It just ends. The clock ticking, thousands of fans stand and yell and scream. Everything hurries up compressing six months into .5 seconds. Then, it’s over. Just like that.
Reality rips apart, and the flow that consumed the lives of players and coaches for six months ends. One teams shouts in jubilation and relief, the other walks off heads hanging, towels over their heads, even though they have not reason for either, they just walk off the floor for the very very last time, together.
The season had ground on forever. It started with immense expectations, conference championships and deep runs into the NCAA tournament beckoned. A trip to Maui launched the campaign.
The season ground on. A long long season. A few early losses to good teams, a few beautiful victories. A top twenty appearance. Then a horrid midseason swoon, the team had visited this before. The media turned on the guys, the media forgot about the team, the boosters grumbled and struggled to make sense of all the talent laying waste.
No one believed in them but they themselves. Dreams died quickly and loudly in some bad losses. People tried to not to care or just felt confused as the team blew games and jumped from brilliant to disorganized and lost inside the same game and the same season.
But the loss of dreams gave birth to another slight hope. No one even mentioned it except the team to themselves. A tournament fun, a tournament championship based on a couple grind victories and a brilliant fun game of pure basketball decided at the last second.
Beneath the season the physical and mental attrition never let up. An early torn ACL of the starting point guard, but no one complained and the shooting guard grew into a leader and point guard. Three concussions threw off development of players and hurt the team and its evolution. Then a shadow of an investigation and lingering prosecutors darkened the team’s accomplishments and weighed on everyone all the time.
Guys grew up right before our eyes. Attrition and scrutiny could have broken them and certainly hurt, but a new dream grew from a dead dream.
Then off to the big dance, the team flew on a charter to the NCAA tournament. 2800 miles from home, the farthest any team had to travel. They took exams, studied and played.
The end always feels just too harsh, too sudden. It was a hard hard game. Good moments both teams playing college ball with runs and mistakes and amazement all woven together. Uneven foul rations but the game remained in their grasp. One missed inbound pass, the game, the season, the awful quiet of what might have been.
No one knows quite what to say. Anything you can say sounds like a cliché, until you realize that in context a lot of clichés are true.
The bus ride back is quiet and somber. Somber as in funeral, not quiet and focused like heading for a game. Everyone knows, and no one can articulate it that walking off the court was the last time this group will ever play together for high stakes. The last time this group will rely upon each other and share the trust and know the pain of loss and the jubilation and sometimes relief of victory. Three will go their way, but it is all too hard to think about. It just hurts.
At the hotel the room everyone ate in and planned and did scout is cleared out, no buffet line. The round tables and huddled screen area replaced by neat soldierly chair lines for the AFCO TECH sales meeting. No sign of the team. The TVs still play the next games with announcers abuzz with runs, and sterling plays and heartbreaking 19-year-old mistakes, but it's all background now to lost possibility, to lost probability.
The guys will recover some. Later they will celebrate at the banquet and remember the crazy roller coaster triumphant year, but right now it is too silent, too abrupt and the plane is going the wrong direction.