March 1939: Before the Madness - The Story of the First NCAA Basketball Tournament Champions
“. . . the book is long on research and short on story.”
The message of great sports books is that winning isn’t easy. The message of March 1939: Before the Madness—The Story of the First NCAA Basketball Tournament Champions by Terry Frei shows that writing great sports books isn’t easy. Frei takes his best shot, but sadly the ball clangs off the rim.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a multi-billion-dollar spectacle, an orgy of basketball, sports betting, and face painting by semi-mature college males. But it wasn’t always thus. Frei takes us back to the first time the NCAA sanctioned a national tournament to crown a champion, and shows us how different college basketball—and the world—were back then.
The words “before the madness” in the subtitle refer not just to March Madness of our times but also to the madness of World War II, which began just months after Oregon won the title. Frei intersperses countless paragraphs of historical fact among the basketball narrative, yet the two stories coexist uneasily—the relative naiveté of college basketball programs and the insanity of a world marching to war. Typically one reads sports books to escape from reality, not to have reality interjecting itself every few pages.
Frei’s intentions were honorable in that regard—history matters--and there is something to be said about the juxtaposition of the relative innocence of sports and the gross hideousness of fascism and totalitarianism. But people usually like to consider those separately, not together.
The references to history in the book might’ve been better had they not come in such a rapid-fire manner, distracting the reader from the narrative of the main event, the first NCAA tournament.
Frei does unearth some fascinating pieces of detail. For instance, the national invitation tournament, or NIT, actually preceded the NCAA tournament, and in many ways provoked it. Also, remarkably, James Naismith, the inventor of basketball in the late 19th century, was still hanging around in 1939 and made appearances at several of the games in the tournament. At the night of the finals, the two teams involved even reenacted basketball according to Naismith’s original rules, down to the peach baskets nailed to the walls and a jump ball at center court after every basket.
Otherwise the book is long on research and short on story. Frei has the unenviable burden of making a team of rather ordinary athletes into a compelling tale. The Oregon Tallfirs, as they were then known, were not exactly the Miami Hurricanes. The coach and his players were basically decent chaps who played well, lacked drama, and wore suits and ties when they traveled. Good luck making a page-turner out of that.
The book would’ve been radically more interesting had Frei learned more and shared more about the internal workings of the NCAA. Was it as political and mechanistic as it is today? Were there colorful leaders back then, imposing their will on the world of college sports? Or were the NCAA bosses back then a lot like the coaches and players—fundamentally decent people trying their best?
If you’re from Oregon, you’re going to love this book, because the word Oregon appears on almost every page. But if you’re in the market for a really great sports book, and you’re not from Oregon, you may want to look elsewhere.