...They Say All Good Things Must Come To An End
You could see it on the streets of San Antonio all day long. You could hear it in the whispers of those we passed on sidewalks. The chest thumping and clothes-rending of fully grown men. The lamentations of the women. The bawling children. The unconsolable homeless. This is it. The Road Ends Here. The Going Mad Hoops Odyssey Roadtrip is all but over.
Jesse Jackson passes the word to John Thompson:
It's true. One more game and the Road Trip Guys are packing it in.
Tomorrow, I deplane in Boston and return to my life as a preternaturally gifted and overwhelmingly compensated child surgeon specializing in innocent victims, bad burns, and falls from high places. For Jake, it's New York, New York. Back to stripping. There could have been no better way to wrap up what's truly been a mad little trip than with this week we've had in San Antonio. With the city nearly drowning in college hoops hoopla - the fans, the coaches, the players - the roadtrip did it's best to immerse ourselves most fully. It probably didn't help that we've been rocking the rags and stink of our three month slog, but not even abysmally poor personal presentation could keep us from batting a thousand on parties attended, nights that lasted to morning, and not a single untimely Toss Out for unseemly behavior. Nope. This week, the boys colored inside the lines and still plain got it done. It's hard to believe that a job could be as much fun as this one's been.
So it is that San Antonio has come to be a bittersweet stop of sorts. It is, after all, the last stop. A time to let the good times roll. But an unavoidable opportunity for reflection too. In fact, it was somewhere in the vague middle of this afternoon's exhausting umbrella-drinks-poolside session that it finally struck me, simple and true: I loved this gig.
It's a hot job when I get paid to photograph Rod Strickland rebounding for Derrick Rose.
Anytime you lace them up for a season, take it wire to wire, and are left at the end of it, exhausted and looking back, it's hard not to feel a little emotional. It wasn't always good at the time (for reference, please see: state of Illinois) but it was one of those special experiences that's somehow all good in the rear view mirror. Now to have seen this last week in full and in the flesh, I figure that's probably a feeling these two teams are going to have as well, a feeling of fondness looking back. One of them will have it as soon as the final buzzer sounds. But even for who ever loses this one (and I've got Memphis winning...with my track record, surely the death knell for the Tigers), it won't be too long before even a loss in the Finals all starts to look pretty good in retrospect.
Funny how these things work out. Rolling through countless towns, logging over 10,000 US Highway miles, and seeing more than seventy five games in sixty some odd different arenas...and two of my fondest memories involve the only two teams with a game left to play.
We were in Tennessee not too long ago when the then 'Game of the Century' was set to go down, the in-state showdown between the number one Tigers and the number two Vols of Tennessee. Up until San Antonio, the scene on Memphis' famed Beale Street (birthplace of the blues) rivaled anything I'd seen. The two fan bases, out in roughly equal numbers, showcased the best of what sports can be about. Good natured ribbing from both camps, wild get-ups, body paint, face paint, props, and as much passion as any horde of people can possibly muster for a sporting event.
Some of the old bad habits haunted Memphis tonight: Joey Dorsey
meditates on fouling out of his last game in the Memphis uni.
After the game, we wandered into Memphis' locker room. There, players draped towels over their faces, held heads in hands, and generally felt the pain of losing not just a game but also their chance at a perfect season. A short month later, we caught up with Memphis in the same setting: post game locker room. This time, they'd just won their way to the Final Four. To a man, they credited the Tennessee loss as a character builder, a kind of 'we couldn't have made it to these heights if we hadn't experienced those kind of lows' thing. To a man, they talked about their shared backgrounds as young men from tough neighborhoods, kids who feel like they've gotten a rough ride in the media, but keep on doing their best to prove themselves both on the court and off it. And to a man, they talked about coming together as friends and as a team. For the tournament, Memphis players have been most frequently spotted wearing simple blue t-shirts: March Is A Brotherhood. Far more of a surprise than the fact that they're even still playing is the fact that in some pretty unexpected ways, this Memphis team has come to embody, for this month, all the best in college sports.
In Lawrence, Kansas we took in the Jayhawks on their senior night. The packed Phogg Allen Fieldhouse was perhaps the most dynamic venue we'd visited (Indiana's Assembly Hall the only other house that compares). Students filled the red and blue bleachers an hour before game time. When the lights dropped and big screen played an homage to this year's graduating players, the explosion of applause was deafening. Waiting their turns as the last two seniors to walk to center court with their families, starting seniors Darnell Jackson and Russell Robinson tugged nervously at their jerseys, then hugged each other, and stepped closer to the baseline. As much as he tried to fight it, Robinson, a kid from New York City out there four years in the flattest Kansas, was tearing up. When they finally announced him, the entire arena burst into a chorus of screams right along with the announcer to yell out Robinson's home town: New York, New York! Then to see him walk out to the court, teary-eyed and waving to thousands of cheering fans...I thought I would cry. That was the night Kansas ran off a fifty point drubbing of Texas Tech.
And here we are. Two teams left.
Chalmers for three....It's good!
The arena's an even split of Kansas and Memphis fans. For the first thirty eight minutes of game time though, it's the Memphis faithful that are rocking the boat. Only when little Sherron Collins, with two minutes left, began to drag his team back into this, one gut-wrenching drive after another, did the Jayhawk frenzy take over. When Mario Chalmers nailed the three that sent it into overtime, the place was in a full Kansas fury. Looking across at the Memphis bench, as the buzzer on regulation sounds, Joey Dorsey, long fouled out, is clutching his head in his hands. Assistant coaches Strickland and Kellogg, who just minutes earlier were finding it hard to hide their excitement, looked as though all air had left their chests entirely. A six point run in the extra frame and the rest seemed like a formality.
A good day for the Jayhawk and friends.
The celebration's still going on. On the river walk. In the Kansas team hotel. All across the city, the cries go up: Rock Chalk Jayhawk. KU! For the road trip boys it's mixed feelings. To end this thing with an overtime thriller in the national final between two highly deserving and truly interesting squads...you can't do much better than that. But it's also over. How am I going to sleep at night without the reassuring sound of Dude sawing logs in the next bed over? How will I know when and where to eat without the neon signs of another spate of casual fine dining establishment calling out to me from the highway? How will I spend my evenings, now that college basketball is closing down?
Kind of sums it up.
Your 2007-2008 National Champions. The Kansas Jayhawks.
As it is for Memphis, so it goes for me then: there's always next year.