From the Cheap Seats

We all thought last year was the "special" season of Stanford Basketball, which plucked our heart strings like no other could. Most of us thought in early January that the magic had passed into the history books, with the 2004-05 Cardinal struggling so. Now, as we are about to witness an improbable NCAA Tournament game for that same squad, it hits us how much we love this team.

A CONFESSION

I have a confession to make.

For those of you who are not Catholic, let me explain a bit about "confession." One does not confess the things he is proud of. It's not about that. It's about admitting the things you are ashamed of. So don't ask me to defend what I am about to confess. Can't do it. Not trying to.

With that introduction, here is my confession: I was not really looking forward to the basketball season this year. In a way, I was kind of dreading it.

No. "Dreading it" is too strong. But I was darn sure of one thing: After last year, this year was going to be a major let down, no matter what happened.

Last year was just so magical. So many thrilling endings. What the heck: So many wins. So much hope. Realistic hope, at that.

Then it all came crashing to the ground. As I had predicted a year ago here, the season ended just as I suspected it would--with MiniMizzouCard and I rushing out of sports bar in Minneapolis, both bawling our heads off.

Old as I am, though, and as many sports season-ending disappointments as I have weathered over the years (which ought to make me a bit smarter), I wasn't prepared for how hard that one hit. Were you? That, I guess, is the price of hope, but it is an awful price to pay.

Then we got back to our hometown, and I finally summoned up the strength to check out The Bootleg. And there it was: Matt Haryasz's "Never Again" speech. Damn! There was pain everywhere in our little kingdom.

Of course I felt far worse for the kids who were actually putting in the work and making the sacrifices than I did for me. Especially because I had the awful knowledge that comes from advanced age. "Matt," I thought, "I wish it was that simple." But there will never again be a chance for what disappeared on that Saturday in Seattle. Humpty Dumpty crashed that day. With the loss of our great senior class, I knew, there would never again be a chance for "never again."

Then, as if to prove my point, the hits just kept on coming. Josh Childress to the NBA. Could not hold it against him, but it still hurt.

Then it started to get ridiculous. Monty to the NBA? When my son told me he saw that rumor on ESPN, I told him he had to be mistaken. He calmly walked over to the television, reversed the TiVo, and showed me the bitter truth.

Fast forward to the beginning of the season. Tell me that there wasn't a part of you that feared that our run was over. As many of us remember, Stanford is not a long-standing powerhouse in basketball. Didn't that article that somebody wrote who said that the worst job in coaching is not following a legend, but following an oddity, gnaw at you? What if it was a one-time shot, never to be repeated?

So I approached this season with more than a little concern. Don't get me wrong. Our guys were our guys, and I was going to root like hell for them no matter what. But I figured this was going to be a very trying year. Perhaps one that hurt us for a long time, given that we had a new head coach on the recruiting trail and plenty of opposition recruiters ready to say that Stanford is a has been, now that it's coach was gone.

Then the season started. That did not do much to cheer us up, folks, if you recall. Remember the posts to the premium HoopsBoard in December? Not a pretty sight. Other than Dan Grunfeld, was there anything that was looking up?

By the time we got Diogued (the first time), I was in full "batten down the hatches" mode. We had lost Carlton Weatherby. We had lost our football players. We had even lost Tim Morris to academic problems. [Academic problems? You must be kidding me. When a Stanford team starts to have academic problems, you know the deck is stacked against us.]

Fine, I thought. We can live with this. These guys have given us over a decade of quality basketball. Unimaginable by previous Stanford standards. It was time for us to give back. Hang in there. Not because there was any glory ahead. Just because they deserved it.

The parent in me saw it as an opportunity. My two sons could learn a little loyalty from this. It's easy to cheer for a winner. When things are going badly, though, you build character.

Then, of course, it happened. No way did I predict it. But it happened anyway.

First, it was just the fight. Actually, it was there even before the Arizona game. Don't you remember seeing it in that most awful of sports towns, Seattle? It did not lead to a win there, but let's be realistic. There weren't going to be a whole lot of wins.

That was the game, if you ask me - UDub in Seattle. Tons of heart.

Of course, I must admit that I have a fairly odd set of priorities. I like fight - passion - over pretty much anything else in an athlete or team. This is reflected in my hero from the movies.

By the way, who is your movie hero? Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry? One of John Wayne's sheriffs, perhaps. [Shame on you. The guy went to _._._. ]

For me, the biggest hero in movie history was in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Not King Arthur. Gimme a break. My hero is the Black Knight who guards the bridge that Arthur wants to cross.

Remember him? Alone, facing dozens of Arthur's men, he boldly declares, "I move for no man." One arm sliced off, he sneers "C'mon, you pansy." Both arms on the ground, bleeding profusely, he says, "It's just a flesh wound." To the end, no arms and no legs, he defends his ground.

That is what I saw in Seattle, and beyond. And that made me fall in love with this team all over again.

Be you the Black Knight, the Stanford Basketball team, or any one of us, you cannot control the outcome. Fight as hard as you might, you might never win. But you can control the effort you put into the fight. As I said in the football context, there is no shame in losing, if you give your all trying to win.

Something clicked in Seattle, of all places. From that point forward, it was all effort, against very long odds.

Things did not get any easier after Seattle. We lost Tim. If that was not bad enough, we lost Dan. That was going to be a big test, because Dan was a big part of the heart of the team. [Don't forget what SI said after that loss: "Stanford had played its way onto the bubble after starting the season 2-4 but now it almost certain to miss out on the Big Dance." SI, 2/21/05, at 79.] The arms were off, and the legs were starting to come off.

But somehow they kept fighting. As long as they fought, we would have loved them, even if they had not won. Unlike Monty Python's Black Knight, though, they did more than fight. They won.

That has been nice, without a doubt. Give credit to coaches who look like they knew what they were doing all along. To a point guard who is tough as nails. [I have said it before, but I will say it again. There is no player in America I would trade for Chris Hernandez. That kid just does not know how to play without spilling everything he has onto the floor.] To a bunch of players who have stepped up when there is no margin for error.

Let's not forget. There are still lots of things working against our guys. How many of them will have surgery after the season? [I don't even know.] How many have played with assorted ailments most of the year? How many are being asked to do things that are outside their basic package of basketball skills?

My lasting mental image of this team, barring something unexpected, will be from the Pac-10 Tournament games. By the time those two games were over, (1) Nick Robinson was hobbling around on a (thankfully temporarily, I hope) bad knee; (2) Rob Little had a gash in his eye like Chuck Wepner; (3) Jason Haas was bleeding from the neck; and (4) Fred Washington was jamming his shoulder back into its socket. [Those are just the ones I know about. There may be more. Also, don't forget Carlton and Dan on the sidelines.] None of them backed down. As the Black Knight would say, "Only a flesh wound. I've had worse."

So I was wrong. This was indeed a special season. Not in the same way as last year, of course, but every bit as special. Shame on me for dreading it.

Like last year, I know how this is going to end.

This year, our gang is going to stand on the bridge, bleeding from dozens of "flesh wounds," biting, kicking, scratching, clawing. Thousands of miles from home, not a friend to be found (not many anyway), seemingly all the world against them, the forces of evil surrounding them and moving in for the kill, there they will be. Perhaps the Black Knight's last words will echo in their ears: "Oh, I see. Running away, eh? You yellow b-----ds. Come back here and take what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off."

Perhaps they will have more success than the Black Knight. Perhaps not.

Either way, you and I will be standing somewhere, probably thousands of miles away, clapping and cheering them on to the end. [And, of course, crying, but I guess that goes without saying.]

I was wrong, guys. It was a hell of a year after all. Thanks. And go get ‘em!


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