INDIANAPOLIS -- A moment can follow you forever. It can follow you from the floor of the Richmond Coliseum, to the University of Dayton Arena, to the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., to the RCA Dome here in Indy, and finally to an apartment in Hempstead, N.Y., where the real and surreal will converge Saturday at exactly 6:07 p.m.
Moments. George Mason senior guard Tony Skinn never will forget standing on that metal ladder at the Verizon Center a Sunday ago, clutching a strand of freshly cut nylon after the Patriots recorded the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history.
Moments. Hofstra junior guard Loren Stokes never will forget crumpling to the ground at the Richmond Coliseum 3½ weeks ago, clutching his groin in agony after Skinn recorded one of the worst sucker punches in college basketball history.
"That's over the line," said Stokes in a cell phone interview after his morning classes. "To punch somebody in the [groin], that's something I wouldn't do to anybody."
And yet, Stokes and several Hofstra teammates will gather early Saturday evening to watch GMU's national semifinal game against Florida. Watch, but not root. Stokes can't bring himself to root for George Mason -- for anybody, really -- not because of what Skinn did to him in the final minute of the March 5 Colonial Athletic Association tournament game, but because Stokes thinks it could have been, perhaps should have been, Hofstra playing in the NCAA tourney.
Instead, it was Skinn's GMU team which jumped for joy on Selection Sunday -- and the Patriots haven't re-entered the Earth's atmosphere since. You know the Bill Murray Cinderella story by now: 11th-seeded George Mason has beaten 2004 Final Four entry Michigan State, defending national champion North Carolina, fellow bracket buster Wichita State, and consensus office pool favorite Connecticut. It is a run for the hoops ages.
Meanwhile, Hofstra, which defeated George Mason twice in 11 days, and did so late in the season, when such wins supposedly carry more weight with the NCAA selection committee, was passed over for one of those 34 at-large bids. Skinn went to the Big Dance. Stokes went to the Little Sock Hop -- the NIT, where Hofstra reached the quarterfinals before losing to another CAA member, Old Dominion.
Now Stokes is back at school on the Long Island campus, and Skinn is doing interviews with CBS. March Madness, indeed.
"I'm fine with him," Stokes said of Skinn. "What he did was a real bad thing. Disrespectful. I'm happy for the fellas, but I just don't like the things he did."
If you haven't seen the video footage of Skinn's right cross to Stokes' twins, it's just as well. With about 55 seconds remaining in the CAA tournament semifinal, and Skinn shadowing Stokes near center court, the Patriots guard clenched his fist and dropped the Hofstra star.
At first, nobody knew what had happened. The ESPNU replays showed nothing, mostly because its cameras were aimed at an inbound play. But by sheer accident a cameraman from a Wilmington, N.C., TV station recorded the entire sequence.
"I don't know what caused it," Stokes said. "Frustration, I guess. He thought his team was going to lose. I guess he thought that was the end of it."
Stokes, a first-team all-CAA selection, had outscored Skinn 20-10 in the conference tournament semi, and 26-8 in a late-February win against GMU. Earlier in the March 5 game there had been the usual jostling, including, said Stokes, an elbow thrown by Skinn. That happens. But a sucker punch to below the jockstrap equator is considered one of the ultimate breaches of the hoops code.
"For a couple of days my stomach was still hurting," Stokes said. "It felt like I had to throw up."
Stokes is no wuss. This season he started every game despite a series of injuries that included a bad back, a broken nose, a bad knee, a loose tooth, a gash over his eye, a sprained thumb, a sprained wrist, a sprained ankle, a hip contusion, and bruised you-know-whats. Stokes has never missed a game in his Hofstra career (93, and counting), has never been called for a technical foul, and is known throughout the league as a tough, but clean player.
"I just want to know why he did what he did," Stokes said.
Skinn, who was suspended for the opening-round NCAA Tournament game against Michigan State, e-mailed an apology to Stokes and Hofstra coach Tom Pecora shortly after the incident. He wrote that he respected Stokes, that he considered him a great player, that he was sorry for the cheap shot. But he didn't explain why.
Stokes read the e-mail, but didn't reply. He said he appreciated the gesture, but
"If you respect somebody, you don't do that to somebody, even if you freak out," Stokes said.
The incident followed Skinn to Indianapolis, where the Patriots were the crowd favorite during Friday afternoon's 50-minute public workout at the RCA Dome. So thrilled is GMU to be here, that the school's pep band played nearly nonstop during what amounted to a glorified shootaround.
The Patriots players could hardly hide their smiles. When their locker room was opened to reporters after the workout, Skinn looked at the onrushing horde and happily yelled, "Here comes the media!"
I asked him what he would say to Stokes if they ever talked, and poof, the smile disappeared. He wasn't angry about the question. Instead, it was as if he was still angry with himself.
"I would tell him it was nothing personal," Skinn said. "It was nothing against him. It's just that my emotions got the best of me. I was frustrated. If I could take one thing back in my life, that would probably be one of them."
You could almost feel the hurt in his voice. After all, this is the same guy who, in the George Mason postseason media guide, lists reading the Bible as one of his hobbies.
"He's a great a player," Skinn said. "I'm totally sorry for putting him through that."
Who knows if the explanation will make any difference to Stokes, but it should. Stokes said he's happy for George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, for George Mason's players, including Skinn.
"I've got no grudges against them," he said.
But a phone call would be nice -- my suggestion, not his. A voice always works better than a computer-generated voice saying, "You've got mail." And if Skinn did call?
"I'd talk to him about it," Stokes said. "I ain't going to just hang up on him."
A Stokes-Skinn conversation. Now there's something to root for.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.