The door opened and we were allowed inside. It was dark, and maybe the team's black uniforms made it seem even darker, but there was not a sound to be heard despite the slow, trance-like movement of over a dozen people. Nobody wanted to make eye contact, and as I looked into the eyes of players who were assiduously avoiding it, not out of rudeness but pure hurt, it was impossible not to notice the red. If you've ever cried really, really hard, then you know there's a wave of numbness that follows, where everything inside and outside of you gets eerily calm. That's what the inside of the locker room felt like. I stood in the middle of that scene frozen for a moment. I didn't know what to say, or who to even try to approach.
After a couple minutes I looked down and saw Marcus Allen sitting slump shouldered on a short stool in front of a locker. I introduced myself, shook his hand, and asked him about the biggest takeaway he'll have from playing with this year's Seniors. He spoke about the need to approach every game with "crazy intensity." He felt that there were games where mentally the team did not bring what was required and that it cost them. I asked them what he felt, injuries aside, was the biggest cause for the team's February slide. "Defense," he answered without hesitation. Then he added, "and that's not about physical ability, that's about a mindset." For whatever reason, he said the team just lacked the mindset necessary to defend consistently.
I moved on to Grant Verhoeven, who was sitting in the black polo and track pants that had become his uniform since an injury prematurely ended the season. He talked about how excruciating it was to watch the team struggle, especially on the boards, where he felt strongly he could have been helpful. He cited the second half's staggering 29-5 rebonding deficit as evidence. As we talked, Anthony Brown walked over and lay down on his back in front of his locker room. He pulled the front of his jersey over his face and held his hands to his head. I've never seen such an exhausted athlete up close in my life. There was no way I was going to ask him a question, because I felt that he'd said plenty just by completing the last physical act his body would allow for the time being. After playing 40 minutes on Wednesday, he gave 33 minutes to the cause and was clearly no longer able to reach the heights he'd found earlier in the year, before the workload he was carrying left him with nothing left to give. There was no questioning the disappointment he felt, or the collective devastation in the locker room. I looked around, and nobody really had anything to say. I took one last look around at the tape, bags, and bottles thrown everywhere and all I could think about was how it took getting this close to the team to realize how far away we as fans really are from what happens on the court, no matter how close our seats or media credentials bring us. There are the guys on the bench and the guys inside the lines, and at the end of the day there's nobody else.
I stepped out of the locker room as a small group of reporters was questioning Coach Dawkins and I stepped into that semi-huddle. He was on camera, and talked to Ashley Adamson about the departing Seniors and their legacy. I relayed Marcus' analysis about defense being the team's shortcoming and Coach didn't disagree. I asked him how that gets addressed moving forward and he talked about a "establishing a defensive mindset" and making defense part of the team's identity. Then there was an awkward moment. We thanked him, and he turned back towards the locker room. The camera light turned off and everybody else dispersed. He turned back one last time, looked at me, and nodded, his eyes showing the wear of disappointment, perhaps not just from this night but from the entirety of this experience. He always stands straight during the games, and for those who equate movement and yelling with "coaching," he was markedly more animated this year. He was far more willing to confront officials, made more efforts to engage home crowds, and was far more extroverted on the sideline overall than he'd previously been.
In this moment, however, he shoulders slumped noticeably, and that awkward look back gave way to a turn and some very tired, measured steps towards a door leading to a side coaches' office adjacent to the locker room. All I could think about was how this was a man who'd been in the Slam Dunk Contest, and now seemed so overwhelmed from the disappointments of the evening and probably the entire season that each step was a struggle. It felt sad, and it felt like more than the end of a season.
There has been no shortage of frustration from Stanford fans about the leadership of our men's basketball team. We criticize coaches and players with impunity because we care, and because we can. Reporting back on the feelings in a devastated locker room isn't necessarily an attempt to mitigate or challenge the validity of all that criticism. It's just to say that in a quiet, dark, moment inside the loudest and brightest of towns, I left convicted that our disappointment as fans was far surpassed by that of our team, and that nobody in that locker room felt that more acutely than the man in charge of it all. This town can be a hard, cruel place, and as the team faced the reality of leaving it's season-long NCAA Tournament goals in Las Vegas, no place seemed crueler than a dressing room physically only about 100 feet removed from the bright lights and big dreams of an adjacent arena floor that was now impossibly out of reach for the 2014-15 Stanford Men's Basketball team.