Every spring, a sort of illness strikes millions of Americans. Symptoms include screaming uncontrollably in celebration, panic sweating, obsessing over hastily filled-out brackets, sitting motionless in front of a television for hours, and wearing the bright colors of a college individuals attended many years ago. It’s called “March Madness” and it’s arguably the most popular sporting tournament in America. But what’s the history behind it? When did it start? And how did it get the nickname “March Madness?” As the case with most basketball-related questions, the answers lie in the great American midwest.
“March Madness” first struck high school basketball players in Illinois in 1908. According to the website of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), a high school boys basketball tournament with only eight teams began in March of 1908. Though it wasn’t termed “March Madness” at this point, the IHSA credits this as the first official “March Madness.” The tournament was won by Peoria High School when it defeated Rock Island High School 48 to 29. Eleven teams were supposed to participate in the tournament, but three teams “failed to appear.”
By 1920, there were sixteen teams playing in the tournament. It became a “statewide institution” in the late 1930s with over 900 schools in the state competing for the coveted sixteen slots. Tournament games were played in front of sold out crowds at the Huff Gymnasium at the University of Illinois, where it continued to be held until 1962.
There’s some discrepancies where the term “March Madness” originally came from. One of the first documented instances of it, though having nothing to do with basketball, appeared in a May of 1907 article about uselessness of animal experimentation. In this unbelievably odd and racially questionable sentence, the author makes his point:
If the rabbit could catch a Chinaman and fasten him in a devil-wagon, and fix the sparker, and pull the lever, and send him off whizzing, and then watch his actions, he would conclude, after the manner of your physiologists that men are governed by the peculiar form of reflex action known to you as hysteria, and to us as March madness.
It was soon also a term for the female European hares’ reproduction cycle, with the breeding peaking around March with most all of the mature females pregnant around this point; this became known as “March Madness.”
So how did the term make its way into basketball? This is thanks to a 1939 article by the assistant executive secretary of the Illinois High School Association, Henry V. Porter. The article, entitled “March Madness,” appeared in the IHSA’s official magazine – Illinois Interscholastic. In it, Porter writes about the fans and their obsession with the “thud of the ball on the floor, the slap of hands on leather, the swish of the net are music in his ears.” This high school basketball tournament became so popular that three Marches later, in 1942, Mr. Porter wrote a poem called “Basketball Ides of March”:
A sharp-shooting mite is king tonight.
The Madness of March is running.
The winged feet fly, the ball sails high
And field goal hunters are gunning.
It was around this time that college basketball was beginning to grow up. A Stanford University sophomore named Hank Luisetti had revolutionized the game of basketball by shooting with one hand. In a time that two-handed set shoots ruled, this set the college basketball world on fire.
The first college basketball tournament, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Men’s Basketball National Championship (which is still in existence today), was held in 1937. It was organized by basketball’s founding father James Naismith as a way to increase the popularity of the sport. The…
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