I felt uneasy Saturday watching shaky Gannon struggle with nothing-to-lose Slippery Rock early, and I got sick to my stomach as they fell behind in the second half. The second-best defensive team in the country gave up 36 points in a 15-minute span and, even shakier on offense, missed several shots at point-blank range. The game seemed out of sync from the opening possessions, except for when The Rock would get nothing but net on a three-pointer late in the shot clock. I texted my brother 10 minutes into the game saying, “This is the only kind of game Slippery Rock can win.”
I always feel depressed after Gannon basketball season ends. For months I’ve been engaged in 30+ GU games plus I keep a close eye on the rest of the PSAC and Atlantic Region. Then, just when you think the Knights have “the team” to extend the season into late March, it’s over. I hadn’t felt like this since 2009 when the 30-3 Knights ran into Central Missouri’s buzzsaw and lost a 12-point lead in the NCAA Elite 8. I can’t believe I’ll never watch Adam Blazek strip another unsuspecting big man. I’ll never see Girbran Smith nail another clutch jumper. Raphell Thomas-Edwards, who played not just with an injured wrist but a broken one most of the season, will never delight the Audi crowd with a one-hander in the lane. And we’ll never see A’Darius Porter or Rich Austin let out a primal scream to celebrate an old-fashioned three-point play.
So why in the name of Jerry Slocum am I smiling right now?
A couple things snapped me back to reality and made me recall maybe the most important aspect of college athletics. After avoiding basketball for a few hours after the Gannon/Rock game – I can’t take watching other teams play when Gannon is already done – I saw the score of the MAC championship between the University of Buffalo and Central Michigan was a close one, so I turned on ESPN2. I noted a player for UB looked a little like Chris Bosh … and then had that feeling of déjà vu. It wasn’t my imagination – I had actually seen 6-foot-8 Xavier Ford before.
|Joe Mattis photos courtesy Gannon University|
Ford attended Gannon’s Senior Day Feb. 25 to support Thomas-Edwards, his former UB teammate. As you probably know, RTE hails from England, so he wouldn’t have any family in attendance for the Senior Day festivities. Ford lifted Thomas-Edwards’ spirits by not just watching the game, but walking Thomas-Edwards to mid-court then breaking into hilarious poses for the senior’s photos. Instead of attempting to describe Ford’s moves, I’ve included the photos here. After trying to figure out exactly what moves Ford was busting, look at the expression on Thomas-Edwards’ face. Tremendous!
Watching Ford in the MAC title game (he led the Bobby Hurley-coached Bulls to the NCAAs with a game-high 18 points) and recalling his exploits at the Hammermill, my attitude changed. Yes, the Blazek Era is over which is too bad for us Gannon fans. But nobody – not Slippery Rock, not the referees, not the lid on the rim – can take away the camaraderie and friendships this team developed over the past two years. The end of the season is the beginning of real life for these guys, which is eons more important than who wins the Atlantic Region.
I never cried more after a sporting event than 25 years ago when my sophomore season ended with Gannon losing a heartbreaker to Morehouse (Ga.) in the Division II Elite 8 in Springfield, Mass. We never played again as a unit, but a quarter century later, I’m still part of that team. I regularly exchange emails with Chris Hollan (mostly about Gannon hoops – big surprise). We’re also connected on Facebook with Andy Adams. My LinkedIn connections include David Callahan and Gregg Blair. And for two of the last three soccer seasons, I’ve coached Jim Toohey’s son Declan.
You might think I’m applying my 45-year-old perspective to this situation and that the players won’t appreciate the special bond they developed until years from now. But Thomas-Edwards confirmed my thinking (and tugged at my emotions) with his early Saturday evening tweet. “People cry at the end but forget to smile at the JOURNEY,” he wrote. “Didn’t end how I hoped but I wouldn’t want the journey to happen any other way.” #GUMBB