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Thank goodness for March Madness -- and Sister Jean

Keep this quiet, because I don't want to jinx a miracle: A bunch of young men have been dribbling this month during t...

Posted: Mar. 30, 2018 10:06 AM
Updated: Mar. 30, 2018 10:06 AM

Keep this quiet, because I don't want to jinx a miracle: A bunch of young men have been dribbling this month during the college basketball tournament called March Madness, and guess what? Neither they nor those in their world have inspired a tweet from the White House.

That's the miracle.

To the delight of us who want a drama-free Final Four this weekend in San Antonio, Donald Trump is preoccupied with other stuff, ranging from the firing of folks to the wrath of a porn star. So, I'm guessing the President of the United States didn't fill out a bracket this year, which means he likely doesn't know Sister Jean from Sister Sledge -- which is good, by the way.

There's that, and there's the fact that the next protest involving the National Anthem at one of these games will be the first.

In addition, no players have promoted their favorite social cause with messages on their warm-up shirts, shoes or socks. And, yes, folks in the stands wearing blue have cheered like crazy for a Duke or a Xavier, and those in red have hugged a Cincinnati or a Texas Tech without love for anybody else.

You get my point: Such extremism among fans hasn't a thing to do with Democrats (blue) or Republicans (red).

Of course, college basketball isn't without conflicts, especially given how a program can go from nothing worth mentioning to something generating millions through one recruit. It's been that way forever. So it was inevitable that coaches at several big-time programs were allegedly caught through FBI wiretaps violating NCAA rules by offering enhanced financial gifts to high school stars. Many of the schools have vowed to comply with authorities as the investigation continues. And at Louisville, all of this (and more) contributed to the firing of Rick Pitino, a Basketball Hall of Fame coach with national championships at two different schools.

But March Madness has been largely apolitical -- so far. We still have to get past the Final Four, but since that uproar involving the Alamo two centuries ago, few cities have been mellower than San Antonio. I'm going to slide out on the edge of one of the rims at Alamodome to say we won't hear much through Monday night's championship game about anything beyond picks and rolls and a 98-year-old team chaplain who makes everybody smile.

Sister Jean, she's got this. If you prefer something more formal, I'm talking about Jean Dolores-Schmidt, who is that nonagenarian serving as chaplain and good luck charm for Loyola-Chicago, a Jesuit school among this year's Final Four teams with Michigan, Kansas and Villanova. Unlike the others, Loyola-Chicago came out of nowhere during the tournament as a No. 11 seed. The Ramblers are making their first trip to the Final Four since they won it all in 1963, when they made history with a mostly black starting lineup defeating an all-white Mississippi State team earlier in that tournament.

Both storylines for Loyola-Chicago have kept America enthralled. David Worlock, the NCAA director of media coordination and strategy, told me that March Madness witnessed its highest percentage of seat capacity at preliminary rounds since 2006.

But it hasn't been just Loyola-Chicago generating interest in this year's tournament. Earlier in the month, a team forced Google to work overtime after folks kept plugging in "UMBC," and it stands for this: One of the biggest upsets in sports history. The University of Maryland Baltimore County (you know, UMBC) became the first No. 16 seed in the history of the tournament to upset a No. 1 seed when it crushed Virginia. Never mind UMBC was gone after its next game against Kansas State. The Retrievers had us hooked even more on March Madness after they forced us to discover who they were.

In addition to UMBC and Loyola-Chicago, we had traditional powerhouses such as Kentucky and Duke advancing from the initial 68 teams in the tournament to the Sweet Sixteen. Neither Kentucky nor Duke survived. Still, we have Michigan, a perennial Big Ten force facing Sister Jean's boys in the opener Saturday night in San Antonio. Then the spotlight switches to lordly Kansas, whose first coach was James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, battling Villanova, among the favorites to win it all this season and seeking its third national championship overall, including its second in three years.

That's captivating enough, which gives me hope this Final Four will survive any sort of outside mess. Plus, our national pastime isn't baseball anymore. It's filling out March Madness brackets and following them. Nothing tops that for unifying the country for a common cause.

Conversely, TV ratings and attendance tanked in the NFL last season, with much help from Trump ripping players for kneeling during the National Anthem for various protests. In the NBA, you have superstar LeBron James who regularly gives his thoughts on international and national headlines.

I love it, but many don't.

There also are split opinions over NBA head coaches Gregg Popovich of the San Antiono Spurs, Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons often blasting Trump over this and that.

Elsewhere, the latest Winter Olympics had its normal set of controversies. The setting was Pyeongchang, South Korea, where Vice President Mike Pence wouldn't stand last month when the unified Korean team entered the stadium -- and this was the same Pence who bolted from an NFL stadium last season when players didn't rise for the National Anthem.

There was also Trump praising NASCAR folks for their patriotism after he called NFL players SOBs for voicing their dissent. Not only that, but Trump caused a stir last January in Atlanta before the national championship game in college football, when he strolled onto the field for the Star Spangled Banner. He was met by a mixture of cheers and boos.

Thank goodness for March Madness -- and Sister Jean. She is tweet-proof.

I think.

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