NIU hopes healing can continue after first game since tragedy

When the Northern Illinois Huskies took the floor Tuesday night for a basketball game against Western Michigan, life at NIU, where a gunman fatally shot five students and himself in a lecture hall earlier this month, didn't magically return to normal.

But it did at least give students and student athletes some time to be just like any others on college campuses.

For the record, Western Michigan won 56-49. But this clearly wasn't an ordinary game.

The teams gathered arm-in-arm in a circle at midcourt while observing a moment of silence before the game. Then they shook hands and stood at opposite foul lines as the NIU alma mater and "The Star-Spangled Banner" played.

"Things are slowly but surely getting back to some sense of normalcy," NIU basketball coach Ricardo Patton told ESPN First Take on Tuesday, hours before the first athletic event at the school since the Feb. 14 shootings. "Our student athletes are excited to get back on campus."

Classes resumed Monday, but getting back to a routine won't be easy.

Not when there are white crosses on a knoll. Not when there's crime scene tape outside the auditorium where the gunman opened fire, killing five before taking his own life. Not when counselors are attending classes, offering to help students.

For a school determined to move on, a basketball game is just a small step. Or, maybe it is more than that.

"For that 40 minutes it's [what happens] on the court," Ben Gross of the student newspaper, The Evening Star, told ESPN First Take. "It's a way to leave what's around us outside and enter a different world."

"I think it's huge," Patton said. "When you talk about trying to get over as best you can and move forward after such a devastating tragedy, I think it's great to get back to some sense of normalcy as best you can."

Western Michigan has been paying tribute, too, wearing NIU ribbons on its jerseys.

Patton and Gross both said the school has been overwhelmed by the support it has received from across the country, most notably from Virginia Tech, where a massacre last spring left 33 dead and dozens injured.

For Patton, that support came in a phone call from Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg.

"One of the things he talked about was the fact that sometimes young people have a tendency of internalizing pain and their emotions," Patton told ESPN of his talk with Greenberg. "He reassured his guys it was OK to cry, OK to be sad, OK to be angry, and thought it was very important that we listen to our team and find out how they were doing."

"I was very grateful he picked up the phone and reached out," Patton said.

No NIU athletes were among the dead or wounded, although a men's soccer player was in the class at the time of the rampage.

The shootings stirred Patton's memories of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. He was the head coach at Colorado and one of his players, Josh Townsend, lost a sister. Patton took over 11 months ago at NIU in rural DeKalb, Ill., about 65 miles from Chicago.

There has been an outpouring of support from colleges and pro teams since the shootings, as coaches and administrators got calls from their counterparts at Virginia Tech.

Closer to home, there were moments of silence at college and pro games. The Chicago Bulls wore NIU T-shirts during pregame warmups, and the Chicago Blackhawks sported NIU decals on their helmets. The Chicago White Sox will autograph caps that they wear during Wednesday's exhibition opener against Colorado and ship them to NIU for an auction to benefit the university's February 14 Student Scholarship Fund. They will also auction an autographed NIU jersey and cap along with a White Sox bat and two other signed items on their Web site next month, with the proceeds going toward the scholarship fund.

This was already a difficult season for the Huskies (6-18, 3-9 Mid-American Conference), even though their most recent game was their best. Two days before the shootings, they beat Akron 88-78 and snapped the Zips' 22-game home winning streak. They were scheduled to host Western Michigan on Feb. 17, but NIU had closed down by then.

When the team returned to practice on Wednesday, Patton noticed "a level of focus and excitement just getting back around one another."

The larger community might find reasons to rally behind the team, too.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.