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Heart Of Madness

Epic phrase 'March Madness' has humble roots in Illinois

March 20, 2014|Nathan Fenno
  • A poster advertises the "Bracket Challenge," whereby patrons can complete an NCAA basketball tournament bracket at Jake's sports bar in Denver.
A poster advertises the "Bracket Challenge," whereby patrons… (Brennan Linsley / Associated…)

When Henry V. Porter died in 1975, funeral notices mentioned his induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as one of the game's pioneers.

Back in the day, Porter had pushed to adopt a ball without laces to make it substantially easier to dribble. And those fan-shaped backboards that are common on schoolyards and playgrounds? Porter designed them.

The obituaries also mentioned that he led the band and orchestra at Athens High in central Illinois, and that for decades he worked as an executive for state high school athletic associations. They even mentioned that he did not have children.

What they did not mention was March Madness -- the term Porter created and NCAA turned into a money machine.

March Madness is now the colloquial name for the annual showcase that determines college basketball's champion -- three weeks filled with buzzer-beaters, Cinderella teams, office pools and distracted workers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 21, 2014 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
NCAA basketball: An article on the evolution of the term "March Madness," now used to describe the NCAA basketball tournament, in the March 20 Section A said that the term was first printed by Henry V. Porter, relating to the Illinois high school basketball tournament, in 1939. Although Porter is widely credited, word historians have found earlier references regarding March Madness being used to describe the annual high school basketball tournament in Indiana.

There are 64 teams remaining in the tournament, with legions of followers hanging on every rebound and free throw. Last year, ESPN's bracket contest -- in which fans predict the winners for each game -- generated 8.15 million entries. Even President Obama filled out one this week.

The madness has been a windfall for the NCAA, prompting dozens of cease and desist letters mailed each spring to those who might infringe on those two words the organization guards with religious zeal.

Porter and his descendants, however, received no share of the bounty.

At the Buehler Home retirement community in Peoria, Ill., where three of Porter's closest surviving relatives live, there's only a vague conception of the swirl of conflict and cash around the name. Last March, Shirley Meagher, her sister, Lauralee Randolph, and their cousin, Carl Porter, tacked a few newspaper articles to a bulletin board to let neighbors know about their uncle's invention.

No one paid much attention.

But the slender book containing the two words that launched lawsuits and generated billions of dollars isn't far from Meagher.

The volume Porter self-published in 1939 is coated in faded orange, Meagher, 91, says over the phone. A handwritten inscription rests inside: "To mother and dad to show how the boy has been spending some of his spare time."

Among the essays and poems is the basketball-mad prose Porter penned to celebrate fans of the Illinois state high school basketball tournament. First printed in a magazine he edited, the words ushered March Madness into our lexicon.

"When the March madness is on him," Porter wrote of the rabid basketball supporters, "midnight jaunts of a hundred miles on successive nights make him even more alert the next day."

Meagher seldom watches television. She's never filled out an NCAA tournament bracket and doesn't follow college basketball closely. But Porter isn't far from her thoughts when March arrives.

"He was a very modest man," Meagher said. "I think he would've laughed. I think he would've gotten a kick out of it."

Then she added: "I don't think he ever took money for any of those things."

Others did. March Madness became the nickname for the Illinois high school basketball tournament in the 1940s; the Illinois High School Assn. made it official in 1977 and licensed the phrase to companies such as Pepsi and Wilson Sporting Goods. Other states could use the name for their tournaments for a $10 fee.

"We just naturally used that term," said Scott Johnson, the Illinois association's unofficial historian. "It kind of stuck."

The name jumped from Brent Musburger's lips and into the mainstream in March 1982. Calling the NCAA tournament for CBS, he uttered the phrase he heard covering high school sports as a reporter for two Chicago newspapers. Sports Illustrated and United Press International used the term in articles that March, as well.

Basketball-obsessed Chicago businessman Charles Besser picked up on the name. His company, Intersport, produced the one-hour "March Madness Coaches Show" previewing the tournament on television.

No one had trademarked "March Madness." Besser did so in 1989. The reasons behind registration No. 1571340 ran deeper than protecting an asset.

"I was a complete basketball nut on the edges of basketball craziness," Besser said. "If I hadn't have been so in love with college basketball I wouldn't have thought of doing it."

That trademark touched off a two-decade legal tussle over who controlled the two words. The NCAA began licensing use of the term in 1988 and in November 1993 sent its first cease and desist letter to the maker of a trivia game that planned to include March Madness in the title.

After a brief partnership, Intersport assigned its rights to the Illinois High School Assn. in 1995. Intersport retained the ability to use the name in certain circumstances. Then the NCAA and Illinois association sparred over the name for the next five years until they pooled their rights in 2000.

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