Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Ecstasy and the Agony: Reflections on the Women's NCAA National Championship

6:00 a.m.
Monday morning 
Hour of Power class 
95% male, 5% female (on a good day). Sometimes 1% ;-(
Lot of sport, a little spirituality. I am greeted by my workout buddies to cheers, no jeers. Efforts toward consolation, amidst my desolation. "We're sorry about Notre Dame!" and "Great game for the Irish." I let their words comfort me. I needed them to.
I don't know that I have cried over a loss before. I know athletes do. I get it. And this fan shed a good solid few as the Notre Dame women's basketball team exited the court after a tough loss to Baylor 82-80 in the NCAA National Championship game. When the TV camera caught Arike Ogunbowale walking with her mom, face hidden in her jersey, crying—I lost it. Her tears sparked my own—tears for what could have been and what will be no more. Four of the starting five players are seniors and the one junior is pursuing the dream they each sharing of playing in the WNBA. I realized very quickly this era of Notre Dame women's hoops would be no more. That realization led to several others. Here are but a few worth reflecting upon...

The Ecstasy and the Agony
Because Easter Sunday is so late, our Spring break will take place during Holy Week. I told my students I will miss not being with them during the holiest of days for Christians. I hope they will avail themselves to services around the Triduum. I remind them that Good Friday is a day of fasting and abstinence; I tell them this is always a spiritually challenging day for me. However, come Easter Sunday, everything changes. We enter into the Joy of the Resurrection for 50 days! ....and you get an Easter basket! We shared stories of past Easter baskets, our favorite candy until I tell them that last year, I received the best Easter basket ever. It's known as the Miracle Easter Basket....and it was.....twice!

What Arike accomplished in the semi-final and championship games to help Notre Dame win in the final seconds of both games changed the trajectory of her life. Her favorite basketball player—the inspiration behind wearing #24—sent her a tweet before the game and after. A week later they were united on the Ellen DeGeneres show where he gave her two signed jerseys: one for her and one for her dog, Kobe. She appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption "Ice Twice" and was a guest on "Dancing with the Stars." Safe to say that she became a heroine, a social media sensation, not to mention a national champion overnight. Did I mention that she earned the Most Outstanding Player Award in the 2018 NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament, captured a single-season record for highest scoring average in school history during her junior season and contributed to some of the most successful seasons Notre Dame women’s basketball has ever seen?! If that's not ecstasy, what is?

One year later, we thought she might do it again. With 3.9 seconds left in the game, fans had to wonder if Arike could and would do it again. The inbound play was met with great defense by Baylor. Arike drove to the hoop and drew the foul down low. With a free-throw percentage of 81% and ice in her veins—she really could act like she had been there before—she missed the first foul shot. It rolled around the rim and hopped out. Our only hope was left in getting a rebound upon missing the free throw. From the sidelines, it was easy to see Coach McGraw say "miss it." Arike put up the ball only to have it sink in, and "swoosh." With but 0.4 seconds left and Baylor inbounding the ball, the fate was sealed. Baylor won the national championship. Agony. The Irish exited stage left.
Arike Ogunbowale did not lose the game for the Irish. Arike Ogunbowale did not win the game one year prior for the Irish. It's easy for me to say this, but we must remember that a game is won and lost by the collective effort of the team. Society will lead us to think otherwise, but it's too much responsibility, burden, agony, ecstasy, joy and celebration for one person to bear. 

From 3.21 to 0
Being a fan isn't without a cost, both literally and figuratively. Yes, I have paid exorbitant amounts of money on tickets, road trips, and sports ware. I have spent an obscene amount of time traveling for games, standing in lines and (fortunately) attending live sports events! I wouldn't have it any other way. The cost I mention—in light of the national championship game—is stress to my central nervous heart...and some living room furniture.

The Irish came back from a 17-point deficit. With 3 minutes and 21 seconds they took the lead for the first time. They made a few mistakes and Baylor got the ball. Coach McGraw called a time out. I looked at the clock and thought to myself, we can't get to the trophy without going through this 3 full minutes. The pressure was so intense. The anxiety was super high....and I'm not even an athlete on the floor. I took a breath and realized in a few minutes time, there final score would stand. One team would win, the other would lose. I held hope in my heart, put on my seatbelt and said "let's do this." A sick part of me loved the adrenaline rush. That wouldn't exist if it weren't a battle....a great contest...and a match between equals. What a great game. Thank you, ladies.

Kim Mulkey
I have never seen a camera fixate on a single coach in the way it did during the women's national championship game. One could say that with the bright colors, big hair and bold eyelashes, Kim Mulkey is asking for it, but to me, this was egregious. This was 
a match up between two equally great coaches. Both entered into the arena with two championship titles to their names. Both are strong women at the helm. Both are willing to show their own flare (Irish green made for interesting nail color Coach!). It's too bad the camera didn't feature the all female coaching staff at Notre Dame, more than it did.

I did love the way the Baylor coaches took their time congratulating and talking to the ND women's team when the game was over. They were gracious in defeat and warm in their praise for living up to the billing of the Fightin' Irish. That being said, I never saw how the ND coaches interacted with the players form Baylor because the camera, once again, focused on one coach....

Looking ahead.
It's hard to believe but just three days later, this team made history once again. The Irish become the first program in which all five starters were selected within the top 20 picks. They also join the 2008 Tennessee squad as the only two instances in draft history in which all five starters were selected in a three-round draft. Junior guard, Jackie Young became the second Irish player in program history selected No. 1 overall, joining Jewell Loyd. I am certain their coaches, families, friends and fans couldn't be more proud.

Where do we go from here?
I asked my students what do you do after a brutal loss. "Where do you go from here?" I queried. A thoughtful student said, "you let yourself feel the pain. To get through the pain, you must feel the pain."
Loss takes many shapes and forms. It might be in a national championship title, letting go of a dream, or realizing things won't be the same...but I firmly believe the deeper the pain, the greater the love. That's the only place to go from there....standing in appreciation, in awe, gratitude and thanksgiving for that ride....both last year and this year. No either/or. Both/And. Thank you women of Notre Dame.

Photo Credits
5 Starters
Kim Mulkey

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