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Journal 43: When basketball became the crying game

Because I am an American with at least one functional eyeball and/or eardrum, I was exposed to the regional finals of this year's NCAA tournament. Usually I pay only cursory attention to the NCAA tournament; unlike most humans, I find college basketball to be subpar.

I've never fully grasped why people prefer it to the NBA. In my mind, the NBA is to the NCAA as a bottle of Pacifico is to a can of light beer. Increased consumption of both results in entertainment for all -- one just makes the journey a little more enjoyable.

This year, though, I had a reason to watch the tournament. My favorite college head coach, Tim Floyd, managed to unexpectedly lead his Pre-Mayo USC Trojans into the Sweet 16. Sadly, his team lost its game with North Carolina but, because I had given the tournament more than one idle thought, I resolved to watch on.

Thanks to the shockingly humorless commentating and a realization that it matters not a whit to me if someone wins the national championship or the tournament is canceled due to an outbreak of hantavirus, I was quickly relieved of most of my interest in the tournament.

Except for one part: I paid attention to the crying. And that reminded me of why I should cut college basketball fans some slack.

Back before I embarked on my wending professional career, I played basketball at Iowa State. In March 2000, my team played Michigan State in the Midwest regional final, with a trip to the Final Four at stake.

It would prove to be a memorable game for me, but not for reasons I could have anticipated beforehand. In a semi-prophetic turn of events, I became known not for plays I made on the court, but for my actions off it -- specifically for my actions at the end of the bench after I fouled out and it became apparent that my junior year of college would not include participation in the Final Four.

I cried. A lot.

This year, when I watched players break down when their respective seasons came to an end, I was sent into flashbacks via my own episode of quasi-post-traumatic stress syndrome. Thankfully, I was able to stave off tears this time. My brothers might have packed me away for admission to the sanitarium if I hadn't.

My most memorable emotional breakdown was not an isolated event. I've cried after many, many basketball losses. In fact, I'm fairly confident that I teared up after every non-win of my junior and senior seasons of college. (I didn't play much my freshman year. And we lost 18 times when I was a sophomore -- I would have needed a tear duct transplant.)

But my moist and salty trend had begun much earlier. After a sub-state loss during my junior year of high school, I spent an hour in a bathroom stall in a locker room in Silver Lake, Kansas. When we lost in the state tournament the next year, it took me two hours to regroup enough to talk to the one college coach whot had waited for me to pull myself together -- Tom Brennan, then of the University of Vermont.

But the loss to Michigan State in the Elite Eight was particularly crushing. En route to Big 12 regular-season and tournament championships, we had lost all of four times on the year. I had grown accustomed to winning. Losses came as shocks to my admittedly fragile emotional system.

I had played a fairly significant role on the team. I didn't start, but was consistently the first player off the bench. That is, until one of our last regular season games, a matchup with Texas in Ames. During the first half, I came down awkwardly on my right foot and broke a bone within. (I, of course, cried when I found out it was broken.)

Because of my crippled status, I didn't play in either of our first-weekend wins in the NCAA tournament. But I had healed sufficiently to play sparingly in our Sweet 16 thrashing of UCLA. Emboldened by my ability to tolerate foot pain (assist: injection-delivered opiates), coach Larry Eustachy returned me to my sixth-man status in our game against Michigan State.

I played well enough that I was still on the court with about five minutes to go. (Warning: Most of what follows will be extracted from my admittedly fuzzy memory of the events that transpired. Times and scores are approximations, mostly because I don't want to take the time to do actual "research.")

We were up by four or five at the time and were playing well. I allowed myself to think -- as I was running down the court -- "You could be playing in the Final Four next weekend. Gosh, that's neat." (I had not yet been exposed to the cruelties of the world outside of the Midwest, so I thought in sock-hop.)

Then, it seemed like life got even better. I caught a pass in the middle of the lane, lofted up a shot, and ran into someone wearing Michigan State green. The referee in my field of vision immediately put his hands on his hips to signal a blocking foul and then dropped his hand like they do, counting the basket I had semi-inadvertently made. We would soon be up by, well, two more than whatever the margin was at the time. Three more if I could summon the wherewithal to make a free throw.

But then I noticed a referee conference develop. There was discord in the striped ranks -- debate over whether the foul had been a charge by me or a block by . . . the other guy. The one in the green.

(Again, fuzziness. In my defense, much of what transpired has become twisted because the events quickly became part of Cyclone Nation lore.)

After a lengthy discussion, the officials came to the conclusion that they would call . . . a double foul. My teammates and I were, obviously, aghast. And a little awed. Our feeble minds had not contemplated the double foul to be a viable option.

We did quickly realize the following: Blocking foul, good for us. Charging foul, bad for us. Double foul, bad for us . . . and bad for the referees. Public admissions of ineptitude are rarely looked upon fondly by 18,000 basketball fans.

(Unless those fans are overwhelmingly in support of the team that stands to benefit from the call. Like if the game is played in Auburn Hills, Mich. and one of the teams' campuses is in East Lansing, Michigan. Not that we found that 10:1 green-to-red advantage daunting. Or that I'm the least bitter about the logistics.)

The basket was waved off, I fouled out, and our momentum came screeching to a halt. I next looked up to watch Michigan State's Morris Peterson finish off a lob with a dunk, which inspired the partisan Palace crowd to explode. We couldn't stop the tide and, soon, it was over.

And so I cried.

Fortunately, I was given exceedingly ample time for emotional expression. With a few seconds remaining in a game that was then out of reach, coach Eustachy took it upon himself to demonstrate his frustration with the officials' work by storming onto the court.

The circus that followed his ejection gave those manning the cameras -- both television and standard still-photo -- plenty of time to capture my mood. That mood being the one that inspires a clean-cut white kid to make really ugly faces as he cries and tries to hide behind his left hand.

I was sad because we had lost. But my despair was exacerbated by the personal circumstances at work. I had trained hard to return from injury in time to help my team. My efforts had resulted in a tragic loss. Obviously, I had let someone down.

The next 24 hours was a blur. I remember choking my way through a few postgame locker-room interviews, enduring a long charter flight home, and wading through several hundred Cyclone uber-fans who had awaited our arrival in Des Moines.

We had lost on Saturday, which meant that the poignant shots of the Iowa State basketball player crying his naïve little heart out were featured prominently in Sunday papers all over the Midwest. I vaguely remember hearing from a relative that my tear-stained visage made an appearance even in the Los Angeles Times.

I spent that Sunday holed up in my apartment, healing. That sounds melodramatic, but it's actually true. Basketball was all I cared about. And that spring, it was all anyone in Iowa cared about. We were the talk of the state. Which meant that I felt like I had failed a population base of around 2 million full-on or partial Iowa State Cyclone fans.

And yes, I took myself a little too seriously.

But by Sunday night, I was ready to move on. I had another season to look forward to -- my senior year at a Division I basketball program.

With the departure of Marcus Fizer, I undoubtedly would move into a starting role (true). I surely would have an injury-free season for a change (not true). And of course, we would avenge the previous year's exit from the NCAA tournament (also not true: At the end of my senior year, we became only the fourth No. 2 seed to lose in the first round). Life was full of promise.

On Monday morning, I woke up ready to begin anew. On my walk to campus, I received a few sympathetic greetings from total strangers. I humbly shrugged off their condolences, nobly declining to confirm their rage against referees who had -- in their eyes -- bungled a call and taken the game away from their Cyclones.

As I did every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I stopped in at the cafeteria on the western side of campus. I opened the door to Friley Hall and grabbed a copy of the Iowa State Daily.

Whereupon my heart immediately dropped into my colon. In the interest of the entertainment of 23,999, and to the horror of one, the editors of the university newspaper had covered the entire top half of the paper, from left margin to right, with a picture of me, crying.

Specifically, this one:

I'd like to say that the picture instantly crystallized for me the relationship between sports and money. I wish that what dawned on me at the time was a realization that the NCAA, CBS and the Iowa State Daily cared very little about my feelings -- that they cared about selling tires, razors, and ad space to local bars. And if my inability to control my inner infant helped them to accomplish those goals, they would put a picture of it wherever they could.

But, instead of anything so cynical as that, I only realized that each of my walks between classes was going to be extraordinarily awkward.

I ate my breakfast and walked to class. My suspicions had been correct. As they passed, my fellow studentry looked at me with a mix of awe, sympathy and wild-eyed panic.

Except for one person. While I sat in the library, plowing through the mess of hieroglyphics that passed for my engineering homework, a girl walked up and, without hesitation, asked me to autograph the day's paper.

I resisted the urge to push her down the nearby stairs and politely signed my name.

Eventually, it dawned on me that her request summarized the feelings of everyone who had watched me break down on the bench in Auburn Hills. They weren't ashamed of me because we had lost, and they weren't ashamed of me because I had cried like a sixth-grade girl who's been told she will have to wait another year to get her ears pierced. In fact, they were proud of me for crying. They loved that I cared enough to cry.

Which, I suppose is why people like college basketball. They want to see heartbreak. They want to see the farm kid burst into tears when his Cinderella hopes are crushed by some basketball juggernaut. And they want to see vulnerability in the street-hardened eyes of that juggernaut's McDonald's All-American, when his team's hopes are crushed by someone else.

On and on, until only one team is left. A winner. A conqueror. Whose head coach immediately chokes up on the podium.

(It would seem that sports fans just want to see people cry. Kind of the opposite of the bloodlust we might expect.)

As I watched teams fall in the tournament this year, I was struck with how ridiculous the players look when their seasons end. I know that they'll probably play more games. For the better players, those will be more important games: Their ability to feed themselves will depend on them.

But, just like the 21-year-old version of me, they don't know that yet. Their attention was more focused: They cared only about winning that game. And that, I grudgingly will admit, makes college basketball a little more watchable than I would like to admit.

I'm just glad my emotional fragility could contribute to the entertainment of us all.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. Paul can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley. His book, "Can I Keep My Jersey?", can be found here.