Sports fandom makes absolutely no sense.
Over and over and over again, we get our hearts stabbed, broken, and ripped out by our favorite teams. We endure years of hardship and broken promises just for the hope of even a little bit of success.
In college sports it’s even worse. Basically every season ends in disappointment. You have to change your expectations to fit a realistic scenario. So suddenly, something like winning a bowl game becomes a measure of success, or perhaps just making the NCAA tournament becomes the ultimate goal.
Even sometimes realistic expectations aren’t met. And year in and year out, you find yourself disappointed, going from one brutal loss to another, having to scrounge for high points in between. An upset here, a winning streak there. Suddenly your expectations are so low that you become numb to it all and just ride the wave, taking the body blows as they come.
You begin to expect failure as a way of life.
And that’s why when Zak Irvin released a three-pointer with seven seconds to go in the game, I just waited for it to go in.
But then it didn’t.
Then suddenly Northwestern had the ball with 1.7 seconds left. It needed a miracle to even get a decent shot attempt, and I began steeling myself for an eventual overtime collapse.
I had been at last year’s Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan. There was no way in hell Northwestern, a team seemingly cursed to a life of ineptitude and disappointment, was going to even get a shot off, let alone somehow win the game in regulation. They’ll turn the ball over, they’ll be the ones who somehow lose on a buzzer beater, they’ll collapse in OT. There were plenty of different options, but a game winner was never even seriously considered.
Finally, Northwestern got the ball on the inbounds and Nate Taphorn just heaved it down the court. The mind goes blank at this moment. The surrounding noise dissipates. The only thing that matters is the arc of the ball currently hurdling 94 feet through the air. It’s beautiful.
Dererk Pardon catches the ball.
Dererk. Pardon. Catches. The ball.
Suddenly over 8,000 people let out an audible gasp. Pardon gathers himself, and throws the ball off the backboard. The shot goes in. The buzzer goes off.
The crowd erupts with easily the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard at Welsh-Ryan, then the students stream onto the court. Madness. There’s no real way to coherently think about what just happened other than what we were all told over the loudspeaker.
Northwestern had actually won the game.
I covered this game, which means I wasn’t in the student section, so no court rush and no immediate gratification. The emotions are a bit muddled. We had to finish the rapid reaction, go the press conference, all that stuff. You can’t let yourself be overcome with emotion.
It honestly took me a couple hours to even really comprehend what had happened.
I was walking home, passing through The Arch, and it was like the puzzle pieces finally fit. I couldn’t stop smiling. I let out a semi-audible scream. All the emotion came rushing in at once.
I had just watched Northwestern clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament. No other person before tonight had ever said those words.
When I came to Northwestern three years ago, I knew the history. I knew the drought, but I also knew people were excited about the team and a pair of new recruits, Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law. I remember I said, “I just hope they can make the tournament while I’m still in school,” and my dad responded with, “Do you know how many people have said that?”
That’s what this is all about. Thousands upon thousands of people have come and gone through this university over the past 70 years, many of whom might even be reading this right now, and none of them have ever seen Northwestern play in the NCAA Tournament.
This has been a dream season, but over the past few weeks, we’ve all come crashing down to Earth. It was happening again. Northwestern was going to break our heart again and in the most agonizing fashion ever this time. The game against Indiana was the poster child for the Northwestern fan experience, and it was just going to happen again and again until the end of time.
Then a senior recruited by Bill Carmody throws a perfect 90-foot pass to a sophomore big man from Cleveland, and 1.7 seconds later... I still don’t even really know. History, pandemonium, a miracle, choose a word. It’ll probably fit.
Of course, there was no other way this could happen. Northwestern had to be on the edge of a historic collapse, playing in front of a sellout crowd in the penultimate game at Welsh-Ryan, and get a miracle buzzer beater to get the win it needed to punch its first ever ticket to the Big Dance.
It wasn’t going to be easy, we all knew that. But still, it happened. It actually happened.
Being a student at Northwestern while this is happening is unbelievably cool, but I’ve only lived through three real seasons as a fan of the team. Last night wasn’t about me. It was about the people who have been with the program for 20, 30, 40 years. Who suffered crushing defeats, on-win conference seasons and every little bit of hope being blown away before it could even really dig in.
This is about all the people who were in Welsh-Ryan Arena almost exactly five years ago today. Looking up at the scoreboard, seeing Northwestern 73, Ohio State 75.
Why care about sports at all? After suffering brutal loss after brutal loss after brutal loss, what’s even the point? If something brings you nothing but disappointment, shouldn’t you just cut it out of your life? It’s hard to rationalize it at times in your own head, let alone to other people.
But then you experience something like Wednesday night.
And suddenly it is all worth it.