AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Sherwin Anderson has stopped to smell the roses. He savors their scent. He prizes their petals. He is oblivious to their thorns. The Xavier senior is a bit player in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but he is a blissful one.
He will seize this day because he may never know another one like it. He wants to take it all in before it is taken away.
''I've been dreaming about being here,'' Anderson said Wednesday afternoon. ''I dream about every play I make, every shot I take. I can see it in the back of my head. It's an unbelievable feeling. If your blood is not flowing now, if your heart is not pounding every minute, you're not a basketball player.''
March Madness formally tips off today with 16 first-round games, and there is no more compelling competition in sports. The hopes of hundreds of college basketball players will be sustained or smashed in the days ahead. The NCAA Tournament is unforgiving and fickle, spellbinding and sadistic. Ultimately, it will disappoint 63 of its 64 competing schools.
Not Sherwin Anderson, however. The Xavier reserve has learned what most of us miss about athletics: That the scoreboard is a secondary consideration; that the real triumph is in taking part.
Stop, look, savor
''Every team here, they should appreciate what they have right now,'' Anderson said. ''There's always a winner and a loser ... (but) only 64 get to make this special occasion, and I think every one of them should cherish this moment.''
College basketball customarily wears a grim face this time of the year. Coaches become caricatures, fuming and flailing and paralyzing players with their micromanagement. The tension is as thick as Danny Fortson's torso, and it does not relent until you have lost.
''Everything about this for the next three or four days is like Armageddon,'' said Xavier coach Skip Prosser.
Sherwin Anderson says it does not have to be like that. He has spent four years adjusting his basketball expectations at Xavier, generally in a downward direction, and he has emerged from the experience wiser but not sadder.
His career statistics show an average of 2.5 points over 104 games, and seven starts. He has been a reserve guard behind younger teammates and a role model for accepting a role other players in his position might deem demeaning.
Anderson has accepted his limitations as a basketball player and expanded his horizons as a person. He appeared in a play on campus last season, and he is on schedule to earn a masters degree in sports management this summer. He has made the most of what might have been a melancholy situation, refusing to confuse his playing time for the quality of his college experience, and he shed real tears at Xavier's Senior Night last month.
''My role is to pick those guys up and be a cheerleader if I have to,'' he said, holding his practice jersey in a hallway of The Palace of Auburn Hills. ''To be a spark if I can. What matters is my team comes out enthusiastic, energized, with an unbelievable attitude of winning.
''Me playing doesn't matter. For four years, I have not been a great player. In three or six more weeks, I'm not going to be a great player. I just want to win.''
Even his dreams are modest. When Sherwin Anderson shuts his eyes, he does not fantasize about slam dunks or NBA contracts. ''It's not me jumping over Danny Fortson or anything like that,'' he said. Sometimes he sees himself making a steal. Sometimes he envisions a big basket. Sometimes, he said, he simply pictures himself standing up to applaud a teammate.
''I really and truly appreciate everything I get,'' he said. ''I treasure it. I treasure the moments. My feeling about basketball is that it is true love. My heart is celebrating every day, every moment that I step on the court.''
In the madness of March, Sherwin Anderson is a spokesman for sanity.