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The Hardest Thing To Do in Sports...

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Baylor vs Gonzaga IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

....is close out the big victory.

The last NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball team to go undefeated and win the national championship was the Indiana Hoosiers during the 1975-76 season. That’s 46 years ago, folks.

Over that 46 year span, five teams have headed into the NCAA Tournament undefeated:

  • 1979 —- Indiana St. (Larry Bird)
  • 1991 —- UNLV (Larry Johnson)
  • 2014 —- Wichita St. (Fred VanVleet)
  • 2015 —- Kentucky (Karl Anthony-Towns, Devin Booker)
  • 2022 —- Gonzaga (Drew Timme, Jalen Suggs)

Yet, not one of these juggernauts could close the deal during March Madness.

It’s tough, man.

My 1990-91 Rivers School (Weston, MA) basketball team can relate. We reached the New England Class C Championship game with a record of 23-0, having beaten nationally ranked ISL (16 member Independent School League) rival Thayer Academy twice in somewhat miraculous fashion, and now the team was facing another staunch ISL rival in the New England Championship, a red-hot Roxbury Latin squad, whom we had previously edged out at home in 61-58 nail-biter.

The game was played at a neutral site at Worcester Academy. In the stands were a host of college coaches and recruiters. The crowd was big, loud and festive, just as it always is in your dreams.

Roxbury Latin controlled to tip-off and their point guard hit a 22 foot three pointer from the top of the key to give them a lead they would never relinquish, despite my team’s frantic efforts to prevail.

In the locker room after the game, it was a teary farewell. As an English teacher, for me with regard to the courageous and stupendously resilient plight of this team, it felt a lot like the denouement of The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway said, “As I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

This team of young dreamers had come so close.

We love sports because to extend Nick Carraway’s metaphor, we believe “in the green light”...

We love sports because our teams dare us to dream...

When Gonzaga freshman guard Jalen Suggs hit the Hail Mary three pointer on Saturday to lift Gonzaga to a stunning 93-90 win over UCLA, I couldn’t help but think of the Cardinals’ Hail Murray from Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins.

How amazingly similar in some ways to the timing and execution of Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary in the Wild Card round versus the Cardinals in 2015:

By the way, you did a superb job hosting Jeopardy last night, Mr. Rodgers!

It also reminded me very nostalgically of the Hail Mary that my previously unsung small forward, Pat Smith, of Foxborough High School hit to win the 1999 Massachusetts State Tournament Division II semi-final game over arch-rival Canton.

What the Suggs, Murray, Rodgers and Pat Smith Hail Marys have in common is that none of these miraculous plays would propel their teams to a championship. One would think that a Hail Mary would inspire a team to believe it is a team of destiny and thereby would create an unstoppable impetus. But, sometimes a successful Hail Mary is so climatic that the story is bound to dip into falling action from there. Kind of like confetti, let loose from the rafters a little too soon.

After the Hail Murray lifted the Cardinals to a 6-3 record, all the Cardinals would need was 3 more wins during the last 7 games in order for them to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in five years.

As Cardinals fans well know and lament, despite the team being favored to win in 5 of the their last 7 games, the Cardinals learned during that stretch how hard it is to close out victories, as it lost a number of nail-biters down the stretch, where often converting one key kick, or third and short, or making one big game-changing play could have made the difference.

Learning how to close out games is every team’s perpetual quest. Because, as we all know, it certainly ain’t easy.

What this year in sports has taught us, played amidst the most insidious pandemic the world has ominously faced since 1918, is the extraordinary gift for hope.

Who would have ever thought that the Tampa Bay Rays, one of MLB’s low budget teams who have been playing in near empty stadiums for year, pandemic or not, would make a gallant charge toward winning the World Series?

Who would have thought three years ago that Bruce Arians would ever coach again and that Tom Brady would ever play for any team other than for the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever seen?

Who would have ever taken college basketball head coach Scott Drew seriously back in 2003 having inherited a Baylor basketball program in complete shambles when in his introductory press conference manifested the temerity to assure Black Bear fans that he was going to lead the program to a national championship?

Heck, it only took Scott Drew and his Black Bears 19 years!

For that matter, who ever heard of Gonzaga basketball being a national contender before head coach Mark Few was appointed head coach in 1999?

When sports teams and their fans are shown time and time again how a phoenix can rise from the ashes to become more vibrant and stunningly beautiful than it ever was before —- it gives everyone the ability to dream.

Yes, the hardest thing to do in sports is delivering on the promise right to the every end.

Yet, the most courageous thing in sports is to dream that your team can.

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Perhaps the wisest way to follow a dream is to “keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the stars.” (Teddy Roosevelt)