"Walking in Memphis" is not the quintessential Memphis song, but it is as close to a quintessential Memphis tourist's anthem as there could be. It's about finding yourself, or finding something, when all is lost — about how a moment, a feeling, can get a Jew to answer "Tell me, are you a Christian?" with "Ma'am, I am tonight!"
This Florida team could make a believer of me.
I am not much of a believer, not really.
I wasn't raised in any faith, didn't go to any services. I went to one friend's bar mitzvah, and to a girlfriend's Presbyterian church for a few Sunday services, and I read up on Buddhism in high school, and I wonder if I'd like Unitarians, and I bow my head, usually, when invocations happen.
But I've never really prayed to anyone or anything in particular, and I think most of what happens on Earth happens as a result of what the people and things on Earth do.
I'm not an atheist, not quite, and I'm closer to the true definition of agnostic than anything — which I'd argue is less a position of faithlessness than an understanding of powerlessness — but I certainly lean away from God and gods and deities in general.
That is not true of this Florida team.
Billy Donovan is a devout Catholic. Will Yeguete and Patric Young are devout and open Christians; Yeguete thanks God for the day every morning on Twitter, and Young tweets about his faith often. Scottie Wilbekin is the son of a pastor. Other players have deep and abiding faiths; the team prays together.
Faith is part of who and what these Gators are, much as it is part of who and what Tim Tebow's Gators were, and who and what many other sports teams are, and I think it may make this team stronger — with secular faith in each other intertwined with faith in the divine. Belief and faith and trust are certainly cornerstones of Donovan's program, which has always been about teamwork and connectedness or connectivity; the latter two words get used when Donovan is asked to compare this team to the ones that won Florida's first two national titles.
Sports are about faith, in a sense, whether it comes from belieiving a teammate will set a screen or make a shot, or believing that a close-out will make a shooter's attempt more difficult, or belieiving that work put in at 5 a.m. on a Tuesday morning will pay off at 6:09 p.m. — when Florida meets Dayton on TBS and March Madness Live this Saturday night, with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Belieiving that a team can win is another kind of faith.
Most of the spirituality in my life comes from sports.
There is little I can believe in that a pastor or a rabbi or an imam can say; there is much I can believe in on a field or a court or on a balance beam. I think athletics, especially the way they are pursued by Florida Gators of all faiths and creeds, are as close to a unification of absolute belief and human refinement as there we have yet invented, and gathering by the thousands to witness them feels like worship to me.
I don't take this too far, thanks to my firm belief in remembering that the Gators I watch are human like you and me, but I do get caught up in moments from sports that restore my faith in humanity — and those don't have to be the easy moments that end up on BuzzFeed. Wilbekin finding Michael Frazier II for a trailer three is divine. Yeguete throwing up a prayer of a shot and having it fall is divine. This team working like dogs to deny a shot or get a rebound is divine.
Watching all of it with thousands of similarly enraptured fans can be epiphanic.
This team has rewarded me with moment after moment like that.
There was the closer-than-expected loss to Wisconsin with about five healthy scholarship players. There was the win over Florida State on a weekend when I knew the Seminoles were going to wipe the turf with Florida's football team. There was the win over Kansas in a show-and-prove game. There was the close win over Memphis, and the close win over Arkansas, and the close win at Auburn.
There were the blowouts, of Georgia and Tennessee and Texas A&M. There were the big wins, over Tennessee and Kentucky and Tennessee and Kentucky again. There were the great stands late in games to preserve a winning streak that both dates to December and has been utterly secondary to what these Gators are doing. There were the moments of pure joy, after the final horns in games that Florida fought to be able to win for 40 minutes on the court and four years off it.
There were the moments on Thursday night, when I couldn't do anything but listen to my brother read the play-by-play of the final six minutes of Florida-UCLA off his phone, when I was both anxious about the game's outcome and totally, incontrovertibly certain that Florida would win.
There is also this moment, right now, one in which I am totally, incontrovertibly certain that Florida will make the Final Four.
Dayton is a good team, one that has beaten good teams to be in this game against Florida. But Dayton played two terrible jump-shooting teams in Ohio State and Syracuse, ones it could effectively zone, and Florida is not that. Stanford could shoot better than its immediate predecessors in Dayton's magical procession, but it didn't do so against the Flyers, and also played poor defense against them.
Florida is much, much better than those teams.
And Florida sure as hell didn't come to Memphis to lose.
Tonight is the moment that could allow Florida to redeem itself after three straight flummoxing and frustrating Elite Eight failures. In 2011, in New Orleans, the Gators couldn't close out Butler; in Phoenix, a place of rebirth, the Gators did the same thing against Louisville. Last year, in Dallas, the place this team is trying to go, Florida came in with a better team than it had in years prior, and still got shelled by Michigan's perimeter artillery.
Those memories are with them, and with me, and could have been — were, maybe — cause for crises of faith. What could make a Gator believe this year or this time or this game is going to be different?
What, but faith, could do that?
I believe in this team because I have seen this team grow up and grow together. I love this team for the same reason. I trust this team because I have seen it come through when it needs to come through again and again and again. I know this team will win today for all of those reasons, and because faith sometimes provides knowledge beyond what can be deemed rational.
I really feel the way I feel.
In minutes, after a day most of their fans have spent in the pouring rain, the Florida Gators will be walking in Memphis, then running in Memphis. They will play their hearts out to avoid being as blue as can be, to earn the right to be walking with their feet ten feet off of Beale tonight.
Dayton hasn't got a prayer.