Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cinderella, The Princess Bride, and the NCAA Tournament

It’s that time of year once again. It’s the NCAA tournament, which means it’s time for Cinderella stories to worm their way into our consciousness. References pop up everywhere…about as often as The Princess Bride quotes.
But are you really familiar with the Cinderella story? As Inigo Montoya would say, “Let me ’splain.” A young girl’s mother dies and her father re-marries and then disappears from her life while the step-mom and step-sisters treat her miserably. When she becomes an adult, she continues to unhappily serve the other lady-folks in the family. She’s miserable and weak. She has no backbone and doesn’t stand up for herself let alone strike out on her own to achieve her own goals and dreams. A rich prince invites everyone to “the big dance,” but Cinderella doesn’t go because her evil step-mom forbids it, and she can’t figure out a way to get there on her own. Then lo and behold a fairy shows up and gives her everything she needs to attend. Cinderella doesn’t do a thing to earn it, except to possibly go snag a pumpkin (she’s good at doing menial tasks). Once there, a dumb prince falls for her immediately, and when Cinderella flees, leaving a glass slipper, the apparently-drunken prince assumes that there’s only one foot in the entire kingdom that it’ll fit. He doesn’t recognize Cinderella because she’s back to being a spineless wimp, but the shoe fits, and he whisks her away to a happily-ever-after.

After considering the lovely Disney tale, I have a hard time understanding why the NCAA basketball tournament has so many teams described as “Cinderella stories.” As Miracle Max would say, “I’m not listening.” Mercer ended the season with a 27-9 record…14-4 in their conference to end up in first place, and they won the Atlantic Sun Tournament. Then they went on to beat the #3 seed, Duke. Harvard was 27-5…13-1 in their conference to end up in first place, and they won the Ivy League Tournament championship before defeating the #5 seeded University of Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament. Stephen F. Austin was 32-3…18-0 in their conference to end up in first place, and they won the Southland Conference championship before going on to beat the #5 seeded Virginia Commonwealth in the tournament. None of those teams was miserable and weak. They won championships. They had backbone. They stood up proudly and met their goals and dreams. They earned their way into the NCAA Tournament. There were no spineless wimps in the bunch. They worked hard. They played with confidence. No one gave them anything; they went out and earned their trip to the “The Big Dance.” They weren’t Cinderella stories. They were Ugly Duckling stories.

As the man in black would say, “Truly you [I] have a dizzying intellect.” Are you familiar with the Ugly Duckling story? As Inigo Montoya would say, “There is too much. Let me sum up.” Some eggs hatch and out come some birds, all of which think they are ducks…one of which doesn’t look much like a duck. He’s criticized. He’s looked down upon. Everyone disregards him, and he’s left to fight it out on his own. And fight he does. He survives an entire winter, emerging bigger and stronger than when he started. When he looks into his reflection in the spring, the Ugly Duckling is actually a beautiful swan. It’s March Madness! He’s in a pond with all the other swans, participating in the big swan dance on the water. He’s overcome the critics. He belongs with the other swans, regardless of the naysayers, because he was a swan just like them, and because he persevered through the long winter.

When those teams from small conferences made the NCAA tournament, no fairy godmother showed up and gave them a spot they didn’t deserve. No magic spell gave them something they didn’t have already. No weak, spineless players lacking dreams and ambitions to pursue them walked out on the floor. Players from teams like Mercer and Harvard and Stephen F. Austin did what they’d been doing the entire season. Regardless of how people all over the nation viewed them as Ugly Ducklings with no chance to win, they played together, winning another game in a long list of games won. They aren’t Cinderella stories because they earned their trip to the big dance. They fought for their goals, and they achieved another victory in a season full of victories—a season marked by championships. When Inigo Montoya was in his swordfight with the man in black, he asked, “Who are you?” The man in black responded, “No one of consequence. Get used to disappointment.” Inigo was good, but on that day, the man in black was better, and Inigo was left disappointed just like Duke, Cincinnati, and VCU.

Cinderella didn’t earn anything. She was given something she did nothing to work for. It was the Ugly Duckling that was scoffed at and looked down upon who wouldn’t quit and emerged victorious. So as Count Rugen would say about your Cinderella comparisons, “Stop saying that!” Mercer and Harvard and Stephen F. Austin aren’t Cinderella stories. Save your Cinderella comparisons for those without strength of character and who are given something that they didn’t earn, and give the Ugly Duckling teams their due.

Before I close, don’t you think I’d “make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts”?