Smiles. Genuine, irrepressible, uncurbed smiles.
Embraces. Coaches and players with their arms around each other, exuding sheer joy.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen those things from Collins and Northwestern basketball players. It’s been a really, really long time. Too long, even.
It’s not as if the past month and a half was completely bereft of joy and happiness. In fact, there was probably plenty of that away from the basketball court. But it had been a while since Northwestern’s players—Northwestern’s 18- to 22-year-old kids and young men—could let everything go and rejoice. That was especially true for those like Bryant McIntosh who take losing so personally and so hard. That pain always lingered.
Sunday, they finally could rejoice. Collins could finally attack McIntosh and Tre Demps with bear-sized hugs. He could finally stand facing the crowd, his left arm around Alex Olah and Olah’s big right arm around him, with a child-like grin.
In the grand scheme of things, Sunday’s win didn’t really mean much. This Northwestern team isn’t going anywhere, so realistically, just as it didn’t matter whether or not McIntosh’s final shot against Michigan went in, it didn’t really matter whether or not the Wildcats found a way to beat Iowa. And while yes, they played pretty well, they probably weren’t as good as they were at Maryland or Michigan State.
But Sunday did matter. This time, it was all that stuff—Northwestern’s record, its Big Ten standing, "the grand scheme of things"—that was irrelevant. Sunday mattered because it was fun. Fun was the most important thing, and perhaps the only important thing.
"Today was great," Collins said after the dust had settled. "Look, it’s fun to win. Losing stinks; winning is fun. That’s why you compete. Losing feels like the end of the world, and winning feels great. That’s what sports is about."
And more than any other sport, that’s what college basketball is about.
This past Thursday, I spoke to Dave Sobolewski. I could hear the pain in his voice. He was really disappointed with the team’s effort against Michigan State. And with less than a month left in his basketball career, he almost seemed resigned to a rather anti-climactic end. It didn't really seem like Sobolewski was having a bunch of fun.
As we were talking though, Jeremiah Kreisberg approached ‘Sobo’ from behind. Seemingly with the sole intent of embarrassing his fellow senior, Kreisberg interjected with the following:
"Dave wants to thank Jeremiah for all of his contributions so far. Without him, the season wouldn’t have gone the way it was supposed to go. Sobo says Jeremiah is his spiritual leader."
"Oh my God," Sobolewski said, laughing, as Kreisberg smiled mischievously and walked away.
The conversation then returned to serious basketball talk. But that interaction was representative of what Sobolewski later put into words.
"This is my last chance to ever be on a basketball team again," he said. "I’ve been telling a lot of people, the best part about playing college basketball is being on a team… Working for a company, you’re still working toward the same goal with your co-workers, but it’s nothing like being on a team, grinding every day. I’m just trying to take that approach and make sure I enjoy every single day of the process, enjoy my teammates every day, and give it my all because I know in about a month or so, I’m never going to be able to suit up the same way."
That’s why Sunday was so important. For a month and a half, Sobolewski and Northwestern hadn’t been able to enjoy much. Sure, they’re still a tight knit group and would share laughs with each other. That's important too. But it’s an entirely different feeling when you win.
Northwestern needed Sunday. The Wildcats needed to experience that feeling once again, if nothing else, just for the sake of relief. When Sobo returned to the bench after hitting two clutch free throws down the stretch, he couldn’t help but crack a smile—and smile differently than the subtle one he usually shows, and different than the one brought forth by Kreisberg's jokes.
Northwestern needed that smile. And it, along with those of Sobo's teammates and his coaches, were why the win over Iowa mattered.
"We’ve had our struggles," Collins said. "We’ve had our heartbreak. To go in that locker room and to see guys jumping around and crushing me with water, it was… [lost for words]… they deserve it. I’m really happy for them."