Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jumping into the pool

I know nothing about college basketball.

Most years I don't even enter a March Madness pool. When I do, I'm no better than the office secretary whose picks are based on the colors of the teams' uniforms. I just go with the favorites, throwing in a few upsets based upon what people are saying or for whimsical reasons having nothing to do with the game itself. I round out the bracket with 1 and 2 seeds going to the Final Four and hope for the best.

This year, for example, I have Kansas in the Final Four even though I'm pretty sure they no longer have Danny Manning; took the Tarheels to win the tournament because they're the overall top seed; and picked Memphis to get upset before the Final Four because someone told me their gaudy record (one loss all year) is misleading since their league, Conference USA, isn't very good. Is that true? Hell if I know!

I also forgot to bring my bracket home from work last weekend. Since I couldn't remember which teams I'd picked, I didn't bother to watch any games after my sentimental favorite, Drake, lost an overtime thriller on Friday. As you can see, I'm not exactly a basketball junkie.

Over the years, my handicapping "strategy" has won what it has deserved to win: nothing. I'm usually out of it by the end of the second weekend, at which point I tune out and never bother to learn exactly where I finished.

One time, though, through no skill of my own, I ran away with an NCAA pool. It was my second year of law school at Northwestern (cue wavy video wipe and harp music)...

Because I grew up in the Chicago area, and took a year off after college to work, I had a number of friends in the class ahead of me who'd gone straight on to law school. One of these was a guy I'd gone to Hebrew school with when we were kids. Let's call him Dean, both because he carried himself with the stolid gravitas of a law school dean and because the guy knew more about college basketball than Dean Smith.

A word about law school, the most academically rigorous experience of my life. There's a tremendous volume of assigned reading, mostly lengthy, dense appellate case decisions. Particularly in the first year, the underlying concepts are new and challenging, and there's little time to absorb them since there's so much material coming at you.

Because the final exam determines your entire grade in most classes, there's also an ongoing imperative to distill each course into an overall outline you can use during the test. Although raw intelligence, writing acumen and reasoning ability are of course helpful, the sheer capacity to grind through all the work is arguably the prime determinant of law school success.

In this high-pressure environment, each student must figure out how to study in a way that's effective for him or her. And my friend Dean sure did. Yes, he was bright, but so was everyone at Northwestern. He was also shrewdly analytical, a game theorist of sorts, and applied that skill to the law school environment.

Having aced his way through a top undergraduate business school, Dean quickly worked out an ingenious studying system specifically designed to prepare him thoroughly for law school exams in the least possible amount of time.

His method was to get his hands on the best possible outline for each class, typically from a trusted friend who'd crushed the same course the year before. Dean would then take notes directly onto his friend's outline at each lecture, correcting it slightly from the previous year's model as the same professor taught. While everyone else was frantically scribbling everything down, trying to keep up, writing much and hearing little, Dean would just tweak the proven blueprint as he listened to the lecture.

In this way, unlike so many of his classmates, he was relaxed, locked into the professor's mindset from the first minute of class and armed with all the answers if called upon to engage in Socratic dialogue. He also had the luxury of a broad, comprehensive context for any given lecture. On a macro level, he had a definitive course outline to study for the entire semester, where many of his classmates struggled to complete their own outlines in the final weeks before the exam.

His system not only enabled Dean to condense and absorb massive amounts of material with relative ease, it also made it unnecessary for him to read the actual cases assigned as homework. Since his friends' outlines already held the key concepts for each class, he found the reading to be a wordier, messier version of what he learned in the lecture hall. He thus considered the homework surplusage, a distraction. I don't even know if he bought the books.

You can argue that there's more to law school than grades, that there's inherent value in doing the reading, that hard work builds character, that you get out of it what you put into it, that the academy is about learning for its own sake. And you might be right. But you can't argue with Dean's results; I don't think he got any grade lower than an A after his first year.

By breaking the shackles of law school homework, Dean became that rarest of law students: one with a lot of time on his hands. Unlike me, Dean was a basketball junkie, and during the season he used his prodigious free time to full advantage, spending his nights and weekends on nonstop college hoops.

He watched basketball, taped basketball, attended basketball, ate, drank and slept basketball. Around the law school he blended in with everyone else, but he had a secret life. While the rest of us were sweating over evidence and property law, he was scouting teams and breaking down 2-3 zones, a student of the game. He also found time for more Las Vegas weekends than every other law student I knew, combined.

Whether Dean was betting basketball week in and week out, I don't know, but one thing's for sure: when tournament time rolled around, he knew his stuff cold. He had well-founded opinions about dozens of teams, having seen them all play repeatedly during the season. And unlike many casual fans, he didn't watch games with a rooting interest, but with the cool detachment of a scientist looking at a paramecium in a microscope.

There was a schoolwide March Madness pool that year. It was a penny-ante affair like office pools everywhere, five or ten bucks to get in. Dean just chuckled at my naïvete when I asked whether he was going to enter. It wasn't even worth his time.

He was casting his lots with the big kids, the hardcore bettors down at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade. The macho traders there gambled for a living and had a lot of cash to throw around; their pools cost thousands of dollars just to enter. You'd land something like a year's salary if you won.

I told Dean I was going to enter the school pool for kicks even though I didn't know anything about college basketball. As a favor to me, he grabbed a blank bracket and penciled in a set of suggested picks. I was only too happy to play an informed opinion for a change. And wouldn't you know it? His picks won me the school pool.

Actually, they tied for first place. That year, fourth-seeded Syracuse upset #2 Kansas to make a surprise appearance in the Final Four, where they lost to top-seeded Kentucky in the championship game. A recent Syracuse alumna, probably alone among the entire law school, had picked the Orangemen to go deep, so she was showered with an avalanche of points as the tournament ended and caught up to Dean—I mean, me.

First place was worth $500 and second place $100, so we got $300 each. Not a bad result for the two people in the school who knew the least about college basketball.

I could hardly begrudge the 'Cuse fan her piece of the pie. Where some chest-thumping alpha males might resent splitting the pot with the campus hottie who'd picked her school's underdog team and hit her inside straight, I could only laugh at my good fortune. Heck, at least she'd filled out her own bracket.

As for Dean, I never found out how he did in his big-time pool(s), but I thought I saw him driving a new late-model BMW a few days after Kentucky cut the nets down.

Parenthetically, Dean did me another favor the following year when he gave me his rock-star outline for Business Planning, a tough 8 a.m. class with a demanding adjunct professor. He was a brilliant Harvard Law grad who'd made it big with his own elite law firm, and in the classroom a hardass who loved to tear students apart like red meat.

Calling on students in front of everyone and quizzing them on the day's lesson was fair game, but most professors were relatively benign in their use of the Socratic method. This guy was a pit bull whose jaws clamped around your neck for the entire hour.

Plus, the class was full of future Wall Street finance types, nonchalant BBA studs who showed their business mettle whenever they were called on. Me, I was just a humble English major trying to stay awake at 8 a.m.

So I think Professor Swinging Dick was somewhat disappointed the day he called on me and I had every answer just so. Dean's bulletproof outline was just the flak jacket I needed. Even with the goods, it was a harrowing experience.

(cue video wipe back to present day)

And that was my bracket moment in the sun; after that it was back to reality.

Take this year's pool, for example. I understand I'm currently in the middle of the pack, but it's early yet. There's still plenty of time for me to run out of gas and finish three spots from last place.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Ben.

But as much as I enjoyed reading about Dean's approach to law school, I really wish that you'd told me about it when -- I don't know -- I was a law student or something. You're more than a decade late, pal.

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Ben said...

Thanks, Jackpot. I wish I'd learned about his brand of safecracking earlier too. By the time I found out, most of the drama was behind me.

Note: I did fine anyway, and Jackpot did better than fine, serving on the law review. We may have suffered unnecessarily, but at least it built character. (In Jackpot's case, he had plenty before he got there; in my case, insert joke here.)

As for Barb's post, I have met no such person; I assume it's machine-generated spam. But since her cheesy site features a large, obnoxious roll of $100 bills, it qualifies as unintentional humor. My blog is also all about the Benjamin(s), so I'll leave her comment as is.

Justin said...

Ha. Was that 1996ish? when 'Cuse had John Wallace and co? Syracuse in the house, oh my god-oh my god! That was there song.

I didn't play brackets for the first time in a very long time. I feel great about it.

Martin said...

That was great, Ben. You spin really good yarns, which isn't the most common Internet skill....

Justin: I think it was in fact 1996. That was the year the Yankees won their first title under Torre, and at the time there was some talk of a link between Kentucky titles and Yankees titles in the same year (streak since broken).