In college basketball, in the NCAA tournament, March becomes about the moments.

They’re the upsets, the buzzer-beaters, the momentum shifts and the Cinderella runs that happen at a dizzying rate. They’re the steals, blocks and shots that occur in the final seconds of these games, making the names of the players involved instantly synonymous with the tournament itself.

Jim Valvano running around the court in 1983 was a moment. Chris Webber’s timeout in 1993 was one, too. As was Michael Jordan’s jumper in 1982, Keith Smart’s shot in ’87 and Christian Laettner’s game-winner in ’92.

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament gets underway in ernest Thursday, and Andrea Creamer’s family is ready to roll. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

But the moments that the tournament creates come off the court as well. March Madness – so dubbed because of the interest in the games as much as the action during them – caters to the fan and the non-fan alike, and while not everyone participates in the action, anyone can.

The result is that relationships are made and extended by people coming together over this tournament. Friends rejoin to watch the games. Family bonds strengthen over annual bracket pools. And while the players and coaches get their moments and memories, so do the people watching them.

Life tests even the strongest relationships. Time and distance force friends and family members to have to work harder to stay in touch, to keep connections and to prevent the bonds from fading.

That’s where something like March Madness and college basketball can help. Growing up in Winthrop, Cameron Laney was separated by half a country from his grandparents in Kansas. But they had the Kansas Jayhawks in common. Laney’s grandmother, Mary Ann McGaugh, is a die-hard fan who worked at Kansas in the 1950s, chatted with Wilt Chamberlain and knows KU coach Bill Self. And Laney, no less passionate, has attended Jayhawks games and clinics, and even received free throw tips from Paul Pierce.

“I was born (in 1989) and my first day out of the hospital I was in a Kansas Jayhawks little onesie,” he said. “It’s in our blood.”

The distance means that the best way for grandmother and grandson to stay in touch has been by phone. And during the season — and especially in March — those calls are never stale.

“I’d say 80 percent of the time we were talking to our grandmother, specifically, it was heated conversations about the Jayhawks, their latest game, how we think they’re going to do in the tournament,” Laney said. “We’ll talk on the phone and she’ll talk about this recruit or this guy on the bench or the 1-3-1 zone that they should play.”

McGaugh still works at KU, in the cafeteria. She talks to the players almost daily, and two nights ago spoke with Self about the fourth-seeded Jayhawks’ chances.

“It’s been a real point of connection for us that I wouldn’t change for anything,” Laney said.

Even less passionate fans can benefit from March Madness’s ability to unite. Gardiner Area High School teacher Andrea Creamer doesn’t follow the regular season. But each March, she participates in a long-running family competition with her parents and brother, Ryan.

And as the month approaches, the normally mild-mannered family lets the trash-talking begin.

“The group chat is to live for every year,” she said. “My dad is the nicest person in the world, and the darkness that comes through his texts … it’s just this smackdown for months.”

Rather than fill brackets, the four get seeds drawn at random, and whoever has the champion wins the pot. Creamer’s parents do well — suspiciously well.

“It just seems like, every year, my parents win. I don’t know how,” she said. “There’s just a lot of conspiracy around it. But that’s part of the fun.”

At a slow time of the year, the pool becomes a highlight. Creamer has the bracket set up in her classroom, with each pick color-coded to the appropriate family member. Ryan slipped an announcement of his wife’s pregnancy into the drawing one March. And each year, when the tournament approaches, the good-natured barbs start up again.

“As soon as March hits, we’re like ‘Oh boy,’ ” Creamer said. “The prize at the end is not even really that exciting. It’s the process along the way. … It reconnects us at a time where not much is going on.”

The bonds helped by the tournament don’t just pertain to family. Nokomis boys basketball coach Ryan Martin, a teacher at Messalonskee from 2011-18, would post his bracket in his home room each year, and eventually his students started following his lead.

“It was just a way to connect with some of the students in my classes and in my home room,” he said. “Kids would bring up their brackets, we’d post them on the wall and kids would keep track of them. We’d talk about it every day.”

When Messalonskee graduate Nick Mayo, a senior on the Eastern Kentucky basketball team, returned home this year and met up with Martin, he brought up the routine.

“He asked me ‘Do you still do the brackets?’ ” Martin said. “We (all would) talk about it every day. It was kind of like a bonding thing.”

One of those students didn’t want to give it up. In March 2016 Martin was checking his email when he saw a message from Austin Foss, a graduate from the previous year.

“He said ‘Here’s my bracket. We’re going to keep this thing going,’ ” Martin said. “I honestly did not expect that at all. … It was the fact that he was reaching out and wanted to stay in touch. That really meant a lot.”

Every year, Foss sends in his bracket, and he and Martin catch up. They chat about what they’re doing, where they’re going — and, of course, who they have winning the whole thing.

It’s definitely been one of those things where it’s allowed us to keep in touch,” Martin said. “At the end of the day, it’s not really about the bracket, it’s not really about basketball. It could be about spending time with your family, getting together and enjoying that time. It could be about catching up with somebody.

“It is definitely more than a bunch of basketball games that are played Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I think you learn to cherish that time.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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