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Which teams will shine during March Madness?

It’s doesn’t matter, just enjoy the fairy-tale endings of these NCAA games

This week, the NCAA men’s and women’s Division I college basketball tournaments begin.

Or, as I imagine it, the nation, gripped by March Madness and great expectations, standing at the edge of town as a circus train makes its way across the sports landscape.

Instead of tightrope walkers, jugglers and clowns, this train’s cars are filled with Davids and Goliaths, would-be Cinderellas and refugees from neverland: players and coaches who have “never won the big one.” And everybody on the train is spinning a basketball on an index finger, the finger they hope to hoist to the rafters and the sports gods as champions.

A society that defines winning solely by numbers on a scoreboard risks becoming a nation of losers.

Consequently, come tournament time, close will count, especially when underdog teams almost take down heavily favored opponents — times when Goliath is staggered, but not brought down, by David’s slingshots — with the killer 3s.

Years after the near-upsets have been played, people who were there or claim to have been there will recount how the slingshots of victory felt in their hands, just before the heavily favored opponent’s big-time player made a big-time play and victory was yanked away.

Stories like that are usually told with a smile, a triumphant smile. So are the stories about how high the cheerleaders flew toward the rafters, the pounding of the drums in the stands and the pounding of the hearts in the fans.

Virginia, Villanova and Xavier are among the solid, well-coached teams in this year’s men’s tournament. But the tournament begins with no obvious superteam or transcendent player. Still, Virginia, Villanova and Xavier and perennial contenders such as Duke, Kansas and Michigan State are among the teams that can make it to the Sweet 16 and beyond.

The women’s tournament begins with a haunting question, an echo, from past tournaments: Can anybody beat this year’s undefeated UConn team?

Last year, Mississippi State answered yes; the Bulldogs beat an unbeaten UConn in the semifinals before losing the championship game to South Carolina. Both Mississippi State and South Carolina are back and formidable this year. And so are Louisville, Baylor and Notre Dame. Through the years, Notre Dame has shown the knack of looking UConn in the eye without blinking, a giant Euro-step toward beating the women from Connecticut.

This week, and for the duration of the tournaments, basketballs and cheerleaders will be tossed in the air at arenas all across the country. Spirits and hopes will soar. Fans will display their clever and silly signs. Players, especially the subs, will beguile us with new hand jives and post-basket gyrations. Meanwhile, many fans in workplaces, sports bars and family rooms will monitor their tournament brackets as closely as they do the games.

David will take on Goliath. Cinderellas will dance in glass slippers. One team will win a big upset victory. Another will claim a big victory, just not on the scoreboard.

Years from now the stories from these games will be told on street corners, back porches and front lawns. As they tell the stories, the griots will smile. They will smile as if they can see the magic moments they conjure up with their stories. The listeners will smile as if they are children, eager to hear their favorite stories told again.

In March, the best sports stories play out on the hardwoods. Sometimes the stories star Davids. Sometimes they star Goliaths. Sometimes the stories star Cinderellas, radiant at the big dance no one expects them to attend.

And no matter who stars in this year’s basketball tournaments, in years to come their stories will be told with the majesty and wonder of children reciting their favorite passage of their favorite fairy tales.

The big-time basketball tournaments begin.

Get ready for Once Upon a Time.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.