PAYING THE PRICE
By now, of course, we should be used to this. This, after all, is how it always ends. So why does it still surprise us? Why does it hurt so much?
For more than half a century, but especially for the last decade, the basketball season always ends badly. That alone does not give us any special status, of course. It has ended badly every year for almost all of the more than 200 Division I basketball schools.
But the basketball gods have concocted a special curse for Stanford. We seem doomed to do better than expected in the regular season, almost every year. This boosts the post-season hopes of not just fans, but surely also the coaches and players. After catching more than our share of good fortune in the regular season, though, we get far less good fortune than we deserve in the tournament and underperform our expectations (with that one exception we all cling to). Some combination of our shots (and they are good shots, for chrimeny sakes!) not dropping, someone from the other team getting ridiculously hot, and the officials swallowing their whistles when we are on offense and overworking them when we are on defense (don't get me started) does us in.
They all sting, of course, but this one is going to last a bit longer than the others. Part of it, of course, is the way it ended, with us on the wrong end of a great comeback for the first time this year. Part of it is how those basketball gods, with their particularly wicked and sadistic spell, had the 'Bama guy miss two free throws, to set up a shot that looked so familiar from the regular season at the end of the game.
But this was not the regular season. It was the Tournament. If there is anyone that knows the bitter difference between the two, it is Stanford fans. So, though we used up our last little bit of hope as that shot was in the air, we knew it was doomed.
In that instant, everything was gone. The magical season. The hope against hope that, somehow, maybe this could be the year. The team we loved. This time, it was brutally sudden.
From that point forward, each of us has been paying the price for all of the good things that happened before that moment. Basketball does that to fans, and especially to us. It charges the price of admission at the exit, instead of the entrance. And the price, at least in years like this, is not cheap.
But we are Stanford fans. So we cope. Well, at first we don't. First we go into the parking lot (of the sixth establishment in the northern Twin Cities claiming to be a "sports" bar, but the first to actually have the Stanford game--don't get me started on that, either). Nathaniel, who always takes it harder at first, doesn't want his dad or anybody else to see him crying. But his dad, as predicted, is crying too. [His dad, for what is worth, will probably always have the same thing to say to the son: "Don't ever feel bad about caring. It is good to care enough about something to hurt about it."]
And then each of us is left to our own individual coping mechanisms. We are Stanford fans, so we have developed contingency plans for just this situation. But those plans vary. For me, it is to immediately turn the radio dial to a non-sports station, to keep all television sets off, and to save, but not read, newspaper sports pages. It is just too painful to let the smart alecks tell me that, as they had predicted, Stanford was just too slow to handle an athletic team, and to watch other people play college basketball (though I will turn the television on to catch the women tonight, because my brother-in-law was nice enough to check on the results of their game on Saturday for us, after I did not have the stomach to watch it).
The only thing I would have read, The Bootleg, is unavailable to me because I am, perhaps fortunately, away from the computer I use to access it and I am too stupid to get there with someone else's computer (and too polite, I guess, to hog someone else's computer time). When I get back to Columbia later this week, I will catch up on the insights of my fellow Booties. For the moment, I am alone with my thoughts.
For what is it worth, I will share those thoughts. I do so with a full understanding that it was fairly easy to encapsulate the feelings of many of us when things were going well. Now, I pretend to do no such thing. Instead, I offer the humble insights of one rabid Stanford sports fan, and nothing more. [In other words, I fully recognize that you may disagree with much of the following. Most likely, we just see things differently at this point, but it is entirely possible, if not probable, that you are correct and I am wrong.]
First things first. I have said before that nothing this team could do would cause me to complain about them. I stand by that promise. This was such a wonderful team and it provided us with so much this year, that I simply refuse to have negative thoughts about them. On a purely personal level, this has been a fairly tough winter, with more than its share of negatives. The one thing that went well consistently was Stanford basketball. It really did help, and I am thankful for that.
Even more than the fantastic record of this team (an undefeated season outside of one city, and don't get me started on how many Stanford sports dreams have been broken in Seattle), I loved their guts. As I tell my kids and my trial advocacy students, you cannot always control outcomes of games or trials, but you can control your effort. When you have given your all, even if you have made mistakes, you can hold your head high when the result is not the one you wanted.
If we were going to have to lose (and, let's face it, it appears that this is what the tournament has in store for us every year), I was glad we went down swinging. My wife, another Stanford fan, is firmly of the opinion that, if Stanford is going to lose, it is easier to deal with when Stanford gets blown out. Though I understand her view, I disagree. Our guys gamely battled back from the dead, like that knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail who loses both arms and both legs and snarls that he is going to bite his opponent to death. If there had to be a last image of this Stanford team that did not come from a win, I am comfortable with this one.
Next, do not tell me that this season was a "failure." That is hogwash. If our love for this team was so fragile that it was dependent on that lost shot rattling in instead of out, it was not really love in the first place.
That gets me to a startling revelation. I realize that what I am about to say is something that nobody in this cyber-community or anywhere else is going to agree with. It is something I have tried to resist saying for several years. Just last week, I was still trying to convince myself to the contrary. Sometime in the last two days, though, I have quit trying to convince myself. Now I am ready to declare it publicly:
I hate the NCAA Tournament.
Go ahead. Renounce my citizenship. I know how un-American that sentiment is. The NCAA Basketball Tournament is the best thing since sliced bread, of course. It is the ONLY thing that counts in college basketball, you know.
Fine. Go ahead and love it. Someday maybe I will again consider changing my view again. But this thing has abused me (and us) for several years now. If you stay in an abusive relationship too long, it is time to cut the ties.
Yes, I know the experts will tell me that nothing that happens before the tournament starts really matters. But I also know that one of those experts is a slick haired coach whose teams stunk during the regular season, and then got hot during the tournament. What would you expect him to say? Anything that validates his view is a bit suspect in my book.
If you want to believe that the last three-point shot of a season renders everything that preceded it irrelevant, you have every right to do so. But nobody is going to tell me what is important to me. I will decide that for myself. And I am sick and tired of this made for television event that the television network won't even show to me (and neither will five different establishments that call themselves "sports bars") being the be all and the end all.
I could care less what those smug experts are saying about Stanford right now. Sure, I care that we lost and I care about the implications of that loss for recruiting and everything else. It was a very bad time to lose, and I fully realize that. Also, you don't have to tell me that it hurts like hell to lose in the Tournament, because I hurt like hell right now. But I refuse to let anyone tell me that this was not a great year for Stanford basketball.
My non-Stanford buddies and everyone else who smugly tells me that "Stanford is not tough enough to get past the second round" better be ready for a fight, too. Do not tell me that this team lacked toughness. We lost. It happens.
Yes, we have to figure out what to do about that, because, yes, it keeps happening. No, we should not be satisfied with another early exit or with anything short of the national championship, even if it never comes. But do not expect me to criticize Mike Montgomery. He has done things that I never thought possible when I was on The Farm. Though it is entirely appropriate for people to point out mistakes and loyal Stanford fans have, I suppose, earned the right to do so, I just do not have it in me to criticize him.
Also, do not expect me to criticize the players on this team. Did they make mistakes? Sure. But they took us to places we never thought we would see again. Though I am wounded right now, I cannot be upset with them.
Now I know the price of being a Stanford basketball fan in 2003-04. It is steep - this hurts an awful lot. But I would pay it again, because it was a good investment. Even now, when it hurts the worst, the pain is overshadowed by the joys of a great season.
So my final words to the Stanford Basketball players and coaches are simply these: Thank you. I am proud to have gotten to know you, to have rooted for you, to have hoped against hope for you. You made our lives better. Ultimately, there is no greater thing that can be said about a human being than that he made the lives of those who around him better. You did that for us, and we are grateful.
We are going to miss you, Matt, Justin, and Joe. [Dammit. I am crying again.] Fare thee well, our good and faithful servants. May each of you have, sometime in your life, a moment of sheer joy to replace the one we desperately wanted for you this spring. You deserve it.
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