Listen up, Mizzou fans. You are not the first fan base to have gone through this. It is gut-wrenching. It is different from losing in the Sweet 16 or the Elite 8. It is different from losing in the first round as a 6, 8, or 11 seed. It is different, even, from losing in the first round as a 3 or 4 seed, both of which you have experienced before.
But the difference is what makes it alright. Makes it good, in fact. Nice, in fact.
Yes, the pain is excruciating: You have poured your heart and soul and all of your emotions into a team that you treated as part of the family. It gave you endless hours of fall and winter entertainment. It made you proud to have all that airtime on ESPN, to reside in the Top 5 of the rankings most of the season, to hear your school’s name mentioned every time the topic involved the best teams in college basketball.
What’s more, it made you dream: What if this is the year we finally make it to the epicenter of college basketball, the Final Four? What if it’s us reveling in the Vieux Carre? What if it’s us getting all that coverage in the Kansas City Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch? What if the NY Times writes about us? What if Marcus Denmon is on the cover of Sports Illustrated? What if there is a feature story on our team in USA Today? What if we’re the pick of the Wall Street Journal to derail Kentucky—if THEY even get far enough to play us?
Believe me: There is no sporting event more fun to attend than the Final Four, mingling with the fans of the only other three schools in the world sharing the same city, residing in the same stratosphere? What if we are among the only four fan bases commingling trash talk with genuine respect for their rivals? Their peers?
It is non-stop partying if that’s what you want—and who doesn’t, at least to a certain age?
You have to go if you have a chance. Every time you have the chance. Because you don’t know if the opportunity will ever come again. Not even if your school has been there in the double digits, like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, and, yes Kansas.
It never gets old. It is always special. And the first time is the most special. (With the possible exception of the first time sharing it with your child.)
And it was all right there. You believed it. KU fans believed it. The radio, TV, newspaper, and internet pundits believed it.
The President of the United States believed it.
How many brackets of college basketball experts pegged Mizzou as a Final Four survivor? How many brackets in the seemingly limitless number of bracket contests sponsored by newspapers, internet sports sites, and car dealerships, among others, had Mizzou in the Superdome?
How many even picked them as the eventual National Champion?
It was all right there.
You could taste it. Most of your fellow fans could taste it. You almost expected it. History be damned. This is 2012, not some other year between 1939-2011, when Mizzou was O for 73.
Almost expected it.
Any REAListic fan understands that even the prohibitive favorite, as Kentucky is this year, rarely has better than a 50-50 chance of making it to the Final Four. Rarely does even the clearly best team have better than a one in four chance of winning it all. Usually, the best team’s odds (by my calculations) are around 15%.
There are two many good teams. Too many good players. Too many bad matchups. Too many teams and players capable of getting hot or lucky or both for forty minutes. Or the last 5-10 minutes of the game if they just find a way to hang around to that point.
But there was one certainty. Those who purchased tickets to Omaha would get to experience the emotions of the tournament, and all of its hopes and dreams, for at least eighty minutes. For an entire weekend.
Yes, Florida might spoil things. That’s Florida as in the back to back national championship Gators of 2006 and ‘07. Have to be wary of them. But you like your chances.
Or, as Mike DeArmond, long time Mizzou beat writer and alum reportedly tweeted, “The winner of the Florida/Virginia game plays Mizzou Sunday.”
Yes, there was one certainty. Mizzou would be playing Sunday in Omaha, 40 minutes from Phoenix, 120 minutes from New Orleans.
But regardless of what happened Sunday, there was all that basking in glory to enjoy all weekend.
Then, without warning, it’s gone.
Did I mention without warning?
And you’re thinking—well, actually, you’re not thinking.
You are feeling. What you are feeling, if put into words, is, “This isn’t right. This isn’t REAL. My team is still alive. There is time left in the game. Time to catch up. Time to win. Time to prepare for the next game.”
And you’re feeling that there is a next game. This game might be over, but it’s the best two out of three, right? The best four of seven? We’d beat that team nine times out of ten. Ninety-nine out of a hundred. Their one win can’t be today.
It’s not right. It’s not fair.
But eventually, it sinks in.
This tournament will never be played again. This team will never play together again.
And it is sad. If you are a REAL fan, if you are emotionally invested in your team, it is a very REAL loss. Maybe not a death in the family level loss. But a loss of something valuable and an important part of who you are.
It is a loss severe enough to invoke the grieving process.
It is a process that will, of course, be successfully navigated; though the time required will be different for each person, depending on his or her individual attachment to the team and innate ability to cope with what, to some, is a traumatic experience.
And yet, that is why the experience is positive.
Why was this loss so devastating?
Because your team was relevant. It was not a 6th place team in the Big 12, not a 7 or 9 seed in the Big Dance, whose purpose was to serve as a stepping stone to someone else’s success. Yes, that was the ultimate result, but that’s not the point.
The point is, your team was relevant. It was not a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. It was not an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress or start a scene or two.
It was, instead, talked about. A lot. It received attention. A lot of attention. It had a sycophantic following among certain portions of the media. And there is nothing wrong with that.
And all that attention is intoxicating. And not in a “driving while” kind of way. In a good way.
Yes, there are drawbacks, aside from the inner pain. There are those who have begrudged your success, who are envious of it, who have been lying in wait all season to bring you down, to mock you, to call your team “chokers,” no matter how valiantly they played, no matter how much effort they gave.
Don’t allow them to bring you down. You are in control of this.
This is a badge of honor. It is a compliment to your success. No one tries to bring down a failure. They don’t have to.
What you want to do is be in this situation as often as possible. Every year if possible.
Even if, time after time, you suffer the pain of a sudden, inconceivable loss.
It is better than the alternative: which is called Not Being Relevant.
Enough times in the spotlight, and the chances of reaching the Promised Land, of fulfilling those hopes and dreams, get better and better.
At the very least, being relevant is worth risking the pain. The fans of all of the consistently relevant teams feel that pain more often than not.
But they will all tell you it is worth it. It beats the hell out of being a non-entity.
So congratulations on being the first 2 seed to lose to a 15 seed in 11 years and the fifth in tournament history. Congratulations for being in a position to hurt.
Enjoy it while you can. Hope that you will be at risk of having to go through the grieving process again.