Sunday, March 29, 2015

Inside the Notre Dame Men's Basketball Locker Room: After the Loss

Obviously, I wasn't inside the locker room after Notre Dame's heartbreaking 68-66 loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight of the 2015 NCAA Men's basketball tourney. I haven't watched a single video recap or read any reports, but, I can tell you what was said and what happened. Maybe you can too.
With 6 seconds to go, and ND down by 2 points, Grant takes the shot....
Coach Mike Brey told his players he loved them.
People have said to me far too often the past two weeks that "Notre Dame isn't a basketball school." Well, seems to me that we have a basketball program and a very strong one at that (our women's team have played in the Final Four four times in the last five years). And the type of program that ND has is one that develops players over three-plus years time. We are not a one-and-done operation.

I believe Brey said this because when you work with student athletes, for what is a considerable amount of time in their young lives, you come to know the absolute best and worst of them....and they in you! You bring them into adulthood, and that is never without its share of squabbles, mistakes and disappointments. That's hard stuff. Today, a lot of those basketball players transfer to another school...another place where they don't have to work it out or work through it. 

But I think of Jerian Grant who lost last season and came back even better this year.

A coach has the unique and special task to lead, guide and inspire. They're supposed to, and when they do, a coach becomes a witness to growth and hopefully transformation. 

In the postgame interview, Brey said "we emptied the tank tonight, and that's all I asked them to do before the game." When your athletes do the one thing you ask and work together in the way the Irish did last night, you can't help but fall in love with your team. 

I think it has to do with working toward a common goal. It's a byproduct of demanding thirteen guys to lose the sense of self for the good of the other. When they do, love—what may be the most powerful force on earth—is what you are left with. How could he not tell them he loved them...??
Demetrius Jackson will be back next year...
There were a ton of tears.
I know this for a fact because I have read about it countless times in personal essays and heard it in small groups on retreat from my students. I've followed up with them on this personal sharing. While a few think it's silly, most of these student athletes admit to how hard they cried. I'm glad, because I also know that the locker room is one of the few places young men in particular are free to openly weep. I was struck by what one of my students wrote. He said,
Throughout many experiences in life, I have denied myself from showing my truest emotions. Recently I attended the funeral of my former lacrosse coach. During many moments throughout the service I felt my eyes begin to "well up." However, I refused to cry as I was surrounded by the rest of my team. At that moment, I felt completely unable to show my true emotions. Even though I knew I was not the only person emotionally distraught by the service, I still did not have the courage to cry openly at the funeral.
In championship play, an athlete leaves the competition physically and emotionally spent. Considering how close this team came to taking down the number one seed, how could they not cry?

The players, in particular captains Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton gave speeches..and each one included a common word: gratitude.
Notre Dame's Athletic Director confirmed what any fan already knows: this team was successful and special because of its senior leaders. He said, 
Leadership. Student athlete leadership. For all our sports it's the delta from year to year. You could have virtually the same guys back. You go to the NCAA tournament one year, the next year you don't. All you really lost were the student athlete leaders. It’s so important in college athletics and when you get it right it's magical. And we had it as right as you can get it this year with Jerian and Pat. That's when you see it. I can name other great leaders while we were here but it's the difference maker.
It's easy for me to say that they thanked their coaches, families and each other, but the point of this posting is to offer what I must. As a Notre Dame alumna, it's impossible for me not to say "thank you." I'm sure that's true for other Notre Dame alumni, Irish basketball fans and those who bet on you in the tourney. Thanks for the joy and excitement. Thanks for sharing your gifts and talents. 

The scoreboard may have said you lost, but this season and its memories confirm something much more. As Eric Liddell said: To win is to honor Him...and her—Our Lady, Notre Dame.

Photo Credits
Final Shot
Demetrius Jackson

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