As any student or alum of a blue blood basketball college–Duke, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina, Kansas–knows, summer, fall, and winter really serve but one purpose: to prepare for March Madness, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. During this time of year, late March to early April, 68 of the best men’s college basketball teams in the United States punch their cards to the “Big Dance,” in the hope of their one shining moment, a chance to be national champion.
I’m an 8-year Jayhawk, having gone to college and medical school at the University of Kansas. I was a senior undergraduate when our basketball team–led by Danny Manning–claimed the national title in 1988. It was truly an unforgettable experience: the height of uncontrollable joy and complete elation, a party that lasted for three straight days and nights. Differences and conflicts between people and between groups on campus simply evaporated as hundreds of thousands from Lawrence to Kansas City poured out of their homes, dorms, and workplaces to celebrate together, to hug and high-five perfect strangers, to be in the moment. For weeks following that win over Billy Tubbs’ Oklahoma Sooners, a collective rapture unified us, making us whole in our exultation and the love for our school. That intoxicating sensation transcended mere sports: it was a pure happiness, the way you wanted things to be forever, the way you hoped your life would be like when you grew up, whatever it was your future held. That feeling is perhaps what I would imagine being jacked up on crack or heroin must be like. When you’re there, in that moment, you know that it’s unrealistic to expect such ecstasy to be sustainable, it’s so epic and so intense. But you hope against hope that life could feel this way, if not forever, then at least again. Some time again.
It is with this hope of recapturing that bliss that every year we Kansas Jayhawks look forward to our autumn ritual, Late Night in the Phog, to usher in the new men’s basketball season and all the hopes and expectations that go with it. Long after graduation we look forward to watching every game, at Allen Fieldhouse, on television, or online, and cheering on our guys. We watch the AP and USA Today polls every Monday morning for upward movement in our rankings. We closely follow our main man, head coach Bill Self, as he clears a path for each year’s kids with grace and confidence. And as Selection Sunday draws nearer and nearer, our heads fill with a heady mixture of excitement and anxiety, anticipating seeds, matchups, and karma in an annual quest for our holy grail: the national title. No matter what your station in life, no matter how happy you might be at home or at work, there is still that other happiness you crave, that sensation more powerful than any street drug. Your team is the only key that opens the door to that happiness.
It is the proclivity of the Jayhawk to combine hope with expectation, at least an expectation to be a worthy contender, and with class. But becoming national champion is hard. Very hard. And statistically unlikely. So for us, when it comes to the final result of the national tournament, there are really only two options: complete elation with a championship or utter devastation when our team falls short. Since my senior year at KU, that complete elation happened once again, in 2008, thanks to Mario Chalmers and his now-legendary game-tying 3-pointer against the Memphis Tigers:
To witness a true Jayhawk championship court-stormin’, forward to 4:00 in this clip, again taken from Allen Fieldhouse:
And so it was that Jayhawk Nation went into the 2013 national tournament with its usual high hopes, Kansas the #1 seed in the south region. When we lost in overtime to the Michigan Wolverines 48 hours ago in the Sweet Sixteen, it was full-on, crushing, world-coming-down heartbreak. Without dwelling on details here, a healthy lead dissipated gradually during the final 3 minutes of regulation play, forcing us into overtime due in part to an incredible Michigan 3-pointer with seconds left, kind of a Mario Miracle in reverse. We had been winning virtually all game long until the very end of regulation. It’s tough to take, this idea that just one more point, one less missed opportunity, one more free throw, and the outcome could have been very different. Jayhawkers around the country reeled in shock. Only now am I starting to recover from it.
I’ve spent this past weekend nursing my emotional wounds and dealing with another transient but inevitable element of my own special method of mourning: sleep maintenance insomnia. I’ve been awakening around 4:30 a.m. for the past 2 days. Yes, I’ve been following my own advice and getting out of bed to minimize the frustration. The phenomenon of early-morning awakening is a very common clinical element in situational and characterologic depression. I know me, and I’ve been through enough NCAA tournaments to know my tendencies: I’m as blue as can be for 2-3 days after a tournament loss, and then life’s demands and thoughts of next year’s season gradually take over to help me climb out of my funk. I can already feel that happening today, so I think tomorrow will be a better morning.
One thing’s for sure, a lot of Jayhawks slept poorly this past weekend. But here’s to a new morning, a new Late Night in the Phog, and a promising 2013-2014 season. Looks like Kentucky will be the team to beat next year, but we will continue to cultivate our high hopes. Go get ’em, Hawks!