INDIANAPOLIS — Sitting in front of his temporary locker at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a purple towel draped around his neck, Tre Demps' words were barely audible. Tears had come and gone, but his emotions were still inhibiting. His face was weary, the edges of his nose red.
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Forty-five minutes earlier, Demps' knees had caved into a crouch. His head sank towards the floor. For a brief moment, maybe three or four seconds, time, for Demps, stood still.
Around him, everything was in motion. Players bounded in either direction, some understandably more enthusiastic than others. Cameramen rushed every which way. Michigan's band sped through "The Victors." Some fans sang along, fists punching the air. Others brought their hands to their heads and surveyed the scene.
Demps stayed in a crouch. He patted the floor with one hand, not in anger, not in disappointment, not in regret, but rather to sear this moment — one of his last on a Big Ten basketball floor — into memory. Because this moment represented every moment. In a matter of three or four seconds, Demps' mind hurtled back through an entire five-year career.
"Just all the hard work, all the times I've had here, everything kind of piles up on you at once," he said sitting at that locker, his eyes lifeless, unable to lift themselves up off the floor. "It's just hard to hold myself together, because we wanted it so bad, and we just came up a little bit short."
Two seats away, Alex Olah's shoulders slumped. His nose was just as rosy. Olah had had a similar moment, where everything had come rushing back. And then had come the startling realization that Thursday's 72-70 overtime loss to Michigan in all likelihood was his last college game.
Both Olah and Demps spoke of disappointment. Olah, like Demps and others, dreamed of the NCAA Tournament. He and Demps worked towards that goal incessantly for four and five years respectively. Head coach Chris Collins did everything he could to help them get there. He brought in graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren to beef up this year's roster. When reinforcements were needed, he burned Dererk Pardon's redshirt, sacrificing a piece of the future to give Olah and Demps their shot. But the elusive tournament berth never materialized. The loss to Michigan was the final straw. "It'll probably be something I struggle with my whole of life," Demps said of the cruel ending. "But it is what it is. You learn, and you mature."
When you think about it, Olah and Demps are why you and I love college basketball. They're polar opposites. One was born into the NBA. The other was born into a low-middle class family in western Romania. One grew up with a basketball in his hands. The other didn't play the sport of his calling until eighth grade. One grew to be a giant. The other just barely didn't grow enough. One is free-spirited, and at times goofy. The other is quiet, humble, straight-faced and even-keeled.
But for four years, no matter the coach, no matter the names on the backs of their teammates' jerseys, no matter the venue, no matter who was watching, they both did the same thing. They worked. They learned. They failed. They fought. They learned some more. They loved. They sacrificed. They laughed. They celebrated. They cried. They grew.
Perhaps it's how they did so, especially how they failed, that accentuates the beauty of their careers. At the end of the day, everybody in college basketball fails. College basketball is a game of failure. Because it is, many sports fans shun it and go in other directions. The NBA's on-court product is far superior to that of the college game.
But when players so often fail, the success is that much more fulfilling. The snippets of it that Demps and Olah had weren't notable because of the exploits themselves, but rather because of their absence earlier in the two players' careers.
About 21 months ago, I sat across from Olah in a well-kept office in Anderson Hall, the hub of Northwestern athletics. Twenty-one months prior to that, Olah had come to Evanston from a tiny high school in Indiana. Two years prior to that, he had come to the United States from Romania to live with a host family. That day in Anderson, I learned about how those first 21 months in Evanston had transformed Olah. Throughout his freshman season, the slightest mistake would incite self-doubt. "I was afraid," he told me. Now, with his sophomore year coming to a close, his self-confidence was at an all-time high. He self-identified as a "celebrity."
The part of Olah's story that doesn't often get told though is these last 21 months. Just as the Olah that arrived in Evanston for the first time was completely different than the one who sat in that office, the one the sat in that office was completely different than the one who slid backwards across midcourt in Indianapolis Thursday, his arms and legs aloft. The Olah of September 2012 would've been relieved, perhaps even surprised. The Olah of June 2014 would've broken into an unvarnished smile; he might've performed some choreographed celebration. But the more mature Olah of March 2016 clenched his fists. And then, after saving the game, he tried to go win it.
Demps had a similarly rocky start to his career. Tre, the son of former NBA player and current New Orleans Pelicans GM Dell Demps, struggled with self-imposed pressure. A shoulder injury forced him to redshirt his first year on campus. He got down on himself. To cope, he began to write poetry. He became a man of faith. He also worked tirelessly to ensure he could live up to his own expectations. As Josh Rosenblat wrote in his profile of Demps, "when Chris Collins first got the job, he spent about 20 hours a day in his office high above Northwestern's practice court. Often he would hear a ball bouncing below him late at night, or early in the morning. And it was always Demps. Alone."
It's anything but a fluke that on Thursday, it was Demps and Olah who kept Northwestern in the game and led the Wildcats' comeback. They both flung themselves head first into piles of bodies for loose balls. They did everything in their power to extend their careers at least another 24 hours. The severity of the subsequent heartbreak reflected that.
While Demps and Olah might not have the same place in Northwestern basketball history as Drew Crawford, Collins recognizes their significance. In a way, they were the final two sturdy planks on the bridge from one era to the next.
Sitting at a podium in a back room at Bankers Life, with sweat drying up all over his face and emotions still raw, Collins' mind lurched back to May 2013, when he met his new players, including Demps and Olah, for the first time. "You got a new coach, a young coach, it's a little bit of disarray," he said. "We didn't know if Drew Crawford was coming back. And I had a core group of guys, man, that — I had a core group of guys that just believed in me and my staff coming in... For what those guys have done for me the past three years, I could never repay them. They have given me everything."