coaches forever are proud of their team and respectful of the opposing coach, and under absolutely no circumstances is anyone allowed to bring a drink courtside in something other than a properly approved and logoed NCAA cup.

The NCAA systematically scrubs its sites of all crass NBA corporatism and of almost every identifying characteristic, other than a smidgen of courtside signage letting viewers know what city they are observing.

All of the behind-the-scenes areas used to be cordoned off with big blue curtains. Now they usually are black. So that’s different.

Many of the songs the bands play are the same. The cheerleaders’ moves, and outfits, are the same. The mascots are the same. The angry, anti-referee rants from the high-roller alumni seats are the same.

For viewers not on site, the biggest — and best — change during the past quarter-century was the introduction in 2011 of a CBS/Turner deal that for the first time allowed fans to watch every game in its entirety on television.

Thumbs up for that, even if we have lost some of the charming but frustrating machinations behind switching to games at just the right moment.

Oh, and now there’s high-definition television to make the games look better. And brackets are much easier to fill out on the Intertubes than on paper.

But again, for the fans and journalists watching from the buildings themselves, it is as if time has stood still.

Of all the events on the American sports calendar, the one that has changed the most from a media perspective is the NFL Scouting Combine, another Indianapolis institution.

A time traveler who covered the event in 1991 by loitering in a hotel lobby trying to pick off passing executives would need smelling salts to recover from the shock of seeing the carefully organized media event it has become.

A journalist time traveler who covered the NCAA Tournament in 1991 would have only one question in 2017: Is the media lunch at the same time as usual?


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