- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Somewhere in California, a teenager woke up Monday morning a newly minted Missouri fan.
In Wyoming, a grandma is all in with North Carolina.
And in Vermont, a middle-aged dad has figuratively taken to his knee, ready to fit Belmont with a glass slipper.
In the days after Selection Sunday, before the real games begin, hope springs eternal in offices, classrooms and kitchen tables around the country, all because of the beautiful geometric simplicity of the NCAA tournament bracket.
The Big Dance is athletics' Ellis Island, with arms open wide to welcome everyone into its embrace. It could very well be our most universally appearing, most all-inclusive sporting event. One of the few communal experiences left in America.
Think about it. Everything else forces us to choose sides to watch with any sort of intensity.
Yankees fans watch the World Series when the Yankees make it. Everyone else only watches to make sure the Yankees lose.
During the endless bowl smorgasbord, a Temple fan might watch the New Mexico Bowl, but it's not likely some random dude in Louisiana gives a fig.
Pick your initials -- NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, MLL. Regardless the sport, it is the same.
If you are a fan of a particular team, you not only watch but you're into it. Otherwise, maybe the commercials or halftime show on Super Bowl Sunday draw you in, but really the showcases are simply a chance to sit back and casually observe. Sure, we might watch the BCS title game or the NBA Finals, but we usually won't have anyone to root for.
The NCAA tournament? Everyone has a rooting interest in the NCAA tournament.
Fans are being born as we speak. People who couldn't tell the difference between Andrew Nicholson and Jack Nicholson, who think Tony Bennett has a great voice, who call the Duke coach Coach K because they'd have a better chance of working in nuclear physics than attempting to spell Krzyzewski.
Why? The bracket, of course -- that glorious piece of graphic design hatched by some unknown genius turns folks who have not watched a single dribble into addicts feverishly checking their smart phones for Norfolk State scores during business hours.
We all know the stories: the 4-year-old boy who won his dad's office pool; the family cat who selected winners by choosing a labeled litter box; the girlfriend or wife of the hoops devotee (or in some houses, the boyfriend or husband, thank you very much) who picked her/his winners by team colors and got 28 out of 32 in the first-round right.
In the O'Neil house this year, there will be five brackets tacked to the bulletin board -- one by a mom who covers college basketball for ESPN.com; one from a dad who works in college athletics; one from a 7-year-old boy who likes basketball but knows only the top-five teams; one from a 10-year-old-girl who thinks March Madness is evil because her mother is never home; and one from an 18-month-old golden retriever who still needs work on her crossover.
Guaranteed the mom finishes last.
And that is why the NCAA tournament is so special.
Anyone can fill out a bracket and therefore, everyone will care.
On Thursday, the question around the country won't be, "Who won?" It will be, "Who'd you have?"
Those who pick the upset specials will gloat, even if they couldn't tell you where the school they picked is located. Those who are the upset victims will curse their team's lack of production, even if they don't know a single player by name.
We all know the true stars of this wonderful month -- the buzzer-beaters, the Cinderellas, the nobodies who become household names.
But if we didn't care, if we didn't all watch with as much fervor on March 15 as we will on April 2, this would be merely mayhem.
Instead it is Madness.
It is Madness because right now, that Wyoming grandma is really hoping John Henson is OK.
And if he's related to that guy who invented the Muppets.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1
The Big Dance is athletics' Ellis Island, with arms open wide to welcome everyone into its embrace. The bracket brings everyone together.