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How One Shining Moment went from an ode to Larry Bird to the March Madness theme song

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On Monday, April 6, Wisconsin and Duke will battle for the NCAA men's basketball championship. While this is a momentous occasion for fans of those teams, many college basketball fans will be rooting for the whole thing to be over so that the next season can start, so their team has another shot at the title. College basketball isn't about making friends. It's about hoping "your" team can win it all.

But even though college basketball fans can be contentious and quarrelsome, there will be three minutes after the game when everyone puts aside their differences: the One Shining Moment montage.

This powerful combination of '80s piano, earnest lyrics, and clips of players crying has the power to bring college basketball fans together and, perhaps most important, give a proper sendoff to the season.

What is "One Shining Moment"?

When people talk about "One Shining Moment," they're referring to the musical montage that plays at the conclusion of the NCAA men's basketball national championship game.

Here is last year's:

Emmy award–winning composer David Barrett created the song in 1986. (Sadly, he did not win his Emmy for "One Shining Moment" but rather for scoring a PBS documentary on C.S. Lewis.)

Barrett said in an interview with AnnArbor.com that he created the song while watching Larry Bird play. In the 1985–86 NBA season, Bird was averaging 25.8 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game, and 6.8 assists per game, as well as shooting close to 50 percent from the field — a stellar year that ended in a championship for Bird and the Celtics. Barrett attempted to translate Bird's greatness into song in a bid to impress a waitress.

"I tried to explain to her how amazing [Bird] was. Then the phrase came to me, that he was in the moment," Barrett told AnnArbor.com. "The next thing I knew, I had this inner dialogue going on, and somehow, ‘one shining moment’ came out of my mouth and I knew exactly what I was going to do. I went home and wrote it."

From there, Barrett shopped the song around through a friend, and it settled with CBS. Barrett's version of the song played after Indiana's one-point win over Syracuse the next year, and it played at the end of the NCAA men's basketball broadcast until 1993:

In 1994, CBS switched to a version by Teddy Pendergrass:

And in 2003, it used Luther Vandross's version of the song:

The song, along with the montage, grew with every new version. A bigger band was brought in. The piano sound changed, as did the bass, Barrett said. But the song's lyrics and earnest message about playing beautiful basketball didn't.

Why do people enjoy "One Shining Moment"?

"One Shining Moment" is undeniably cheesy, but people still love it. You can nail down OSM's fandom to four elements:

1) The earnestness of the song's lyrics

"The ball is tipped / and there you are / You're running for your life / You're a shooting star." Those are the first four lines of "One Shining Moment" — the lyrical equivalent of a giant, soaring bald eagle clutching two flaming basketballs in its talons.

Barrett's lyrics blend hyperbole and majesty, the real and the sublime. The song evokes not just a basketball game, but the greatest basketball game ever played. And Barrett knows even in the greatest game ever played, there can be but one winner. Which may be why he weaves in the theme of mortality:

But time is short.

And the road is long.

In the blinking of an eye,

ah, that moment's gone.

And when it's done,

win or lose,

you always did your best.

'Cause inside you knew

(that) one shining moment,

you reached deep inside.

One shining moment,

you knew you were alive

Some of these players could be playing the last games of their college careers. For many of these players, playing in the NCAA tournament might be the pinnacle of their basketball-playing lives.

2) The '80s nostalgia

With its tootles and honks, "One Shining Moment" is clearly an '80s song. It's completely cheesy and doesn't hold up well to the test of time.

That's the best thing about it.

3) It will make you feel good

It can be difficult to guess the NCAA men's basketball champion based solely on the first two minutes of any "OSM" montage. That's because "OSM" montages try to capture the spirit of every team.

The montage is a great, benevolent equalizer. It sends the message that a mid-major's last-second win in the first round is as big as, if not bigger than, say, Duke's Elite Eight win. A national championship isn't the only marker of success (though it's a pretty big marker of success).

4) The calls during the montage

While "OSM" showcases highlight-reel moments, its true beauty is that it also includes the calls made by the announcers. Hearing the excitement in a fellow human being's voice heightens the mood and puts weight into each dunk, each shot. If the announcer — Gus Johnson, Bill Raftery, Jim Nantz, et al. — on television is going crazy, then everybody else should be going crazy, too.

So "One Shining Moment" isn't specifically about one shining moment?

Exactly.

At first glance, "One Shining Moment" seems like it refers to winning the championship. But it's much bigger than that. In the 2014 "OSM" montage, there were (according to my count) over 20 basketball plays (dunks, fouls, shots made), at least 10 shots of female fans or cheerleaders, three celebratory dances, and multiple cuts of players celebrating or crying.

These individual moments can be as poignant as they are joyous, even if the players involved aren't winning the national championship. Despite the song's title, there are many shining moments in any given NCAA tournament.

Has there even been a "One Shining Moment" controversy?

Yes. In 2010 CBS switched from the Luther Vandross "One Shining Moment" montage to a version sung by Jennifer Hudson. The montage also included clips of Hudson singing in a studio:

Cities burned. There was chaos on the streets. People acted as if their children had been taken away from them.

CBS saw the error of its ways, and it changed back to the Vandross version in 2011.

Is any "One Shining Moment" montage better than the rest?

This is completely subjective. One person's best may be another person's worst. There's no real way of answering this unanswerable question.

That said, here's the best one:

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