Game 068:at Holy Cross 66, Army 49 Saturday, February 27, 2005 Hart Center - Worcester, MA
Nothing lasts forever, and that certainly includes one's youth. Religions and tribes often mark a young person's passage out of the slow and careful rhythms of the salad days into jangled, unpredictable adulthood with a ceremony. College basketball has its own sacred closure ritual: Senior Day.
Senior Day has its traditions and conventions, and out of respect, they are strictly adhered to. The college prints the names and pictures of the outoing players on the game programs, and they run off a series of commemorative posters. During a pre-tip ceremony, parents and grandparents and siblings join the seniors on the floor, each team member receiving a standing ovation as tears flow from the eyes of proud moms. It's a ceremony that's not quite as solemn as commencement, but certainly more bittersweet - the overwhelming majority of players will go pro in a field with far less of a public audience than basketball, and this is usually their last chance to bask in the adoring glow of a home crowd.
And so on a cold Saturday afternoon on top of a hill in central Massachusetts, five young purple-clad men ceremoniously bid adieu to the court they'd called home. Crusader starters Nate Lufkin, the team's 6'11" centerpiece, guard Greg Kinsey and forward John Hurley all said goodbye, as did bench guards Michael Smiley and Dan Brault. Each player's family received a wooden and brass plaque honoring their service to the Holy Cross basketball program and to the Patriot League as well.
They were members of "Team Together," the engravings noted - they had dominated their conference, and had done so without the benefit of flashy one-man play. They'd take basketball's lessons about teamwork and sportsmanship out into the real world, where they'd become artists and political scientists and economists.
But of course, this is the bottom end of mid-major basketball, so the ceremony outweighs the reality. The Crusaders had wrapped up the regular-season conference championship after a home win over Bucknell earlier in the week, which meant that they had earned the right to host a quarterfinal as a one-seed, a matchup with the same hapless Army team that provided opposition on this particular afternoon. When the rules and traditions of Senior Day were written, there was no accounting for campus-site tournaments.
As game action begins on Senior Day, each member of the outgoing class is out on the floor at tip-off. Each plays four or five honorary minutes before regular game strategy intervenes. In this game, the hosts raced out to a scorching 12-0 run, and held the lowly Black Knights to a woeful 14 first-half points. When play resumed after the break, Army caught Holy Cross napping and rattled off a 13-2 run of Army's own. It was likely that the Crusaders had been looking ahead to their next opponent - when they realized that they were right there on the court, the universe folded in on itself and the home team sped on to the easy win.
At the end of a Senior Day game, starting seniors are taken out one by one, so they can hear the deafening roar of the home crowd one final time. And so Kinsey, Lufkin and Hurley made their ceremonial exits as the minutes ticked away. Each received a standing ovation, and each acknowledged the crowd with a wave.
I had the opportunity to sit next to Dan Brault's father, there in the lower corner. He's a crusty old Maine mariner with a heavy white beard and windworn ballcap, and he sat for most of the two-hour contest in silence, as his son waited patiently at the end of the Holy Cross bench in his 50 jersey, waiting for his final moment of collegiate sports glory. He got his chance with two minutes remaining, as he and Smiley made their way from the end of the bench to the scorer's table to finish the game.
In the closing seconds of the game, with the result well-salted in favor of the home team, Brault received a pass at the top of the key and drove his defender far back into the paint. The little-used guard, who had only played in nine games and scored two points all year, lifted off from the floor, flew through the air towards the hoop. He held the ball alight for what seemed to be one complete revolition of the earth, then softly deposited the orb cleanly into the basket. The whistle blew, and the crowd erupted.
"Hoo! Ahh!" the proud father exclaimed through cupped hands. "Hoo! Ahh!"
But then, the unthinkable. The referee stepped out towards center court, repeatedly moved his hands lengthwise to wave off the two points. He placed one hand behind his head and pointed towards the other basket. Offensive foul.
No! No! The crowd was furious, and the displeasure of several thousand fans rained down on the court. In a moment of sheer pettiness, the Patriot League officiating crew had snatched away and erased a memory from a young economics major from York, Maine - a beautiful moment that would have lasted a lifetime.
"They stole that from him!" I cried out to him over the din. "They stole that!"
"I know," he said.
But there was no sadness in his voice - his face was fixed in that same beaming, proud smile. After the final three ticks drained away and the crowd dispersed into the cold Worcester afternoon, Mr. Brault sat there alone in the wooden bleachers, gazing up at the rafters. As he clutched Dan's Senior Day plaque in his arms, he soaked it all in.