As many of you know, I grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, home of Purdue University. My father was a professor there for roughly 40 years. Most of my boyhood friends’ parents were affiliated in some fashion with the university. Some were professors like my father, others were administrators, still others coaches or assistant coaches of various NCAA Division I sports programs. It is a pretty small place, and was even smaller when I was growing up, so it was quite common to rub shoulders with some of the Purdue athletes during my formative years. We’d see them in the bookstores, at the Union (where I went often as a boy to play pinball), or at the “Co-Rec” (a gym complex exclusively for Purdue students, faculty, and staff which, in those splendidly simple days, was easy for my high school buddies and I to sneak into). I even had a few as student teachers. Later, I attended Purdue (a terrific education for nearly free? Yes, please), and my fervor for the old Gold and Black was cemented. I admired the men and women who put in so many hours coaching, training, teaching, and playing. They were selfless. They were committed. They possessed a work ethic that was difficult to fathom and even harder to emulate. They were dedicated (at least in every instance in which I was a direct witness) to the ideal that academics came first. They were also very, very good people.
Thus, I was, am, and will always be a fan(atic). I exult in victories; I suffer in defeats. My wife’s assessment notwithstanding, I think it’s fair to say that my sense of perspective in such matters has improved significantly over the years. For example, in 1977 I was a sophomore in high school and was living with my parents and younger sister in Norway for the year. Purdue made it to the NCAA basketball tournament (only 32 teams were in the contest in those days) and was matched with the University of North Carolina and their legendary coach, Dean Smith, in the first round. Purdue’s head coach at that time, Fred Schaus, was a neighbor and friend. His son and I were best friends at the time, so my rooting interest was intensified, if that’s possible. I listened to the game by myself on Armed Forces Radio from our living room. As the back-and-forth contest reached its climax, it was about 3 a.m. local time. Purdue was down a point and had the ball. With about 10 seconds left, in a position to score and win, the Boilermakers’ usually reliable point guard dribbled the ball of his foot, leading to a turnover and easy lay-up by the opposition. Game over. I threw the transistor radio against the wall, busting it and waking up my family and the young couple who lived in duplex upstairs. A few years later, I was in Florida visiting my paternal grandparents when Purdue played Duke to reach the Final Four. We watched the game together (which Purdue won, incidentally; it was the last time Purdue made the Final Four and was the last Duke team coached by someone other than some dude who goes by “Coach K”), and my grandfather nearly kicked me out of the house for cheering so intensely.
Fast-forward to this weekend. After defeating the University of Tennessee on Thursday night in highly improbable (i.e., lucky) fashion, Purdue was once again on the cusp of a trip to the Final Four. We played the top-seeded, immaculately coached University of Virginia in a game that, to my mind, ought to go down as one for the ages. Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, a pit bull of a 6-foot shooting guard, was ridiculous, raining down 3-pointers from all over the court, ultimately scoring 42 points. UVA had much better scoring balance, but with 5.9 seconds left it looked like Purdue was going to win and FINALLY make it back to the Final Four. We were up 3 points, and purposely fouled a Virginia player so that he would have to take two free throws instead of a possible game-tying 3-point shot. Under these circumstances, a perfectly sound strategy. At that moment, Purdue had about a 99 percent chance of winning. Oh, but that 1 percent. That dreaded, cursed 1 percent.
The UVA player made the first free throw, missed the second (on purpose? Accidentally?), and the rest is almost too painful for me to recount. Another UVA player tapped the missed free throw behind him to the backcourt. Another UVA player tracked it down, took a couple of dribbles, threw a laser pass to the first UVA player. He caught the ball and shot it in one motion, a millisecond before the buzzer sounded, swishing said shot and sending the game to overtime. UVA prevailed in the final five minutes. It was scintillating. It was excellent. It was heart-stopping. And, for Purdue fans like me, it was heart-breaking. Another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory!
But for all the crushing disappointment, this was sports at its best. Two teams competing hard and well. Victory the result of excellent execution and, yes, a little luck, rather than a bad call or poor play or poor strategy by the opposition. Terrific sportsmanship and proper perspective. My wife will even vouch that I didn’t throw anything or even raise my voice in anger at the basketball gods. No, I’ve come a long way, thank goodness.
Last year, UVA became the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed in this tournament – an ignominious distinction, certainly. After that deflating defeat, its coach, Tony Bennett, channeled his inner Teddy Roosevelt during the post-game press conference, saying “… if you play this game … stuff can happen. Those who haven’t been in the arena, maybe don’t understand that … all those who compete take that on.” Exactly.
So to all those who coach and support and compete, I say: Thank you for stepping in the arena and giving your all, for inspiring and delighting and teaching. I salute you all.