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Original Issue


The Mona Lisa has no eyebrows. The Taj Mahal would have unblemished symmetry if not for the tomb of its builder, which is just off-center. And somewhere on the most expensive jewel ever sold at auction—the $46 million Graff Pink diamond—Sotheby's found a flaw, invisible to the naked eye.

So nothing's perfect. Not even the NCAA basketball tournament. All those store-brand courts are blandly identical. The play-in games are an unnecessary preamble—the unread prologue to Moby-Dick. And the blind daters in that Bud Light ad get no more enchanting after the 40th go-round.

Otherwise March Madness has, essentially, a flawless lifespan: Three weeks, about the same as a post-pupa monarch butterfly. "It's the greatest sporting event on the planet," says Boise State coach Leon Rice, leaving the door slightly ajar to something better in the galaxy—Mars Madness, maybe.

The individual most responsible for the tournament's near perfection and its preeminent place on our planet is not Magic or Larry or Laettner, or Wilt or Wooden, but a middle-aged woman at once overpublicized and underappreciated. Her name is invoked during most telecasts, though she's never set foot in an arena. And to little notice, she's celebrating her 63rd birthday.

Cinderella was born in March. Disney's animated blockbuster Cinderella opened nationwide on March 4, 1950, a week before City College of New York began its historic 18-day run to both the NIT and NCAA titles. The Beavers won the latter on March 28, at Madison Square Garden, where the Associated Press reported from courtside, "Nat Holman's Cinderella team came out of nowhere." A star was born.

The phrase was echoed 30 years later by Bill Murray in Caddyshack—"Cinderella story; outta nowhere"—in what the American Film Institute named one of the 100 greatest movie quotes of all time.

But Cinderella doesn't belong to golf any more than she belongs to boxing, whose Cinderella Man, heavyweight champ James J. Braddock, was given his nickname by the heavyweight writer Damon Runyon. No, college basketball—with its Big Dance and magic coaches and midnight denouements—owns Cinderella and all of her attendant analogies.

Analogies, rearranged, yields IONA GAELS, as in the No. 15 seed whose Cinderella dream was snuffed out last Friday by Ohio State, whose own band plays a mean version of "Locked Out of Heaven"—Bruno Mars rearranged for tuba, trombone and piccolo. This 21st-century music on 19th-century instruments is an inversion of college basketball, a 19th-century invention played on 21st-century instruments, among them D.J. Stephens, the Memphis swingman who can literally kiss the rim, and Sim Bhullar, the 7'5" New Mexico State freshman whose size-22 feet had no chance of fitting a glass slipper. (His Aggies lost by 20 to St. Louis.)

But a Cinderella will be found—must be found—for without her most Americans have no one to root for beyond their alma mater and whoever's playing Duke. Of those leftover teams, there are more than three dozen potential Cinderellas, though pinpointing one in advance is nearly impossible.

Ancient Romans tried augury—reading the future by the flight of birds—and when a black bird landed on the court during LIU-Brooklyn's play-in game against James Madison, it augured well for the Blackbirds as Cinderella. They promptly lost.

For a moment there was no CAN'T in NC A&T—and then there was. After beating New Mexico, Ralph Waldo Emerson's alma mater (Harvard) lost to Kourtney Kardashian's (Arizona), 74--51. When a 15 seed "outta nowhere" beat Georgetown, half the country thought the first two letters of FGCU stood for Fried Grouper. The rest of us thought it was Frisbee Golf. Neither was entirely wrong.

But then Florida Gulf Coast beat San Diego State on Sunday, and the Eagles joined La Salle, Wichita State and Oregon as Sweet 16 Cinderellas. And so we keep flitting from underdog to underdog, filling each with our hopes, like a hermit crab moving from shell to shell until there are no more shells to be had.

Cinderella is older than she lets on. She's ancient. She's had work done. The Disney film was based on Charles Perreault's French story "Cendrillon," published in 1697. That work, in turn, was based on even-more-ancient folktales, told the world over. Nearly every people of every culture has required stories of instant transformation.

To be fair, Cinderella isn't the only story of March Madness. The tournament is a pointillist masterpiece, "One Shining Moment" comprising a million dots of paint. It even sounds better than any other event, a symphony for sneaker-squeak, Sousaphone and whistle. Are there more euphonious English words than barn burner, buzzer beater or bracket buster? These games are poetic—all those sideline-stalking Micks and Ricks, Thads and Tads, Bos and Buzzes. And they're onomatopoetic. Swish: A made basket. Swoosh: The Nike logo. Swish-swoosh, swish-swoosh, swish-swoosh: A thousand coaches in nylon tracksuits, walking through hotel lobbies at the Final Four.

There's no guarantee Cinderella will make it there. But she might. And in this event, that's enough.

Follow @SteveRushin

Whom does the glass slipper fit in 2013? And whose team bus is about to turn into a pumpkin?

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