This game will hurt you. We all know this; the inevitability of heartbreak is a mantra of this site, and a central organizing principle of Our Game. But heartbreak comes in many forms. There are many different ways in which this game can, and will, hurt you.
It can hurt you with the humiliation of a blowout. It can hurt you with the anguish of a crushing buzzer-beater, taking away a victory that seemed assured. It can hurt you with the injustice of a critical bad call or an 8-on-5 finish, or with the ineffable frustration of a simple unlucky break that changed everything.
It can hurt you by lifting you up to the highest of highs, only to crash you back to reality. Or it can hurt you by bringing you *thisclose* -- say, eight pixels away -- to those highest highs, without ever quite letting you reach the top.
Northern Colorado's lone senior, Mike Proctor, is familiar with basketball's sublime joys, but he's also familiar with the many ways in which this game will hurt you. Anyone who has played college basketball for four years is intimately familiar with those. Proctor has experienced blowouts. He has experienced injustices and bad breaks. He has experienced crushing buzzer-beaters -- against Weber State last year, for instance.
He has experienced the highest of highs, notably in the Bears' NCAA Tournament-clinching win over Montana last March, followed by the low of a first-round NCAA Tournament loss, and then the further low of a season that, as he gently put it Thursday, "didn't really go the way that we wanted it to." The Bears are 9-18 overall, including a Black Line Upset to an NAIA team back in December. More importantly, they're 5-10 in conference play with one game to go, and are highly likely to be mathematically eliminated from Big Sky tournament contention (only the top six of nine teams qualify) before they take the court for a final time on Tuesday in Portland.
Thursday night against Weber State and its superstar Damian Lillard, in front of a rowdy home crowd and more than a dozen NBA scouts (all there to see Lillard), Proctor and his teammates experienced another of the ways this game will hurt you, separate and distinct from the ones I've mentioned thus far: the slow drip of realization that, try as you might, your best effort just isn't going to be enough, because the other team is simply better.
The Bears put their heart and soul into the game, repeatedly scratching and clawing within three or four points, only to see their superior opponent stretch the lead back to double digits. To this observer, it felt like Northern Colorado had to try its very hardest just to tread water against Weber State, whereas the Wildcats could almost effortlessly push a button and wipe out all the Bears' hard-earned gains in a flash, and it was back to square one for UNC.
This pattern repeated itself several times during the game, with Northern Colorado never quite able to get over the hump and send the crowd into a tizzy by taking the lead. Who knows what would have happened if they'd done that? If they'd been able to fully harness the pent-up energy of their fans?
Well, in all honesty, the same thing probably would have happened in the end. Eventually, Northern Colorado seemed to just run out of gas. You could see it in the badly missed free throws and the disorganized offensive sets late in the game: UNC had nothing left in the tank. By the under-12 timeout, it felt unlikely the Bears could mount another comeback, and they never did. They were a bit like a low seed in an early-round NCAA Tournament game, showing flashes of upset potential, but ultimately worn down by their more talented opponent. The game was much more competitive than the final score of 88-71 Wildcats.
And yet that wasn't the part of Thursday night's game that hurt the most. A win by Weber State was the expected result, after all, and the Bears can surely take pride in how hard they battled. "It was pretty cool to see these guys fighting," Proctor said after the game, sounding almost more like a coach than a fellow player as he discussed his young teammates. (UNC won't have a Senior Night next year. Aside from Proctor, the team is made up entirely of freshmen and sophomores.) "We fought back and fought back. ... I'm proud of them."
No, what hurt the most Thursday was something more inexorable. The way Our Game hurts you most of all, worse than buzzer-beaters or blowouts or blown calls or quixotic uphill battles, is simply by ending.
It always ends in a loss, of course (at least until proven otherwise). But sometimes the "loss" isn't the worst part; sometimes the "end" itself is the toughest blow. The end an enjoyable game, or road trip, or other basketball experience, that you wish could continue a bit longer. The end of a season. The end of a career.
Senior Night is all about embracing the end, and to some extent, the pain. On Senior Night, grown men are permitted to cry. And on Thursday night in Greeley, Proctor did just that.
With 43 seconds left and UNC trailing 87-71, a substitute came in to relieve Proctor for the last time at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion. As the crowd stood and cheered, Proctor hugged head coach B.J. Hill, then hugged every single person on the bench. At one point, as he was progressing down the man-hug receiving line, a teammate attempted a #superhoop a few feet away, and Proctor, a team player to the end, held up his arms in the universal sign for hoping a three-pointer goes in. Then he resumed the hugs, and the tears flowed. The emotion of the moment was written all over his face.
This game was hurting Mike Proctor, not so much because Northern Colorado had lost and its postseason ambitions were likely over -- though that surely didn't help -- but simply because this was, at least for his career at home, The End.
"It should be--it was going to be emotional, you know?" Proctor said as he faced the media in the "Champions Room" later. "[The emotions] are hard to hide when you've been a part of something for so long, and you've put as many hours and as much time into this as we have. I'd be pretty shocked if [you could find] seniors, on senior night, who wouldn't get tears. It's tough."
Holding back tears was a struggle even during the interview itself (audio clip here), as Proctor said: "You know, these guys--this community, ever since I was a freshman here, has welcomed me. I've grown to love it and enjoy the people who come and watch the games and are consistently here. It just means a lot that, even though the season didn't really go the way that we wanted it to, they were still here; they still backed us up."
* * * * *
The End hurts for fans, too, and even for roving reporters and bloggers with stuffed basketballs. Kyle yesterday gave us a newfound glimpse into the end of his seven-year odyssey, discussing the advent of the Permanent Sabbatical in his first 800GP recap -- coincidentally also of a Thursday-night game, in Chicago, but happening at the same time as UNC-Weber State in Greeley. That brought to mind my first visit to Butler-Hancock, last March, when, on the same night that DU Bally and I rushed the court as UNC qualified for its first NCAA Tournament, Kyle and Bally also felt the heat and sought the core, storming the floor at Long Island as the Blackbirds beat Robert Morris to advance to the Dance. (Indeed, the start time of our game was delayed a few minutes by the overtime period in Kyle's game two time zones away, as the Worldwide Leader was televising both.) Knowing what we now know, it is probably fair to suspect that Kyle's desire to rush the court that night was something of a valedictory gesture, both celebrating and saying farewell to all that, as The End neared. (Or maybe not. I'm just guessing here.)
In any case, The End for me isn't nearly as dramatic as Kyle's decision to stop being the roaming bard of the mid-majors after seven years. But it looms with a certain gravitational pull just the same. I've now been to 30 college basketball games in the last two seasons, 24 of them featuring a sub-Red-Line team. My wonderful wife (and mother of our three girls ages four and under) has been amazingly tolerant of this. But with the 800 Games Project ending, it's highly unlikely I'll keep up anything close to this level of attendance in upcoming years. I'll go to games here and there, but it will be nothing like it's been in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Having never played organized sports (though I did earn a varsity letter in girls basketball as a manager in high school), I cannot even begin to personally relate to the sadness experienced by someone like Mike Proctor at the end of a four-year career to which he gave so much of himself. Nor can I put myself in the shoes of someone like Kyle, who devoted seven years of his life to a sport that he's now virtually cutting himself off from, and to a project that he's now turning over to the community. Still, I've had a lot fun these last two basketball seasons, traveling around the Front Range of Colorado with my #ballz in tow, attending games. And now, even as the season itself ramps up toward its crescendo of "madness," The End of that is nigh.
Indeed, a little piece of The End came Thursday night. I know how my mind works, and how it nostalgizes things. When I look back, years from now, on these two basketball-heavy winters, I know that some of my fondest memories will be of traveling to and from the games, and more specifically of speeding down nearly-empty highways late at night, all alone with myself and my thoughts and The Road, listening to Tom Petty or Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers. I deeply associate music with memories of specific eras in my life, and I know that Stephen Kellogg -- after whose song this post is named -- will now be associated with two eras instead of just one: my 3L year in South Bend, Indiana; and my personal 30+ Games Project of 2010-2012
And that particular part of Season 8, the solitary late-night driving part, is officially over for me. My one remaining guaranteed 800GP game, number 11 on my personal count, is an afternoon game Sunday at Denver, and I won't be alone at all: I'm bringing my two older daughters to the game, so it'll be a completely different kind of experience. Then there's the possibility of a 12th game in Hot Springs, Arkansas on March 6, if Denver makes the Sun Belt title game and I'm able to use my Southwest plane ticket to Little Rock the morning of the game. (If DU makes the semifinals, I anticipate packing my bags before tipoff of the semi, not knowing whether I'll be unpacking them or taking them on a plane a few hours later.)
But while that experience will doubtless be completely epic if it happens, my drives from Little Rock to Hot Springs and back would be during the day. So the communing-with-The-Road-after-dark portion of the 800 Games Project is over for me. This fact struck me as I was driving north to Greeley, with the slender crescent Moon, Venus and Jupiter aligned in a beautiful arc to my left, and it struck me again as I was driving back south to Denver, and I passed -- again on my left -- a long, dark freight train, chugging along through the emptiness, before finally passing its screaming, gleaming engine.
As Sam Gamgee might say: I don't know why; it makes me sad. And yet also content, somehow, and even a bit... nostalgic? Can you be nostalgic for a moment you're in the process of living in?
* * * * *
"Hurt and Heart" was playing on my iPhone, near the beginning of my postgame drive, when a push notification announced that one of the five obstacles now standing between UNC and a postseason berth had fallen, as Sacramento State lost a game. If "just" four more results go precisely the right way -- Montana over Montana State and Eastern Washington over Portland State on Saturday, 1-14 Northern Arizona over Montana State on Monday, and Eastern Washington over Idaho State on Tuesday -- UNC will control its destiny by around halftime next Tuesday at Portland State. But that's awfully unlikely. (Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free robots put UNC's tourney qualification odds at roughly 1%. Sometimes, the math will hurt you.) To borrow the parlance of Season 7 while quoting Bob Dylan, Northern Colorado's "light" is not dark yet, but it's getting there.
I didn't listen to that song on my drive -- too slow; I needed music that would cooperate with my iced coffee in keeping me awake -- but I did switch to another great singer-songwriter, the aforementioned Mr. Petty, as I got closer to Denver. My iPhone's shuffle-play mode eventually landed on the song that, during the course of the 800GP, has supplanted "American Girl" as my favorite Tom Petty tune: "Walls (Circus)." For some reason, I was completely and utterly in the mood for it, to the point that I turned my volume way up, and played the song twice in a row.
I don't exactly know why that song "spoke to me" so much Thursday night, but it definitely did. I'm tempted to shoehorn it into my narrative with some more lyric-referencing sportzwriting -- Mike Proctor's got a heart so big! Weber State crushed this town! Damian Lillard's defenders can't hold out forever! Even #BALLZ fall down! -- but I think I will resist, and simply end with a Tom Petty video. What could be better?
WEBER STATE 88, at NORTHERN COLORADO 71 02/23/2012
WEBER STATE 23-4 (14-1) -- A. Hatchett 6-11 5-7 17; K. Bullinger 3-8 2-2 10; D. Lillard 6-15 13-14 30; G. Wheelwright 5-7 2-2 15; D. Mahoney 2-3 2-2 6; S. Bamforth 3-7 2-4 9; K. Tresnak 6-12 2-2 14; J. Richardson 0-0 0-0 0; B. Fulton 2-5 0-0 4; M. Brown 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-57 23-26 88. NORTHERN COLORADO 9-18 (5-10) -- T. Svihovec 3-13 2-2 9; T. Unruh 4-9 2-2 11; P. Garnica 7-12 0-0 16; M. Proctor 6-10 3-10 15; T. Huskisson 1-4 0-0 2; E. Addo 3-8 1-2 8; C. Osborne 4-6 2-3 10; B. Keane 0-2 0-0 0; B. Douvier 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-64 10-19 71.
Three-point goals: WEB 11-25 (K. Bullinger 2-5; D. Lillard 5-10; B. Fulton 0-2; S. Bamforth 1-3; G. Wheelwright 3-5), NOCO 5-15 (E. Addo 1-2; T. Unruh 1-4; P. Garnica 2-5; T. Svihovec 1-4); Rebounds: WEB 29 (D. Mahoney 11), NOCO 35 (M. Proctor 11); Assists: WEB 17 (D. Lillard 8), NOCO 15 (M. Proctor 5); Total Fouls -- WEB 18, NOCO 19; Fouled Out: WEB-None; NOCO-T. Svihovec.