Now that we’re mid-way through the NCAA Tournament, I want to take a moment to reflect on how and why this time of year is so special. Sure, the uncertainty and hysteria behind the Big Dance has made it one of the most anticipated and closely watched sporting events of our time. Everyone loves cheering on their alma mater. Everyone loves an underdog and an upset. Everyone loves winning a couple bucks on a risky bet.
This tournament brings people together in ways that people wouldn’t have otherwise been brought together. This tournament gives us front-row seats to witnessing athletes fulfill their childhood dreams.
This tournament is the epitome of why sports are so awesome.
But we often fail to see past the Win/Loss column and peek further into why it’s so emotional for all parties involved. When that final buzzer sounds and the tournament is finished, we as fans can look back on the month of March and reminisce the Cinderella stories, the dominations, and buzzer-beaters. We can watch the One Shining Moment montage on replay. And then we can move on.
But the handful of athletes who have to come to the realization that their basketball careers are officially over – they can’t just move on.
For those that make it to the collegiate level, basketball is more than just a hobby. It’s more than an outlet. It’s more than a way to pay for school. Basketball isn’t just something you associate yourself with – it’s something you associate yourself as.
For years, every decision you make, whether big or small, has an attachment to the sport. Every single one. What you eat for breakfast, what classes you take, who your friends are, where you spend your summer, what picture to post (or not post) on Instagram, when to go to sleep, when to wake up, what length to cut your hair, who you spend your holidays with. The sport dominates your life. Whether you’re a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a friend, a boyfriend, a girlfriend – it doesn’t matter. You classify yourself as a basketball player first, and your other responsibilities (often subconsciously) become secondary.
During their last moments in a uniform, final-year players typically get emotional on the bench – and broadcasters typically give these moments some TV time. These are, without a doubt, the most heart-wrenching seconds of the entire NCAA Tournament. These athletes aren’t sad because they lost. After all, only 1 team out of 351 ends their season with a satisfied W. These players are distraught because in just an instant, what they’ve known to be their world for the majority of their existence is crashing down on them. In just an instant, this all-encompassing chapter of their lives is shut forever.
Quite literally, these athletes are grieving. You can visibly see the perplexity on their faces as they’re becoming more aware of the massive void that will soon have to be filled.
They say that, in relationships, you don’t always remember what someone did to you, but you always remember how they made you feel. The same holds true with basketball – these players won’t remember all the shots they made or the turnovers they committed. They probably won’t even remember the heavily studied game plan of the game they’re currently playing in.
They’ll remember how the game made them feel, and that feeling is such a hard thing to replace.
This is why the NCAA Tournament is so special. We get to witness both the jubilant elation and the raw agony that accompany being so invested in something. These athletes are inspirations, not because of their athletic ability or their on-court accomplishments, but because of their life-long commitment to something that will never give them anything tangible back.