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The Art of the March Madness Telecast

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by Andrew Horbal
March 16, 2012 9:13 AM
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To celebrate the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, here is a phenomenal account of the storytelling skills and visual analysis that goes behind a March Madness telecast. Written by Andy Horbal, the piece examines the CBS sports telecast of his favorite college basketball game ever, the 2005 Elite Eight match-up between Kentucky and Michigan State that the Spartans eventually won 94-88 in double overtime. This version of the article was originally published on Andy's blog in 2010. An earlier, lengthier version of the post can be found here.

Every year narratives play out in NCAA tournament games that are as dramatic and sensational as those in the soap operas that they preempt, and the storytelling strategies used in the broadcasts themselves can be downright fascinating. This game is a perfect example of what I mean: the last few minutes of regulation unfold as if they’re part of a self-contained short film about heartache, redemption, and truth in photography made by a director inspired by movies like Blow-Up (1966)JFK (1991), and Ken Jacobs’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969). Call it The Passion of Patrick Sparks:

Back story: Patrick Sparks — a hometown hero who grew up dreaming of playing basketball for the University of Kentucky Wildcats — lit up Michigan State in the first half for four threes, but has since gone a bit cold. As our story begins with Kentucky down by four and just over one minute left in the game, he’s sitting on the bench:

We know that’s where he is because every time play stops either Jim Nantz or Billy Packer, the play-by-play announcers calling the game for CBS, mentions that he’s Kentucky’s best 3-point shooter, usually over a close-up like this one. For all their desire to see him enter the game, though, it isn’t until Sparks’s teammate Ramel Bradley takes a hard foul at center court with 27.1 seconds left that he checks in to shoot free throws with Kentucky down by one:

As the recipient of the foul, Bradley would normally go to the line in this situation, but because he’s injured any player on the bench can take his free throws. Sparks is, Jim Nantz tells us, “the Chosen One.” He’s a 71% free throw shooter and he’s clutch, so at least the front end of the one-and-one should be a gimme. But no: he misses. As we were told by a voiceover during the montage that began the broadcast, all of these players “have been working their entire lives to reach College Basketball’s ultimate destination.” Knowing that Sparks’s lifelong ambition has been to play for Kentucky, we wonder how many times he’s dreamed of this exact scenario: Down by one, with a chance to tie and then take the lead by making two free throws, Patrick Sparks steps up to the line. . . .

To miss that first shot must be devastating:

He will soon have a chance to redeem himself. Down by three with the clock winding down, Kentucky has the ball and one last chance to tie the game. Sparks gets the ball behind the arc with 8 seconds left:

He misses again! His teammate Kelenna Azubuike grabs the rebound, dribbles past the arc, and takes another shot with 4 seconds left:

The ball hits the front rim, but somehow it caroms right into Sparks’s hands. He dribbles back, takes one step forward, and with 1.1 seconds left gets a shot off:

The ball spends what seems like an eternity bouncing around the rim — once, twice, three times — before finally, at long last, dropping in for a made three. Tie game! Overtime! Patrick Sparks is a hero!

Or is he? This is where the game gets really interesting. Even as the Kentucky players and fans celebrate, the specter of a doubt rears its ugly head: was Sparks’s foot on the line, making the three a two and giving Michigan State a one-point win?

We see a replay:

Then a replay from another angle:

And then it’s back to the first angle, again and again. We see Sparks take off from the floor and shoot over, and over, and over: four, five, six times:

By now they’re no longer showing us the whole shot, just the few split seconds before and after the shot is released. The ball is stopping in mid-air and returning to Sparks’s hands: up, and to the line . . . up, and to the line. As the tension builds as we cut away to anxious Kentucky fans:

And to deliciously “meta” footage of the refs reviewing the replays:

We look at a blow-up (!) of the shot:

We move out again:

Then in, in, in:

More than five minutes have passed since Sparks’s shot, and as the fans grow tenser:

We’re treated to an “enhanced” blow-up:

Jim Nantz realizes the truth just as we do: “You still can’t tell!” he exclaims. And that’s exactly the moment that the refs announce that the three will stand. The crowd goes wild:

Huzzah for uncertainty!

Andy Horbal is a librarian and occasional film critic currently living in Westminster, Maryland. He roots for the Pitt Panthers, even when they're playing in something called the "College Basketball Invitational."

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