An Ode To College Basketball

 

College Hoops Collage
Some of the faces of college basketball. Photo art by Taylor Adkins

When a college basketball season ends, a trophy is given to the team who survived five months of basketball followed by three weeks of March Madness, while a losing team wipes away some tears and trudges back to their locker room, as a gentle confetti storm in the color of their opponents jerseys falls from the rafters, sticking to their sweaty and exhausted bodies. 

Shortly after this, Jim Nantz signs off from the CBS telecast, as we are left with a video montage of the three week long tournament accompanied by the song “One Shining Moment.” I freakin’ love “One Shining Moment”, and not because it’s a song I’d jam in my car on any random day. The lyrics are sugary sweet and overly maudlin, the montage follows a paint by numbers formula, year after year. But since 1987, this is how the tournament has concluded. 

As a sports fan in his 30’s, I find that while I still turn to sports for entertainment, I also turn to sports for a little slice of comfort knowing that another season is just around the corner to build upon the one that came before it. There are familiar faces, stadiums, announcers and scenarios that reappear, season after season. As much as the unknown of sports is what makes it thrilling, the known makes it satisfying and recognizable.

Now, I’m not here to say the reason I love college basketball is because of a 3 minute that airs every year, usually past midnight in the east on Championship Monday. The fact that CBS still airs that sappy song, after all these years, is so unusual and refreshing in a sports landscape where everything is constantly and rapidly changing. 

Just like “One Shining Moment”, there is so much about college basketball that remains unchanged in my eyes, conference realignment aside. I started watching when I was around 10 years old, which Andrew Sharp of Grantland noted in his brilliant piece on Randy Moss this week is a time when the coolness of sports will never be matched for the rest of your life. The first time I discovered March Madness, I thought I was imaging things. You mean to tell me that for the first weekend of this deal, there are college games on all day, feeding into a dwindling, single elimination, last man standing tournament? I may be a jaded, “seen it all” sports fan, but I still get dizzy with the buzz of the first Thursday and Friday of March Madness. 

College basketball has been, and still is, an extremely cruel game. Imagine, a season worth of big wins, hard work and success can lead you to a first round tournament game at 12pm on a Thursday afternoon in front of a potentially sparse crowd in a neutral gym versus a team you’d never heard about until three days prior. Sounds easy enough, as your foe should prove to be no match. But lose that game, and five months of big victories and memorable performances is gone in 40 minutes of basketball. Single elimination scenarios aren’t unique to just college basketball, but there’s something extra painful about the way a college hoops team can see it’s season end so abruptly. I know college basketball isn’t the model of pure, amateur athletics that the NCAA would like you to believe it is, but there’s still something heart wrenching about seeing these players have their seasons, and often times basketball careers, ended. 

Take the ’05-’06 Iowa Hawkeyes for example. A 25 win season and Big Ten Tournament Championship was good enough for a 3 seed in The Big Dance and a 1st round game in Atlanta versus little known Northwestern State. Months of grueling practices and road trips around the midwest, culminated in 40 minutes of basketball at the Georgia Dome that ended like this:

One minute your trying to have a season, the next minute Northwestern State is hitting THAT shot to send you home. It’s the same way the ’97-’98 Ole Miss Rebels would end their season. Led by SEC player of the year, senior Ansu Sesay, the Rebels rolled to 22 wins and a 4 seed in the Midwest region. Their first round game would be against Valparaiso, a small, private university in Indiana that was making their 3rd NCAA Tournament appearance ever, and had never won a game. Then this happened:

A guy like Ansu Sesay is another reason I love college basketball. That Valpo game was his last college game, as he’d move on to the NBA for a short, nondescript pro career. The average basketball fan probably has no idea who Sesay is, but ask an Ole Miss fan about him and they could probably wax poetic about the big moments of his career. College basketball is very provincial; and over a two, three or (less frequently these days) four year span, you get to know the guys on the team you support more and more. Then, POOF, they’re gone. Like a drinking buddy you may have had in your 20’s, who was always around for a few years, then one you realize you haven’t heard from them in months, maybe years. College basketball players are here today, gone tomorrow, with the reality that most of these guys aren’t going to play any professional basketball, let alone in the NBA.

As a born and bred Virginian, I was raised on the ACC, notably as a UVa fan. Put me in a room with another 30 something UVa fan and I’m sure we could start pulling some names out of the ether, names long forgotten yet at a point in time very well known as a Virginia basketball player.

Across the league, fan bases of every school can have those same conversations. New York born Ed Cota running point for UNC. Deron Washington jumping out of the gym with one of his trademark dunks for Virginia Tech. Julius Hodge, who I swear played for eight seasons at NC State, constantly torturing my Cavaliers. Jon Scheyer, one of the Dukiest Duke players of all time, and that’s really saying something.

My guy was Sean Singletary, a point guard from Philly that former head coach Pete Gillen recruited but then never got the chance to coach as he resigned (read: was pushed out) from UVa just before Singletary arrived on campus. A brilliant career, highlighted by a dagger shot to beat Duke followed by the most BOSS point and wink to the ESPN cameras (see above) is a play I’ll never forget. For those outside of the UVa circle of fandom, it may be a play you’ve never even heard of until now.

And that’s how it goes in college basketball. All of the above mentioned players never caught on in the NBA, including Singletary who at age 29 is retired from basketball. Look up a D-League or International roster, and you’ll find recognizable names. But most the guys you support and come to know and love end up graduating into real life and are replaced by underclassmen. The cycle goes on and on, in perpetuity.

Following college basketball, is a lot like life. Weeks and months of work and planning can be extinguished in a Valpo second, and people you spend so much time with, people you feel you know so well, can quickly become absent from your day to day, never to return again.

Maybe, with all this harsh reality, a little sappiness is the perfect end to it all. Welcome to college basketball season ladies and gents.

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