Bracketville

by Chris Brown

Thursday afternoon. First round.

“Check your scoreboard,” the voice said. Jerry put down the receiver, swiveled to the computer, and clicked refresh: Dayton 78, Syracuse 77. Eeesh. Not good. Jerry headed straight for the snack room. Five of them were bivouacked around the corner table, licking their wounds, clutching paper coffee cups and staring at printed brackets. Even Vilmos was there, all the way from the warehouse. The guy is three years new to this country and he’s commiserating with the veterans. “Bad?” Jerry asked. “Boosted bracket,” Vilmos muttered.

Syracuse was a “one and done” for Jerry. Dan and Jimmy had them in their Sweet Sixteen. Murph and Vilmos put them in the Final Four. Pharrell’s was worse. “All the way,” he said, as he punched quarters into the hot drink machine.

The gang winced collectively. Pharrell pulled a mocha java and slinked off. He wouldn’t be heard from again for weeks, though Jerry once thought he saw him taking power walks at lunch with the gals from accounting. He kept mum about it for Pharrell’s sake.

Jerry got up from the table. “First day, guys. We’ve got a whole tournament left.”

A whole two weeks to crash and burn, Jerry thought. “Besides, I’ve got a good feeling about Ball State.”

He serpentined out of the snack room through a hailstorm of paper cups.

Jerry ran the management office gauntlet on his way back to the cube farm. Mistake.

“Get in here, Jer.”

It was Kaz, the voice from the phone. Jerry’s boss. Kaz and the rest of the Hardcores were lounging around his office like it was the Friday before Labor Day. “Close your eyes and put out your arms,” Kaz said, conspiratorially.

Sure, Jerry was suspicious. And being in a roomful of Hardcores didn‘t help.

The Hardcores are a bunch of hotshots, mostly from sales, that play an exclusive second bracket, invite only. The Hardcores individually make a field of 64 three weeks before Selection Sunday—before the conference tournaments, even before the end of the regular season. More often than not Kaz’ll get at least 50 of the 64 teams from his Hardcore bracket into the tournament. Apparently Del nailed two Final Four teams off his in 93. And Ronnie Buss–a distant relative of Laker’s owner Jerry Buss–called the 2004 championship game, UConn over Georgia Tech. That’s like swishing three J’s in a row from center court, blindfolded.

Jerry closed his eyes and put out his arms. A stack of files landed on them.

“The numbers on these P.O.’s are off by $57 per,” Kaz said. “Good thing I caught that. Jer… you trying to give your raise to our vendors?” The Hardcores laughed.

“I’ll correct it, Kaz.”

“Yes you will.”

Jerry turned and stopped at the doorframe. “Did you guys actually have Dayton moving on?”

Kaz looked around the room and caught the smirks of the other Hardcores.

“You didn’t,” Kaz sniggered.

Can’t argue there. Jerry hated the Hardcore swagger.

Friday.

Jerry sifted through the botched purchasing orders. As the Associate Purchasing Manager for Hobarth Liquid Paper, this gaff was unacceptable. But it was one of many. Jerry wished he could white out big ink splotches of his past, all those bad decisions and embarrassments and what Kaz called “CLMs” or “career-limiting moves.” If only it were that easy. Jerry was certain there was a direct correlation between his brackets and his lack of success in the company, and in life. And then there’s Kaz. Jerry and Kaz started together at Hobarth ten years ago and now Kaz is his boss. Is it any coincidence Kaz got his first promotion in 98, two weeks after he won the pool? Kaz had Valparaiso, West Virginia and Rhode Island in the Sweet Sixteen and called the improbable Kentucky/Utah final. Word of Kaz’s miracle bracket spread to the Big Guy’s office. Jerry remembers Greerson’s exact words: “That kid has bigger balls than Robbie Knievel.”

Kaz spent the $250 pot on a karaoke night for the department and his popularity was sealed. Two years later Kaz was Jerry’s boss.

And was it any coincidence that Tina finally accepted Jerry’s wedding proposal in 2000, the year Jerry picked an eighth-seeded Tar Heels team over seventh-seeded Tulsa to emerge from the South region? Jerry wanted winter nuptials, but Tina insisted on waiting until the following June for an outdoor wedding by the ocean. Jerry’s 2001 bracket wasn’t as kind. It was the year he had Iowa State, a two seed, going all the way. The year they lost to Hampton University by a point in the first round. Jerry was overheard saying he wanted to firebomb Hampton’s campus. Hampton is a historically black university and also the alma mater of the head of marketing. This “CLM” corresponded neatly with Tina calling off the wedding. No, these events were not coincidence at all.

Wayne popped his massive head over the cubicle. “How ‘bout that Dayton game, eh?”

“Don‘t tell me you had Dayton.”

“Yes I did. And I’m sitting pretty going forward, my penny-ante friend.”

The head disappeared as quickly as it came.

Wayne. Wayne hadn’t played the company pool for years, favoring instead some offshore, online big-money bracket. Wayne will tell you how all his upset specials came in and how he stands to make a cool two grand yet you’ll never see a printed bracket in his hand. Wayne will, however, produce what he claims is his actual bracket from 1985. In between the creases and the finger grease stains is, in faded ink, a final game that has Villanova beating Georgetown, the greatest upset in tourney history. “No one ran the four corners better than ’Nova,” he’d muse, milking it for the new guys. “And no one, no one will ever shoot 79 percent again in a final game. It was a thing of beauty.” He’s right, it was a thing of beauty. And Wayne claims a piece of it. Did Jerry believe the miracle on paper? Well, Wayne was a regular Rembrandt with that little liquid paper brush.

Monday. End of round two.

Jerry clanged down the steel staircase and stopped in the basement in front of a security door. He pulled out a credit card and went to work jimmying it open. Monday morning is not the time to be AWOL from the desk, but this is March Madness for Pete’s sake. Click. He pushed through. His footsteps echoed down the cement hall. He opened another steel door, and another, and half expected Agent 99 to walk by. He knocked on a door marked “Furnace.” The door opened and Grimsby let Jerry into the War Room.

Grimsby already had the monster bracket plastered on the wall and most of the first round complete. “You‘re doing good,” Grimsby said without looking up. “For now.” Jerry joined him at the wall.

“For now? Me and Pharrell are the only ones who had Ball State in the Sweet Sixteen. And Pharrell’s already see-yah.”

“You’ve got Ball State, Pepperdine and the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky in your Elite Eight. Are you crazy? I ask you, Jerry–What is a Hilltopper?”

Jerry wagged his finger. “All three teams are still in it.”

Grimsby went back to his task. “Stop banking on the little guy. He always lets you down.”

“Tell me one thing. Did Kaz have Dayton?”

“No, he didn’t have Dayton. But he’s also not stupid enough to pick the Hilltoppers.”

“That man plays a soulless bracket.”

“You know you shouldn’t be down here.”

Jerry spied the familiar steel safe in the corner. “What are we up to this year?”

“$350. A bunch of newbies from the satellite office got in.”

Three hundred and fifty samoleans. That’s a karaoke party and a fondue party, Jerry thought. Or maybe it’s just a karaoke party, adjusted for inflation. Jerry dared not call for prices just yet.

Thursday afternoon. Sweet Sixteen.

“Ooooh yeah, baby.”

It came from the toilets. Jerry finished up at the sink and approached the stalls. He heard a stifled moan behind door three.

“Murph?”

The door opened and Murph pulled him in. Murph was crouched on the toilet, staring at his cell phone, the newfangled kind with video. He removed the earpiece.

“66-63, Hilltoppers. Fourteen seconds left. But Florida is charging back big time.”

Murph retreated to toilets come tourney time to avoid his boss, who told him long ago he’d be fired if he caught him watching another game at work. Jerry, on the other hand, was so nervous for the Hilltoppers he withdrew from his Internet connection to the sanctity of the can.

Murph held the itty-bitty screen up high so Jerry could see. The two winced and gyrated together over those final seconds. Western Kentucky pulled it out for Jerry. For Murph, it was a backbreaker.

“I’m done. You?”

“No. I think I’ll be on top of Kaz now.”

Outside the stall, an intern froze at his urinal.

“That must feel good, doesn’t it?”

“Feels great.”

The intern beelined for the door.

Friday evening.

Shafty McBannon’s tries to be all things to all bar goers yet gets nothing right. It caters to the business lunch crowd but can’t come up with anything better than Loaded Potato Skins and Four Alarm Chili. It’s got three big screens and six small ones to broadcast The Game, yet has more obstructed view seating than the old Hartford Civic Center. And it’s got a raised dance floor, roped off and lit like a boxing ring. A dance floor, so what. The problem is, after The Game and one too many beers the middle-management types in their loosened ties push in and attempt to dance. It’s hootenanny of cocky white men, all elbows and overbites. What kills Jerry, kills him, is the women that actually respond. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Jerry says sometimes, to the wall of dancing bodies, “I’m glad I’m not middle management.”

Nonetheless, McBannon’s is the default place for the gang at Hobarth to let off steam. The Hardcores were there that night, holding court under the big screen. So was Vilmos, his brother Stavros, the rest of the snack room crew, and Jerry. Brittany from Marketing walked by. Dan called out to her. She pinched a smile and headed straight for the Hardcores.

Dan and Brittany have history. He scored a flawless first round in 2003, never been done, his first year with the company. Brittany started keeping an eye on the newcomer. She found reasons to sashay to his cube and sit on his desk just so and reveal the power of a woman’s wardrobe. The guys warned him about certain Hobarth girls around tourney time. But Dan bit Brittany’s candy, and things got complicated.

Dan was sitting at that same spot at McBannon’s for the 2003 championship game. Hakim Warrick blocked Michael Lee’s three-point shot at the buzzer, winning it all for Syracuse, and more importantly, for Dan. Amid the back slaps and high-fives Dan saw Brittany make her way across the room–his own slow-motion Coors Lite commercial come to life. She practically yanked him off his stool, brought him home and rocked his world. Dan didn’t even get to see One Shining Moment, but someone taped it for him.

In the following weeks Dan got it regularly from Brittany, and she even allowed him to start calling her his girlfriend. But as summer rolled around the magic of March Madness faded and Brittany slowly slipped into “what have you done for me lately” mode, as Dan put it. Dan knew it all rested on next year’s tourney. But the 2004 bracket was not kind to Dan, as he somehow managed to finish 46th out of 51 in the pool. Brittany finished 39th. His fate was sealed. He coined the term “bracket hussy” soon after.

Kaz won the pool that year, his third, but Brittany wasn’t giving the latest victor his spoils. Kaz laid into Dan for ruining it between him and Brittany–Kaz was certain she wanted his junk but figured she wouldn’t go after the bracket winner two years in a row, to keep up appearances.

Brittany was invisible to Kaz that night at McBannon’s. He was working a rolled up placemat like a string of worry beads, witnessing this cancer of upsets that metastasized across the whole left side of the bracket. It was a night for Cinderellas, and for once, it played into Jerry’s hands. Stanford missed every free throw and loose ball to the hustling Cardinals of Ball State and lost by three. In the nightcap, Pepperdine beat Michigan State 58 to 51. Jerry’s table was also mess of shredded napkins and peeled beer bottle labels. But his angst wasn’t wasted.

The Hardcores and the rest of the Hobarth crew left after the last game. Jerry stayed. He ordered a beer and crowded onto the dance floor and tried his best to avoid the white man’s overbite thing.

Tuesday. Final Four week.

Jennifer was late, only adding to Jerry‘s nervousness. The last time he was in Human Resources was after the comment about firebombing Hampton University. Jerry sat staring at the motivational posters to kill time. One had a picture of a guy in a suit crossing a finish line with a briefcase. Did men and women ever run track in suits? The caption read, “Take charge of your future.”

Jerry tried to take charge of his future a few years ago. He was thumbing through a syllabus from the Learning Annex–those night classes for people desperate for some preoccupation from their boring lives–when he saw a listing for a class on Bracketology. Actually two classes, Bracketology 101 and Advanced Bracketology. The description promised a scientific, can’t-lose approach to the tournament pool, complete with one-on-one consultation with the teacher, a “nationally-known Bracketologist.” God, was Jerry a Learning Annex type? He wasn’t. But his future was at stake so he signed up.

Jerry bullshitted his way into Advanced, claiming life experience. He found out the teacher, a retired mail sorter named Sully, just wanted to fill up the class anyway. On the first day of class Jerry saw Kaz slip into a back seat. Sully, who talked like Dick Vitale for show, threw out some opening words of wisdom on how good guard play will carry a team in the tourney and how to pick the right mid-major Cinderella, baby! Jerry caught Kaz making all kinds of under-the-breath chortles and guffaws and Jerry Lewis expressions. Halfway through the class Kaz winked at Jerry and split.

Kaz popped into Jerry’s cube the day after class. “What a waste of time that was, eh Jer?”

Jerry shrugged, told him he paid his money and would stick it out. Everyone in the office soon found out Jerry was taking the class. His desire to win became a little, well, earnest. During the individual consultations Sully told him to “pull the trigger on the 5/12 upset, baby!”

Jerry second-guessed him and pulled no five over 12 seeds. But this was 2002, the year of the 5/12 upset. It was another disastrous bracket for Jerry.

Jennifer entered, finally, and circled around to her desk. “I wanted to make you aware of an opening over in Information Services,” she said. “Director of Logistics.”

She paused to gauge his eagerness.

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“Don’t be coy with me. It’s a management position. You’d be reporting directly to Greerson. Is your hat in the ring?”

“Yes, Jennifer. If I had a hat I’d be throwing it.”

“No need for cleverness at Hobarth, Jerry.”

“Okay. Is that it?”

“You’ll get to meet Greerson on Tuesday.”

Of course it would be Tuesday, Jerry thought, the day after the tourney ends. Greerson needs to be sure a winner is added to his team.

“Do you play golf?”

“No.”

“Learn.”

Championship Monday.

There is a dull comfort in losing. The surroundings are familiar. Losers can stay invisible and there’s not much work involved. Winning thrusts you into a new environment, and there are expectations. Jerry was no longer invisible at Hobarth. Having picked those three Cinderellas in the Elite Eight put him in the spotlight, and now he was poised to win it all. He was certain his thrust into middle management rested on whether Cincinnati beat Duke for the title that night.

Jerry avoided McBannon’s altogether, retreating instead to his pad and his dog, All Ball. They made fried ham and cheese sandwiches and pigs in a blanket and managed not to set off the fire alarm. They sat down in front of the tube with their feast and connected with the game. Jerry watched the band geeks blowing horns, picked out a cute cheerleader, and wondered how Kryzsewski ever became “Shuh-shef-ski.” He marveled, along with Bill Raftery, at how Rick Majerus bounced back from health problems to take this rag-tag Cincinnati team to the championship game, only a year after former coach Bob Huggins retired to treat his drinking problem. He tried his best communicating to the refs. “Jeeeesus, call the technical!” he yelled at the TV. “Did you see that, All Ball?”

All Ball picked his head up from the rug to share Jerry’s righteous indignation.

Cincinnati was up by 12 at halftime but let the lead shrink to five with seven minutes left. At the 2:40 mark they were down by four. But Cincy scrapped back, and after a frenetic, hair-pulling, heart-palpitating final minute, they pulled out the victory by a point.

Majerus’s boys, they were boys, not men, fell into a victory clump at center court. Majerus miraculously avoided a heart attack.

Jerry always found One Shining Moment a bit cheesy, but he savored it this time. All Ball got teary-eyed. Jerry sat back in his lounger to collect his thoughts. He couldn’t say how he felt, exactly, finally being a winner. It felt kind of like Jimmy V’s mad hug rush in 83. And Chris Webber’s phantom timeout. And Villanova’s four corners. And Christian Laettner’s impossible turnaround jumper to beat UConn at the buzzer. And Bo Kimble’s left-handed free throw for Hank Gathers, his fallen friend. All rolled into one. He hadn’t even considered what he’d do with the samoleans.

Jerry stood at the sink before bed and tied his long hair back. It was the longest it’d been since college. He washed his face, and when he pulled the towel back he caught himself for a second in the mirror. “Ah, it’s just a game. It‘s just a fucking game,” he said as he turned off the light.

Tuesday. The Day After.

Jerry got to work before anyone. It was quiet. It was so quiet he heard, for the first time, the buzz from the fluorescent lights and the air through the vents. The good people of Hobarth Liquid Paper shuffled in around 8 am. Heads started prairie-dogging from cubicles, abuzz with the news of Jerry’s win. People started filing into his cubicle to offer congratulations to the “Cinderella Man.” Even Kaz. Brittany came by, with two buttons on her blouse undone. And Grimsby, pasty white, simply gave him a hug. No one quite seemed to know who Grimsby was.

Around 9:30 the phone rang. Jerry ignored it and began typing his resignation letter.


Copyright 2006 Chris Brown. Used by permission of Chris Brown.

Chris Brown is the senior editor of Business Fleet Magazine, an automotive trade publication, when he’s not taking cynical potshots at society or cheering for his beloved Syracuse Orange. Chris’s email: Chris.Brown@bobit.com.

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