Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A great time of year to be a sports fan

It's a great time of the year to be a sports fan. With so many iconic events taking center stage and grabbing our collective attention, what's not to like?

The first full week of April is here and our sports calendar is filled with great sporting events: the NCAA men's and women's Final Four in basketball, Major League Baseball's Opening Day and The Masters Championship, one of pro golf's premier tournaments. In addition, the NBA and NHL seasons are nearing their "second" seasons as playoffs begin soon. Even in its off-season, the NFL holds its annual draft later this month, which has everyone across the country fantasizing over who's going to be the No. 1 pick.

With three marquee sporting events ~ the NCAA Final Four, Major League Baseball Opening Day and The Masters Championship ~ occurring on or near Easter, it makes for an interesting convergence of the sacred and secular. It's definitely one of my favorite times of the sporting year.

Basketball's NCAA March Madness is very neatly packaged over three weekends and brings together the best and brightest college basketball teams playing down to one national champion. The task is simple: win six consecutive games and attain the spoils of T-shirts and caps, not to mention the joy of cutting down the net before a national TV audience.

In the men's tournament, a Cinderella team (Butler) complete with its youthful, 33-year-old coach, Brad Stevens, faced a team of enduring excellence (Duke) that is coached by one of the game's great masters, Mike Krzyzewski ~ and the two schools provided an absolutely wonderful conclusion to this season in a championship game that came down to the last shot and was won by Duke 61-59.

On the women's side, a match up of top seeds from the East (Connecticut) and West (Stanford) showed why UConn, winners of 78 consecutive games and back-to-back national championships, is the gold standard of women's collegiate basketball. Plus, the team's respective coaches, Gino Auriemma (UConn) and Tara VanDerveer (Stanford), are easily recognized by basketball fans on a first-name basis ~ Gino and Tara.

The Major League Baseball season opener always coincides with the NCAA Final Four ~ not sure why the two have to conflict with one another year after year, but they do ~ and it's a sure sign that spring has arrived. This year, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees met in the new-traditional Sunday Night opener at Fenway Park in Boston ~ and, from looking at how the fans were attired, you would have thought it was the middle of summer as the game-time temperature was in the upper 60s. The traditional Monday openers provided a lot of great highlights, including two homers by St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, the reigning National League MVP.

Finally, The Masters Championship is professional golf's most sacred event ~ an elite field playing on the cathedral-like Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Ga., replete with dogwoods and azaleas ~ and its biblical-sounding Amen Corner, which refers to holes 11, 12 and 13.

The term Amen Corner was first coined in 1958 by Sports Illustrated writer Herbert Warren Wind. According to legend, Wind was looking for an appropriate metaphor to describe where most of the critical action had taken place in the tournament that year, much of it involving the legendary Arnold Palmer. Wind borrowed the name, Amen Corner, from a old jazz recording "Shoutin' In That Old Amen Corner."

This year's event takes on even more significance with the return of Tiger Woods to professional golf, and what bigger or better stage to do it at than at The Masters? Expect big TV ratings this weekend as long as Tiger is in contention.

So, whether you're a Dukie or, like so many, have jumped on the Butler bandwagon; have a love or hate relationship with the Yankees or Red Sox, or watch but one golf event a year, there's no denying this: it's a great time of the year for sports in America ~ and to be a good sport, too.

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