By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
In all sporting contests there are winners and losers. Each year 68 teams start the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and only one team leaves as a champion. Game after game each year you watch the losing team leave the playing floor amid tears, hanging heads and towel draped faces and you can feel the emotions of the players. It is not just the loss of a game, its the end of an era, it’s the loss of a dream. An era of brothers playing together in a sport they love. A dream of achieving a goal every player works toward. National Champions!
It is no different for this University of Kentucky Wildcat team. Each player lives and breathes basketball while they are playing for UK. They put in early morning workouts, late night individual shooting practices, extra time in the film room and so many other activities that we don’t see or know about. They develop relationships with the other players that last a lifetime.
That is what makes the losing so difficult. It’s not just the loss of a game or even the loss of an opportunity to win a championship. Each player knows the loss leads to the end of an era. The seniors will move on to potential professional basketball in the U.S. or abroad. Others will begin life in the business world.
The underclassmen that are projected as first round picks in the NBA will move into the world of ” pay for play” and all that comes from a basketball life that is a business. No more will they see each other as teammates, friends, brothers but will see each other as competitors working to win an NBA title.
We as fans will also feel the loss. Not the loss of a game or even the loss of a championship. It is the loss of a good friend, an infectious smile, a group of guys that feel like family. Each year as the players practice and sweat and put in the work it takes to become a champion we, the fans, live vicariously through their experiences. We are in the huddle, on the bench or shooting that jump shot to win the game.
The loss is real and it is painful but each year we look forward to next year and the group of players that we welcome in with open arms. They become our new family and once again we can live and die with every bounce of the ball, every shot that circles around the rim and falls in. Each win is ecstasy while the losses are brutal – like the pulling of wisdom teeth without Novocain. We watch the former players grow and develop as adults and we still cheer them on. Not quite as fervently as the current group but we still love them the same.
They are family and they stop by to visit us from time to time. With each passing year the family grows, the fans accept new family members and cherish the old ones with memories about ” that shot” and ” this dunk” and ” that win”.
That is what makes our most recent loss to North Carolina hurt so much. No longer will we see Derek Willis hit a big 3 from the corner or De’aaron Fox beat his man off the dribble and lay the ball up softly on the glass for 2.
Malik Monk won’t be shooting rainbow 3’s with defensive players up in his face. Bam won’t be grabbing rebounds and slamming them back into the basket with authority. No more smiles from Dominique, as he is slapping hands and shooting floaters in the lane. No more 3 balls from Mychal Mulder from the wing.
Unfortunately in all games there are winners and losers but for that brief period of time when the team is playing and the fans are cheering we are all winners – no matter the final score. Winning is about more than who scored the most points. It’s about sharing lives that are intertwined by the game of basketball. It’s about family – real or imagined – and It’s about the end of an era for the players and the fans.
After the last game of season when the arena is empty, the last echoes of the cheers have ended and the basketballs have been put away for a few months we still know that we were allowed to participate in something special. Something that is larger than winning and losing. That something is family – the family that is Kentucky Basketball.