Bracket may be broken, but camaraderie is intact

Mary Lee Hagert
Executive editor

Supermarket cashier: "Did you find everything you need today?"

Customer: "Yup."

Rarely does a conversation with a grocery clerk go beyond this brief exchange. The words are forgotten almost as soon as they are uttered. So as I stood in a checkout lane last Saturday, watching my food purchases advance on the conveyor belt, it was notable when the male cashier cheerily said, "Hi, ma'am, how's your day going?"

I idly replied, "Fine, and how about yourself?"

"I'm GREAT!" he said, sounding like a youthful Tony the Tiger. "Wisconsin just beat Villanova in the NCAA men's basketball tournament!"

My head whipped up; he instantly had my full attention.

"Are you sure?" I asked, inwardly groaning because if it were true, my office pool bracket would be completely broken since I picked "Nova" (as even undedicated fans like myself call the school) to play in the championship game.

"Yeah, I'm positive, because I have ESPN as my phone's home page and I just checked it."

"You mean while you're ringing up customers' groceries, you're looking at your phone?" I asked with a hint of skepticism.

"Oh no, not at the cash register. I drink lots of water so I need frequent bathroom breaks - one every hour. I check my phone in the restroom," he chirped, reaching for the water bottle next to the till to confirm his scheme.

"It's important to keep well hydrated," he added with a mischievous grin.

For years I've been reading headlines about companies losing productivity during March Madness season, because workers surreptitiously watch games live and linger around the coffee machine to competitively compare their pool standings.

Now I find out they're even distracted in the restroom, of all places.

A sense of community

At the newspaper office, we've had a friendly March Madness pool for many years.

Some people take their brackets very seriously and make studied picks, while others, like myself, make quick choices just to be part of the fun.

Entrants are employees and their "human" family members; we had to draw the line when it came to pets after things became tense one year when the office accountant's dog "submitted" an entry form and landed in the winners' circle.

Some folks took offense at the idea of a canine pointing a paw at the games and selecting more winners than they had.

But that was the odd exception. The annual office pool has primarily been a camaraderie booster rather than a costly distraction.

Shedding stuffy notions

This year my husband's and my alma mater, Iowa State, was a No. 5 seed in the tournament, and we received an email blast from the Twin Cities chapter of the alumni association that members would be gathering at Joe Senser's restaurant to cheer on the team in its opening-round game.

But when we heard that tip-off was at 9 p.m., we hesitated, realizing we'd get home around midnight.

We laughed as we wondered when we had become clichéd stuffy alumni rather than the boisterous boosters we once were, and decided to live on the edge (of midnight!) and head to Bloomington.

The place was already a sea of ISU fans dressed in cardinal and gold - the school colors - when we arrived. Wait staff were winding around crowded tables, and the feeling of energy and anticipation of NCAA glory was everywhere.

When the team's stars hit a clutch shot or made a great play, the restaurant erupted in applause. We gradually found ourselves talking to people at nearby tables - about non-basketball topics like where we grew up and when we graduated. In a different setting we never would have known we shared a mutual interest with these strangers.

We also managed to include our sons in the fun even though one of them lives in the Carolinas and the other in the Dakotas. We followed the game "together" as we texted each other at key moments in the Cyclones' convincing, 84-73 win over Nevada.

So it mattered little two days later when a jubilant store clerk let me know that my bracket was kaput after his team - Wisconsin - defeated the top seed in the tournament.

I already had baskets of happy memories from being part of the office pool again this year, and, too, of one special night with the ISU crowd.

That sense of togetherness and camaraderie can't be measured; it's priceless.

Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at mlhagert@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7820.

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