About a half-hour after Florida fell to Louisville, 72-68, in the West Regional final of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, succumbing in the Elite Eight for the second straight year, I walked out into the rain.
It was icky — that's a technical term — in Gainesville for much of Saturday, with the sky spitting on the ground on and off in the afternoon, then really opening up in the evening. Steel-colored clouds blotted out the sun as I walked to get the mail, and the rain intensified, but it was fine with me: Feeling the rain is a way to remind myself that there are things I will probably always be able to feel, and has been since I was a kid.
I needed to feel something after the way that game ended.
Kenny Boynton dropped to one knee as he came down on his potentially game-tying three with four seconds left, as if that was going to make it go down. It didn't, and Louisville grabbed that rebound to essentially end Florida's chances of advancing to the Final Four; technically, Wayne Blackshear's free throw to extend the lead to four didn't even shatter the Gators' hopes, given Boynton's proclivity for four-point plays, but Rick Pitino called off his Cardinals as Erving Walker took the ball up the court for the final play of the game, and Walker missed his desperation three at the horn.
Peyton Siva, disqualified after five fouls, ran on the court in Phoenix, popping his jersey. Once again, Florida came within a shot or two of the Final Four.
I'm a huge fan of The Mid-Majority, Kyle Whelliston's astounding, exhaustive chronicle of the have-nots of college basketball, and few writers who have ever written about sports capture the passion and emotion players, coaches, and fans pour into the mold of every season. In 2009, in an interview with Morehead State head coach Donnie Tyndall, Whelliston got to hear a pearl of wisdom passed down from Isiah Thomas:
On the site, I've spent time this season pondering the inherent tragedy of what we do. We put ourselves in this game, and it demands that we give it our entire souls. On the flipside of that, the game doesn't love us back. It will chew us up and spit us out, and forget us altogether when we're too old or unable to do what we do. Others will come and take our places. It's crazy for us to do this. Why do we do this, Coach?
Two summers ago, I went to this conference where I heard Isiah Thomas and Chuck Daly talk. I grew up in Michigan, so Isiah was one of my heroes. He said something that I wrote down, something I keep in my organizer and in my heart. He said, "The game will hurt you." So simple, so direct, but you know how Isiah talks. It was so eloquent. "I've done this, done that, played on Olympic teams, been MVP of the All-Star Game. But you know what... no matter who you are, the game will hurt you."
You're exactly right. I love basketball, and I've loved it since the fourth grade. It's been who I am, what I am, and it's what I'm about. But at the end of the day, especially during nights like tonight, you have to question yourself a little bit. I'm going to go home tonight after we talk, my daughters won't be there, and I'll be carrying around this loss to Kent State. You have to say, 'Man, is all this worth it?"
Boynton missed a game-tying three at the end of Florida's loss to Butler last year, too. He had a better look this year, and he didn't follow a Walker bid for a game-winner in regulation, and he wasn't coming off the sort of season that marked him as a high-volume shooter without the accuracy to justify it, but, twice in two years, Kenny Boynton has taken the last meaningful shot in a Florida loss in the Elite Eight.
Florida's two season-ending losses were not carbon copies of each other. The Gators made 3-of-14 from deep in 2011, and 8-of-20 in 2012. Butler (Butler!) outrebounded Florida then; the Gators handled Louisville on the boards. Florida had 17 assists and 13 turnovers today, but just 10 assists and seven turnovers against the Bulldogs. Bradley Beal had 14 points, six rebounds, and four assists for the Gators against the Cardinals, showing up in a big way, while Chandler Parsons' had a forgettable five-point, 2-for-9 performance against Butler. Florida made 18 of 22 free throws last year, and just 12 of 18 today. And the Gators seemed to dominate this game, leading by eight points at halftime and by double digits at five different junctures in the second half, and shot 50 percent from the field and better than 40 percent from the three-point arc; their 11-point lead against Butler lasted 24 seconds, and was the only double-digit advantage of that contest.
But: Parsons, Walker, and Boynton combined to make eight of 28 shots against Butler; Beal, Boynton, and Walker combined to make 13 of 33 shots against Louisville. Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus combined for 17-of-26 shooting and 39 points against the Bulldogs; Patric Young and Erik Murphy combined for 9-of-11 shooting and 25 points against the Cardinals. Florida led by 11 points with 9:25 remaining in the second half against Butler after a Tyus dunk, then gave up a 20-9 run to end the game; Florida led by 11 points with 8:14 remaining in the second half against Louisville after a Young dunk, then gave up an 18-3 run to end the game. The Gators made zero threes in the second half against Butler; the Gators made zero threes in the second half against Louisville.
Also, Florida lost both games.
Whelliston came up with another phrase that stuck with me at The Mid-Majority: "It ends in a loss."
There are 345 Division I men's college basketball teams. There are three postseason tournaments that allow teams to hold up trophies at year's end, and only one that every Division I men's college basketball player dreams of winning at the end of the year. For all but one program, one team, one coaching staff, one fan base, the college basketball season will be less than fully satisfying.
Whelliston wrote that for fans of mid-major schools, the ones largely without coffers lined with the lucre from rich contracts with broadcasters who want to show college football, without apparel deals that keep players in shoes with swooshes and jerseys with stripes and shorts with an interlocking U and A, without donors to make up the difference and pay for the hot coach, without everything. Florida is not one of those schools, and it never will be.
Billy Donovan's Gators are only have-nots in the imagined war between modernity and tradition, forever battling the same accusations of being nouveau riche gate-crashers that they did when Steve Spurrier's Gators claimed the SEC's mountaintop and a spot in the college football firmament. Donovan gets celestially talented players to come play in a sunny, tree-dotted paradise and take many, many shots, and some of those players — like Beal, the most talented Gators player ever — will go on to make millions upon millions of dollars playing basketball professionally. Florida has had two seasons end in wins — consecutive seasons, two of the best years any program will ever have.
And yet the Gators have seasons end in losses, too.
Reading the postgame quotes from this loss will be like visiting a cemetery moments after a funeral. GatorZone's Chris Harry leads with a distraught Murphy:
Like every other player in the Florida locker room, junior forward Erik Murphy spoke in hushed tones. Were it his choice, Murphy probably wouldn’t have spoken at all.
"A lot of players don’t get this chance in their entire lives," Murphy said, barely audible. "We got it two years in a row ... and the same thing happened."
When the end comes this brutally and suddenly — as it has for two teams that traveled very different roads to the same precipice of the mountain's peak, only to lose their grip and tumble in virtually the same way — it is hard to fathom, much less accept.
Gene Frenette notes Donovan's pain for his team.
Donovan was philosophical immediately afterwards in a courtside interview on CBS, saying: "When you put your heart and soul into something and don't get the result you want, it hurts. That's in life, too."
When an end is this total, it extends well beyond the court.
Rachel George takes a snapshot of teary-eyed Walker:
Erving Walker slumped in his locker and looked down. The Florida senior who had fearlessly taken his 5-foot-8 frame into the paint so many times couldn't face this last question.
What did Billy Donovan mean to him? His coach, another New York point guard who had been equal parts tough and loving during his Walker's time at Florida. Any other day, he'd joke about Donovan's difficult practices.
But after a 72-68 loss to Louisville in the West Regional final at the US Airways Center on Saturday, Walker couldn't think about the times Donovan had run him, yelled at him, demanded more.
As he wiped tears from his eyes, he thought about how his coach had changed him.
"He means a lot. A great male figure in my life. He helped me in so many ways as an athlete," said Walker, clutching a yellow towel, his voice catching, "and just as a person."
When the end is as painful and enduring as it will be for Erving Walker — who will likely never play with a basketball team as good as these Gators for the rest of his life, and certainly never for as devout a believer in his ability to wring the biggest miracles out of his Lilliputian frame as Donovan, and who missed the last five shots and the last two free throws of his Florida career, any of which could have swung the balance of the game — it seems almost cruel beyond words.
Sports is a business, an industry located in the overlap in the Venn diagram with the capitalism that is one of the great American institutions and the bread-and-circus entertainment that distracts us from the grind of our picayune existences. I like sports.
Sport is nobler: It's where antiquated exaltation of the beauty of the human form and the desire to prove better than the next person meet, and it's as simple as running stride for stride with a buddy on a field. I love sport.
Sports survives on the promise of that next year, every year; if that promise didn't exist, and hope didn't spring eternal, the Chicago Cubs wouldn't exist, and no one would buy new versions of Madden, and Rice would never play Texas, and ESPN couldn't sell you analysis of Tim Tebow making the Jets a championship contender. That same promise is ingrained in sport, too, but I think there's more acknowledgment of the flip side in the more abstract realm: The losers learn things, and the winners learn things, and the point of it all is more than the points, and the money, and the prestige could combine to be, because, hell, at its core, sport is about trying, and working, and maybe bettering oneself or one's peers or one's group.
The overlap of sports and sport is "Wait 'til next year, when we try harder." Who wouldn't love that?
Donovan knows his teams as well as any coach knows any team, and he almost always has dead-eyed assessments of them. Only Gators' Adam Silverstein has another one of those from Donovan on the 2011-12 Gators:
"[I will remember this team as] a team that was really young and immature in a lot of ways and, in front of my eyes, I got to watch them grow up and mature competitively," he said proudly. "To see where Patric Young was at the start of the year in January to where he finished. To see where Brad was in November and December to see where he finished – same thing with Erik Murphy. Our guys grew up, and I think that was one of my biggest difficulties with them during the course of the season.
"There was an immature competitiveness about them. I don’t mean that negatively; they just didn’t understand what it took. Because of them being great kids, it was great to see them mature and grow that way because you don’t get to this point in time unless you have some substance. And I think our guys have some substance and some toughness and some qualities. They poured their heart and soul into trying to win the game."
Walker, Donovan's lone senior and quiet leader, and probably the most Donovan-like player on the squad — the undersized or step-slow point guards with shooters' eyes always are, for reasons that should be obvious — looked to the future in his own assessment.
"This program is still on the [rise]. They got a lot of great players, and I think Coach Donovan will continue to do a great job. I think they’ll get to the Final Four next year."
Rain dries, even if it seems really wet right after the storm. Pain subsides, even if it seems like the ache will never dull. Tears dry, even if they sting. And, in one of the most beautiful things about sports and sport, even if the last thing about this year is the most about there will always be a next year.
I'm immensely proud of these Gators: They played the toughest non-conference schedule Florida has played under Donovan and took their lumps, gave us all a tremendously satisfying overtime victory over Arizona, conquered mental woes of all flavors, played some of the most aesthetically appealing basketball Gainesville has ever seen at their best, gamely hung with a Kentucky team I am still certain will win a national title, fused their swagger with humility, improved individually and as a team from game to game and week to week and month to month, and were generally the most satisfying thing about my life in Gainesville for the last four months.
I'm so, so happy I got to see and document the resilience of Erving Walker's last year, and the brilliance of Bradley Beal's first (only?) year, and Patric Young's emergence, and Kenny Boynton's explosion, and Erik Murphy's development, and Will Yeguete's hunger, and Mike Rosario's evolution, and Casey Prather's supernova moment, and Scottie Wilbekin's defense, and Cody Larson's highlight (and lowlights), and Walter Pitchford's smile, and everything Billy Donovan, the best coach Florida will probably ever have, does.
I cried at the end, but it wasn't just because I was sad. It rained today, but at least we all felt it.
In all kinds of weather, we'll all stick together. And remember this: That orange sun has a knack for finding blue skies.