It started with the Tribe down six, a minute left in the half.
“We believe. We believe,” the alumni chanted, and soon the students joined in. Half of Richmond Coliseum united behind the Tribe, trying to conjure up an NCAA tournament berth, as if through pure belief.
Belief is hard. Belief requires your heart to commit to something your head recognizes as illogical. And belief unfulfilled hurts.
One of the few niceties about being a Tribe fan over the years was the lack of belief required. You could be a Tribe fan the way you were an “actor” in high school or the way you traveled to Europe sophomore year — it is an experience fun to recount at parties, but nothing which affects your everyday.
This team required you to believe though. When the Tribe made their run two years ago, we all recognized it as an aberration, a ride which we all recognized had to end sometime. “This is what it feels like to be on ESPN” we asked and didn’t much care for the answer. We were enjoying the good time.
This year we thought we could win. We weren’t just a team on a hot streak — we earned that first round bye. We were not a fluke. We were good, we had proven we were good, and we weren’t just there for the ride.
So then, when the final buzzer sounded and we watched the ODU fans rush the court, it hurt. It hurt in a way that hasn’t hurt for a long time.
I got my start as a basketball fan attending basketball games at the University of Maryland before the Terps were any good. My first taste of the hurt came when Maryland took on North Carolina in 1993, the year the Tar Heels would eventually win the national championship.
My dad graduated from Carolina and I spent most of the car ride up teasing him, telling him Maryland was going to pull the upset. Of course they didn’t, though, and Carolina won by what seemed like 100 to a five-year-old kid.
As the final buzzer sounded, my dad began teasing me, reminding me of all those promises I made on the ride up and I began to cry. It wasn’t intentional — even at five I knew that men were not supposed to cry over losses.
But I couldn’t help it. How could a team I loved so much let me down. How could they expose me to this teasing, this pain, this hurt I would have never felt if I never was a fan.
Maybe the only good thing to come out of that day was that my dad became a Maryland fan. He didn’t want to root against me anymore, and we spent the next 14 years bonding over Maryland basketball.
I have plenty of great memories as a Maryland fan, memories of great plays, big wins and national championships. Perhaps my most memorable memory though is a general one.
My most vivid memory of my time as a Maryland fan is sitting in the bleachers with my dad after a tough loss, the two of us staring at the court, unable to break the silence. We sat there unable to put into words the hurt we felt, the hurt which came from believing in a team maybe beyond.
The hurt which comes from putting your whole heart into being a fan.
As I began to walk to the exit Monday night, I saw a kid and his father in the same numb expression of hurt which my father and I shared over the years. I’ve spent the last day thinking what I wanted to say to that kid, what I could do to ease his pain.
Here’s the best I came up with:
It sucks right now, I would tell him, but don’t become jaded. Don’t becoming cynical and don’t trick yourself into thinking we deserved it.
Don’t worry, I’ve had those thoughts too. You think, we are not as athletic as they are. We worked harder. Our guys played the game the right way. We study harder. We care more about academics. We deserved more.
The truth is we didn’t deserve to win anymore than ODU or anymore than you or I deserve anything in life. Success is earned and the Monarchs earned their way to the tournament.
To say this team deserved to win is an insult to anyone in a Tribe uniform.
William and Mary didn’t beat Maryland this year because they studied harder. Their win at Wake Forest was not some sort of karmic justice for having to work harder to compensate for their lack of athleticism.
This team didn’t run off the third most wins in school history by deserving it more. They did it by kicking other teams’ asses up and down the court all season.
ODU was better though and it hurts right now. I understand that. That numb feeling your going through right now, I totally understand it, because we wanted this team win so badly.
I could understand if you wanted to give up being a fan right now, but stick with it. Keep believing in teams in teams, even when they break your heart, because the act of believing far outweighs the alternative.
We believe because of how powerful good teams can make us feel. We believe because of the possibility of seeing something on the floor we’ve never seen before. We believe because of the promise of tomorrow.
For years William and Mary basketball was a local joke, then it became a magic carpet ride and now it breaks your heart. Such is the cost of believing.
Just know you root for a team worth believing in, a team which doesn’t win on pity or smarts, but rather because they are a damn fine group of basketball players.
It’s a better world you’ve just entered into, and a better world which awaits you in the future. So remember this feeling, remember how numb you felt after this loss.
It means you’re a fan.