There’s no feeling in this world that compares to being sad about sports.
It’s equal parts trivial, crushing, mind-numbing, and futile. There’s nothing you can do to simply snap out of being sad about sports. No magic cure or answer after watching one of your favorite teams suffer a monumental defeat. As that melancholy takes a deeper hold of your soul, a part of your brain is screaming, “It’s just sports! Everything is OK!” but for whatever reason, that only digs the hole even further.
I have a friend who I turn to when I get sad about sports. We don’t root for the same teams, or even prefer the same sports most of the time, which are key qualities for a sports therapist to have. We don’t hash out that feeling, because we both know that would be stupid to even try. We don’t lament missed calls, should haves, could haves, or would haves. That just revs the sadness engine up to a new gear. We have a simple touchstone, like a code, that simply lets the other know “I am sad about sports right now.” We reach out, by text message usually, with a picture or a video, of one of our favorite TV shows. It’s generally a comedy, typically 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, or The Office. Something of that ilk. The sad person usually includes some extra note, like “This is a tough one,” and the other person knows exactly what that means. Sitting with all of the thoughts about what could have been would be a mess. Turning off the brain and hoping for a laugh is just easier.
Last night, when Gonzaga lost the national championship game, I didn’t send anything to my friend. I didn’t fire up Netflix to escape to Pawnee, Scranton, or the set of “TGS.” I finished up some work that needed to be done, as the local news droned on in the background. I scrolled my social media feeds and then went to bed.
I’ve been rooting for Gonzaga’s basketball team since I was 8 or 9 years old. It started as simply an adoration for their first couple Cinderella stories. Then each March I’d jump back in for more of the Zags. Each year, my fascination grew. Gonzaga played a carefree, but fundamental style of basketball. They had a cool nickname and jerseys. They always found a way to steal a win or play an exciting game. More importantly, Mark Few continually built rosters full of likable players. It became so much easier to root for a team because I liked the players on those teams than just rooting because of location or some other arbitrary reason. I genuinely loved watching Blake Stepp, Ronny Turiaf, Cory Viollette, Derek Raivio, Matt Bouldin, Jeremy Pargo, Gary Bell, Dan Dickau, Kevin Pangos, and Adam Morrison.
I’ve been sad about sports after Gonzaga losses. 2002 was supposed to be the year the Zags jumped from Cinderella to a team really capable of making waves, but they caught a taste of their own medicine, upset in the first round. That happened again, with the Zags a 2-seed in 2004, cut down the first weekend by Nevada. In 2006, I cried right alongside Adam Morrison, after screaming for JP Batista to make one more pass to seal the game. The 2013 loss to Wichita State was brutal, sitting in a college dorm room, surrounded by people naysaying my team.
But this week, I never reached those lows. This Gonzaga team was too special for that. These Zags heard about all of those losses, listened to people talk down about their program’s accomplishments, and they went out to prove them wrong. Even after everything this program has accomplished, Gonzaga basketball still has its doubters and critics, always seen as a step below the power conference kings. Last night, Gonzaga stepped onto the court with one of those big school bullies, and played them toe-to-toe for 40 minutes. If that doesn’t prove the program’s worth or show what a small school from Spokane is capable of, I don’t know what would.
Gonzaga absolutely had chances to win the game. Nigel Williams-Goss missed two shots down the stretch, shots I’d expect him to take and make all season. He’d just sprained an ankle the play before, but battled to stay in the game and give his team a shot to win. That’s all you can ask from an All-American. Do I wish he found another scoring chances in the closing minute, away from the outstretched arm of Kennedy Meeks? Of course, but that’s basketball.
Przemek Karnowski has been a rock for Gonzaga for five years. His contributions to the program are endless. Last night, he struggled to score, shooting just 1 for 8 from the field. The casual observer would look to blame Karnowski for missing seven times around the basket, without pausing to consider the effect of battling with Meeks and Tony Bradley for an entire game. With Zach Collins tattooed to the bench with foul trouble (we’ll stay away from that whole situation), the Polish big man played 29 minutes on Monday, his third highest total of the year. Karnowski fought for nine rebounds against the top rebounding team in America, with the Zags just the third team to outrebound Carolina this season. The physical toll of clearing the boards, protecting the paint, and receiving double-teams all night proved too much for Karnowski, but credit Roy Williams and his frontcourt for a job well done.
Just as we can single out the mistakes Gonzaga made against Carolina, you can find successes from last night too. Justin Jackson struggled all night long, missing all nine threes he attempted. The Heels collectively shot under 15 percent from outside the arc, with Joel Berry the only Carolina player to make a three, and only 36 percent from the field. Gonzaga’s defense answered the call, and had the Bulldogs within a bounce or two of winning the national championship.
For schools as small as Gonzaga, with a basketball history younger than almost everyone watching (the Zags first made the NCAA Tournament in 1995), reaching the championship game and nearly coming out victorious is a point of pride. That is an achievement to be proud of, not a reason to be sad about sports.
It didn’t take long for my feelings about this Gonzaga game to turn positive because what they did this season was special. This team raised the bar for what future Zag teams and other mid-majors are capable of accomplishing. Mark Few will be back, as will many of the same faces, to chase that bar and continue to dream of raising it high enough to cut down the nets at season’s end.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org