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The tournament ticker on ESPN referred you to the war ("Tune to ABC News for continuing coverage of the war with Iraq") and the war ticker on CBS referred you back to the tournament ("The NCAA basketball tournament is on ESPN"), so that the obedient channel surfer caught in this loop—like a dog chasing its tail—never knew if he was coming or going. The viewer became, in essence, a palindrome personified, like IUPUI (the 16th seed in the Midwest) or 101 (the U.S. airborne division in the Middle East).
It was difficult, for a time last week, to keep them straight, war and basketball, so rapidly were we whipsawed between Screaming Eagles and Golden Eagles, bracket busters and bunker busters, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Miklaszewski. The greatest weekend in sports coincided with what Tom Brokaw called "probably the greatest television event in the history of mankind," and after four days of this odd couple—of al-Jazeera and Al Anagonye, Salt Lake City and Kuwait City, Abu Dhabi and Ebi Ere—war and basketball began to look like each other, in the way that old married couples, or poodles and their masters, sometimes do.
It was a strange and riveting combination, encapsulated in a single Sam Houston State player whose very name was a shotgun marriage of war and basketball: Othello Alford.
And so Sam Houston's Bearkats blurred into F-14 Tomcats, Patriot missile hits into Patriot League champs, layups into "lay-downs" (as a retired general on NBC called the dropping of bombs on Baghdad).
The initial bombing of Iraq's capital was "an audible" called at the "line of scrimmage" so as to "head-fake" Saddam Hussein, allowing ground forces, "like lead blockers," to clear the way for succeeding waves of infantry. All of this was said by television war analysts, making up for, in a single weekend, all the misplaced war metaphors in sports analysis.
CBS calls its basketball pregame show The Road to New Orleans, and CNN called a segment of its Saturday coverage "The Road from Baghdad," and the two roads, like a braid, were forever intersecting, most notably at Saturday's antiwar rally in New York City, where one demonstrator waved a sign that read WAR: THE REAL MARCH MADNESS.
Television programs can, on extended viewing, look scarcely distinguishable. So one might forget that the mother of a Maryland player with her face in her hands on CBS and the mother of a dead Marine helicopter pilot on NBC were not enduring the same trial.
Language was inadequate. You could wake, last Thursday, to Ann Curry of the Today show repeating a briefing given to pilots aboard the USS Constellation: "This is going to be an epic day." And you could eat dinner that evening to Greg Gumbel, on ESPN, saying much the same thing: "What a day of basketball. And it's only half over." Both statements were true. The cataclysmic and the inconsequential sounded almost identical.
While covering the Cincinnati- Gonzaga game last Thursday, Bearcats radio announcer Chuck Machock lost his composure and was ejected for verbally abusing a game official. Meanwhile, covering the bombardment of Baghdad, New York Times reporter John F. Burns was subdued and self-effacing, and grew even quieter when asked by Aaron Brown of CNN what it was like to witness—firsthand—an aerial assault on that city. "It was something quite Biblical," Burns said after a pause. "It made you think of words like Beelzebub and Milton." Those words, more than any pictures, made my hair stand on end.
I have, at various times, described rain delays as "Biblical," ninth innings as "epic" and baseball games as "historic," sometimes in a single story. (Indeed, this magazine foretells the Apocalypse every week.) So when actual apocalyptic history does come marching in—literally, in the form of Iraqi army divisions named for Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi—there is, adjectivewise, no place left to go.