Courtside keeps them connected

Thousands of miles away, students pull all-nighters to join March Madness

March 30, 2006|By ELLIOT HANNON | ELLIOT HANNON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA -- Back home in Chapel Hill or Boston or Austin, college basketball's annual rite of spring blends easily, even unavoidably, into the rhythms of campus life. But here, on the southernmost tip of the African continent, where expatriate American students find themselves about 3,000 miles closer to the South Pole than the magnetic pole that is Indianapolis this weekend, the NCAA tournament happens in the early hours of the morning and through great effort, or not at all.

Games at "2 a.m. are OK, but 5 a.m. is really inconvenient," says Carrie Beason, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis who is spending this semester at the University of Cape Town.

March Madness indeed. During the all-consuming march to the Final Four, pulling an all-nighter to watch a game - Cape Town is seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time - is among the least of the extreme measures fans abroad have had to take to catch the tournament games.

In fact, a little lost sleep is nothing compared to waiting in a half-hour line for Internet access to see what happened to your bracket while you were sleeping or trying to find a bar that a) gets ESPN, b) will stay open late enough and c) has the kind of patrons who can be persuaded to switch off the rugby or cricket match du jour in favor of this odd little American pastime.

It's a scene that is surely duplicated elsewhere in the world, wherever American college students or other NCAA aficionados have been forced to go to great lengths to maintain this one tie to home. Re-creating the comfort zone of the American college experience isn't really the point, of course, of studying abroad - why spend a year in a foreign country if you're going to eat at McDonald's or constantly Instant Message your friends back home?

But March is different.

"Even while trying to become immersed [in another culture]," says Mike Corsini, a senior at the University of Southern California who is studying here, "there are still things that you want to hold on to."

A basketball player himself for the University of Cape Town, Corsini had participated in NCAA tournament pools in the past, so he decided to organize one in South Africa. After consulting a friend for advice on rules and scoring, all he had to do was get some printable bracket forms for fellow students to fill out and figure out an entry fee. He decided on 30 rand or about $5, and received 13 hopeful entries.

After missing an entire weekend of play earlier in the tournament for a camping trip in Wilderness National Park on the Indian Ocean 275 miles east of Cape Town, Corsini will be tuning in this weekend to the Final Four games in Indianapolis.

"I can't miss that," he said.

For University of Miami sophomore Robyn Swirling, a Bethesda native, the tournament ritual of the bracket gives her a way to stay in touch with friends back home, with whom communication has been difficult since she arrived in Cape Town last month.

Swirling turned to facebook.com, which allows users to start a pool with other like-minded members.

"Here, I must do March Madness," said Swirling, who recruited five friends from back home to join her pool. While in past years, the tournament played out in the background of her consciousness, this year, Swirling checks her pool homepage every day and found herself "flipping out" in an Internet cafe when she learned Duke had been upset.

"It's a fun way to stay connected with friends at home," she said.

For Beason, participating in March Madness not only preserves trans-Atlantic friendships but fortifies fledgling ones with new and still unfamiliar American classmates in South Africa.

"Where are you from again?" Beason asks her college basketball cram session partner of two weeks during a commercial break during last Sunday's game.

In the basement of the Liesbeek Gardens student residence, a dorm whose no-frills concrete interior more closely resembles Shawshank than Melrose Place, Beason and Joanne Heisey, a junior at Boston University, have kept each other company on all-nighters watching the games.

As the first game of this night's double-header extends into overtime, the conversation shifts from the game at hand to the matters of classmates, school work and papers yet unwritten.

"The tournament brings people together that don't hang out on a regular basis," said Beason.

In the final minutes of overtime, George Mason University, this year's Cinderella darling, sinks a crucial shot; Beason and Heisey, the two lone occupants of the 50 chairs scattered across the grim brown-and-orange-tiled floor of the dark multipurpose room, thrust their synchronized fists in the air, shouting "Yes!" in unison. The two chose the convenience, if not comfort, of watching in the dorm this time, but know fellow American college basketball diehards scattered through Cape Town's leafy southern suburbs, who are surely also wide awake and just a cell phone call away.

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