Game 092:(7) Buffalo 75, (3) Western Michigan 68 Mid-American Semifinals Friday, March 11, 2005 Gund Arena - Cleveland, OH
There's only so much humanity a person can take. If your heart bled for every panhandler's tale of woe, each wide-eyed island child in need of financial sponsorship, all victims of all natural disasters the world over, then you'd simply exhaust every bit of energy and resource available to you. You've got to draw the line somewhere, hide a part of yourself safely behind.
And so it is every March. As conference tournaments whittle the field down from 326 to 65, each game brings fresh heartbreak. Each dead basketball season is a unique and singular organism built on sweat, effort, money and love, and to bear the pain of each is simply too much. As George Carlin once said about the NCAA Tournament, "You know what I like best about it? Sixty-three losers." You can't cry for each one, there are just too many.
As the seconds ticked away on Western Michigan's 2004-05 conference season, the Buffalo Bulls joyously celebrated their first-ever trip to the Mid-American title game, their first shot at a league championship and berth to the NCAA Tournament. Outgoing Bronco seniors Levi Rost and Ben Reed hung their heads and embraced briefly, both knowing that it would be their last stand as teammates in a meaningful contest.
For a fan or alum of WMU, it was a heart-rending scene. Several Bronco fans were seen weeping openly as they left the Gund Arena, as they came to grips with the loss of something they had placed so much emotional capital in. But most impartial observers simply gathered up their things, stone-faced, and walked back out into the cold Cleveland night. Instead of offering a moment of silence for Western Michigan's failed title defense, they made dinner plans.
The end of Buffalo's season would arrive eventually, that was certain. Every team but one will suffer a terminal loss at some point along this long road to the National Championship, and it would be the Bulls' day to cry soon enough. During the Tournament, the CBS cameras don't focus too long on the pain etched in the faces of each losing team - just a few seconds so viewers at home can get a taste of it, and then it's on to the next game in Charlotte, or Boise, or wherever.
But the observer might take a moment and allow themselves a moment to wax philosophical, to wonder about the reasons why anyone would want to participate in such a doomed exercise. Why does any of this matter at all? Isn't it just a game?
For a basketball team, the only defense against the pain of ever-looming loss is to set a modest goal that falls along the determined path - 10 wins, the conference semifinals, perhaps the Elite Eight - and work for six months to achieve it. If winning is really the only thing, then tens of thousands of players, coaches, staff members and fans would be better served to do something a bit less, well, competitive. Fame and glory, on the rare occasions upon which it's achieved, is fleeting and hollow and determined by others' whims - best not to expect much, or any at all.
To declare an intention, and then attempt the series of tasks necessary for completion, is to assume risk. First, there's the possibility of harm to body, mind and/or spirit. And to enter the arena, to ply a trade in public before hundreds and thousands of observers, magnifies the pressure by squares and exponents. Competitors are exposed, judged, lauded, torn down, built up. Their goals might not be the spectators' goals, and they often are not.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, often said that the most important thing about his creation was not the winning, but the taking part. On the surface, that statement seems no more than a cuddly loser's excuse... but when one considers that the primary alternative to the arena is the mundane world of office life with its make-believe challenges and hierarchies, one might go running back to the arena walls, clamoring to get back inside.
A safe and sanguine life of goallessness, to contradict one of the Tournament's corporate sponsors, is not "the greatest risk of all." Instead, it's a luxury many of us cannot afford. A few hours before tipoff of the second MAC aemifinal session, I received an e-mail from The Official Wife Of The Mid-Majority™. Attached was a short note from the landlord, expressing concern that the March rent hadn't been paid - 10 days had passed since the due date. "I sure hope that check is there when you get back," she wrote.
The "check" was payment for some freelance work I did, which was waiting for me in Philadelphia; failure to spend Selection Sunday driving back east in time to cash it on Office Pool Monday would result in bounced rent, and increased problems. Unbeknownst to the landlord, the tenants had conspired to sprinkle a portion of the previously-earmarked funds around the East, South and Midwest, as one of them survived truck-stop sleepovers, six-inch snowstorms and car trouble on his way to 23 college basketball games in eight days. Success in that undertaking would only bring an advance towards the doorstep of a publicly proclaimed goal of 100 in a year, and very little else.
There is safety outside the arena, but there is also inertia, aimlessness and fear beyond its walls. The idea of not passing through its gates, to shy away from the possibility and inevitability of loss, can seem absolutely unthinkable.