Sunday, March 9, 2008

Battle for Hutch

My heart went into my throat as Whittenburg barely controlled, searched for the basket and the clock at the same time and hurled up his final 30 footer. The amazing irony was that Charles, on the opposite side of the basket, saw the ball falling short, and Olajuwon, in textbook rebounding position facing the basket, did not. Akeem never even jumped. Lorenzo did, grabbed the ball with both hands and smashed it home. North Carolina State had won the national championship!

And there I was searching for someone to hug. I had told Lo in the huddle to make believe anything near the rim was a hubcap, but this was ridiculous. People were running every which way, everybody was hugging everybody, I knew the TV cameras were on me, and yet I couldn't find one person to hug! Where was I running? I was running around looking for Dereck because I had dreamed of this moment all my life and I knew I was only the 28th coach in history to win the NCAA title and that sixty million people were watching and I had been hugging Whitt after all our games because he was my designated hugger and I thought I'd be making history myself here.

Every weekend of my life I had tuned in "wide World of Sports" and heard about the Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat and watched that skier come down the mountain -- boom, schuss, boom, splat -- while somewhere in France, some poor woman is going, "Look Pierre, here comes ton pere!" I felt as if all they had ever had to show on "Wide World" was the agony of Defeat, and now I, Jim Valvano, would be the Thrill of Victory. I imagined that the cameras would be zeroing in on me running slo-mo and the crowd would be roaring aaahhhh and I would be running and Whitt would be running and "Chariots of Fire" would be playing in the background and it was going to be History! Me! Whitt! Together! Hug! Chariots of Fire! And I would be on TV forever.

Then I got out in the middle of nowhere, and there's Whitt... hugging somebody else!

So I ran left, looking for somebody else to hug. Everybody was hugging somebody else. I ran right, looking. Everybody was hugging. There was nobody left to hug! I had just won it all: history, 28th coach, sixty million watching -- and I had nobody to hug! Where was I running? I finally found my athletic director, Willis Casey, my boss, a bit old and out of shape but a very nice man. He gave me my break. He grabbed me. He hugged me Wonderful! Great! Finally, a hug!...

I had just won the national championship, 28th all-time to do it . . . sixty million have watched me running around like a maniac. . .

Jim Valvano's description of his thoughts and the precious moments after North Carolina State captured the national championship in They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead.

While Jim Valvano lived his dream, there are hundreds if not thousands of coaches and athletes who have fallen short. The nature of March Madness is that every game has a loser and there is only one national champion.

I have known the assistant coach of the Southern Idaho Golden Eagles, Steve Gosar, for 32 of his 38 years on this planet. We grew up together. At one point, as junior high students, although he will deny it, I could beat him in a game of one on one. We went to high school and even college together. We spent much of our twenties in bars in Laramie, Wyoming where he worked as an assistant director of the Cowboy Joe Club. When offered the director position he turned it down to become a graduate assistant basketball coach at the University of Wyoming. It was a decision only those people who are crazy enough to chase a dream would make. He is still chasing this dream. He now has a wife and a son. He has a family to provide for, but he is still chasing his dream.

Southern Idaho enters their region 18 title game against Salt Lake Community College with a record of 29-1 they are ranked as the third best junior college basketball team in America. Salt Lake enters the game with a record of 27-3 they are ranked as the fourth best junior college basketball team in America. The two teams have met three times this year with CSI winning two and SLCC winning one.

Prior to the game the public address announcer proclaims, "The winner of this championship game has a legitimate chance at the junior college national championship!" The NJCAA playoffs take place in Hutchinson, Kansas. These two Scenic West rivals are battling for the chance to ride in a bus across three states to play in Hutch. It is all part of the dream!

Salt Lake has two of the best junior college guards in the country. Prior to the game I sit with Steve and he believes that they cannot let Scenic West Conference player of the year Durrell Jackson control the game from his point guard position.

CSI's gym is packed for the region 18 championship and I sit up high. Jackson and SLCC guard Brian Green, from Fruit Heights, Utah control the first half they take a seven point halftime lead. In the second half, CSI makes a run and actually takes a one point lead with slightly over ten minutes to play. The final ten minutes of play are as agonizing as any ten minutes of basketball I have ever watched. Green hits three three pointers, a couple of key free throws, and a couple of tough running layups and with only a little over two minutes remaining the Bruins have built a 10 point lead. It almost seems hopeless, but CSI makes one final run, a late charge call goes their way and with six seconds left they trail by only a point and have the ball.

After the game, Steve tells me that their hope was to get the ball to point guard Reggie Guyton and have Guyton drive to the basket either hit a runner, draw a foul or have one of their "Bigs" follow up a miss just before the buzzer. Nick Hansen, the only player that receives significant minutes on the CSI roster from Idaho, a player that Steve says "lives and breathes" the program is set to inbounds the ball at midcourt. The Pocatello native throws the ball too hard and it goes out of bounds on the opposite sideline.

Apparently it is possible to go 29-2 and have a losing season, because the atmosphere in the fieldhouse is dead. The expectations of the Twin Falls community, the team and the coaches have not been met, it feels like a lost season. After the game the head coach of the Eagles Barrett Peery musters up enough gumption to accept the runner up trophy. While the Bruins celebrate, the Eagles sit on their bench with hands wrapped around their downtrodden heads, some use towels to cover up their tears, some have disappeared, some stare blankly at the floor. It is the agony of defeat that Valvano speaks of above.

The assistant coach of the Eagles, Steve Gosar, has turned down higher paying opportunities with multiple organizations to chase his love of coaching, but at this moment I am certain he regrets it all. It can't seem worth it. CSI's entire season and his career in coaching had come down to this game, this moment. It isn't often that a team knows they have a chance to win it all. The hope for any junior college program is that they can get to Hutch. In Hutch dreams come true. Junior college players and coaches land opportunities at the division I level. Present USC assistant coach Gib Arnold is a former CSI head coach. These are the type of opportunities that can happen only at Hutch. There will be no trip to Hutch this year for Steve or the College of Southern Idaho.

Winning shapes the soul of bad movies and novels and lives. It is the subject of thousands of insufferably bad books and is often a sworn enemy of art.

Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, cold hearted but clear-eyed in it's understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass. Pat Conroy author My Losing Season.

I know Steve, I feel for Steve - more than I ever felt good for Jim Valvano.

No comments:

Post a Comment