I’m nursing a broken heart. But it wasn’t a man who broke it; it was thirteen men, all basketball players at Villanova University.
I thought the 2014–15 NCAA basketball season would end with the Villanova Wildcats winning a national championship. I sort of believed it back in November, and I really, truly believed it as recently as 50 hours ago. I fell in love with the image of those thirteen men and their coach, Jay Wright, hoisting a trophy over their heads. It had to happen.
But it didn’t happen. Two nights ago, their season instantly ended when they lost a game they should have won. Long after the game clock wound down to 00:00, I sat there in a state of silent delirium, wondering, What happened? Where did things go wrong? If I’d worn a different Villanova hat, would they have won? I was heartsick, like I’d just gotten dumped. By basketball.
Hoops isn’t the only sport that’s left me heartbroken. Who could forget the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, odds-on favorites to win the World Series. They wound up shitting the bed in the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals. During the fateful, final game, I pounded beer after beer, willing them to win or at least score a run, dammit — but all I got for it was two hangovers: one from beer, one from baseball.
My first sports heartbreak came in 1996. The Orioles were my AL team because I was a big Cal Ripken fan as a kid — unlike Jeffrey Maier, a Yankees fan five months my junior. During the ’96 ALCS, Derek Jeter hit a ball that Orioles left fielder Tony Torasco was poised to catch — and then Maier, sitting in the right field bleachers, reached into fair territory and grabbed the ball. “WHAT?!” I yelled, and then I yelled it again when it was ruled a home run. It changed the momentum of the game, and the Yankees went on to win the game, then the series, then the World Series. I couldn’t believe that asshole kid. I couldn’t believe that the season wasn’t going to end with the Orioles hoisting a trophy over their heads.
But I didn’t yell “That’s not fair!” because I already knew that life for a sports lover isn’t fair. I learned that lesson in May of that same year, when my big brother’s college lacrosse team lost the national championship in sudden-death overtime. At the start of the overtime period, one of my brother’s teammates got tripped — a blatant foul — and then the other team scooped up the ball and scored. End of game, end of season, end of the dream. “WHAT?!” we all screamed when no call came. The other team streamed onto the field. The other team hoisted a trophy — our trophy! — over their heads. The other team’s fans rejoiced, while I was a 12-year-old inconsolable mess. Tears streaming down my face, I vowed to my parents that I would pelt the referee closest to the play with the empty Tic Tac container in my pocket. “Calm down,” they said, also crying. I did calm down, but when we got home, I went straight to our computer and penned a strongly worded letter to the NCAA attn: That Jerk Referee. I don’t have a copy of that letter anymore, but I guarantee the words “It’s not fair” appeared in it. Looking back, I guess I should thank that referee — he prepared me for the heartbreaks to come.
In my 31 years, I’ve endured far more losses than I’ve enjoyed wins. Aside from that one time the Phillies won the World Series, all of my teams have ended their seasons on a losing note. I’ve yelled “That’s bullshit!” or “F#&*ing Eagles” probably 10x more than I’ve whooped in celebration. Still, I tune in — and every season, I root for my teams like they hadn’t broken my heart the season before. Like all true fans, I love like I’ve never been hurt.
It doesn’t matter what the sport is; I’ll watch it. I love the mechanics of a sport, from the step-back jumper in basketball to the draw control in women’s lacrosse to that broom-brushing thing in curling. I love the highlight-reel plays that show just what athletic excellence looks like. But what makes me love a team — makes me sit stone-faced, whimpering, when a season ends — is the players on it. Over the course of a season, I come to know and love them.
And that’s why March Madness, way more than any other championship tournament, hurts my heart. Those kids are playing like it’s their last game, and for the seniors, it is. They hang up their sneakers or cleats, and then they graduate out of our lives. After the last Phillies at-bat, you can say “There’s always next year,” but for 1/4 of a college sports team — far more for basketball powerhouses like Kentucky and Duke, whose players often enter the NBA draft after just a season or two — “There’s always next year” is just not true.
It isn’t true for Blake Dietrick, the Princeton basketball player whose career ended tonight at the hands of mighty Maryland. Like so many non-powerhouse teams, Princeton was led by a senior reaching peak abilities after four years of hard work. Princeton was undefeated until tonight’s loss, and it’s highly unlikely that they can replicate that success next year without Dietrick.
It wasn’t true for the seniors on my brother’s team. They got to the national championship the next year — and lost — but the previous year’s seniors were in the stands, not on the field. When the team again made it to the national championship the next year, they finally hoisted that trophy over their heads, but my brother had already graduated.
I think this is what makes March Madness both so maddening and so engrossing. There are 32 games played in the first two days, and during each 40-minute game, we come to know, and love, its players. Our hearts soar when a kid like R.J. Hunter hits a game-winning 3 and his father-coach is so happy he falls off his chair. For a couple days, Cinderella reigns supreme. Then our hearts sink when, after the team loses the next game, the father-coach openly cries and calls the tournament “the best time of my life as a father.” Hunter is a junior, so they still have another season together, but with college sports’ ever-shifting personnel, you just can’t predict if the magic will happen again.
I hope that the magic will happen for the Villanova Wildcats again next March. I love those guys and can’t wait to spend time with them again: the huge-hearted Josh Hart, the cool-under-pressure Philly kid Ryan Arcidiacono, the sharp-shooting Kris Jenkins. But I already miss this year’s seniors: Jayvaughn Pinkston, whose lunchpail efforts and big blocks saved the Wildcats more than once, and Darrun Hilliard, who seemed to want to win on Saturday more than anyone. He didn’t win, and my heart breaks for him that he couldn’t finish his college career by hoisting a trophy over his head.
Maybe not for Pinkston and Hilliard, but for me, there is always next year. I’ll be watching. But right now, I’m still mourning the loss of this season. I wince every time I hear the word “basketball,” which I know I’ll hear plenty over the next two weeks until some other team lifts a trophy over their heads.
But I’ll take the heartbreak. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.