"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Friday, July 08, 2011

Warrior Travels: Epilogue

“We find that after years of struggle we do not take a journey, but rather a journey takes us”

The journey was long and exhausting, starting with the optimism of the unseasonably, warm weather at the steps of winter and ending with the promise of a new, budding spring—booking-ending a bitter, harsh winter of discontent. The path took me to places that will continue to live this same journey well after NCAA fans’ departures from them. Each city visited was filled with a vibrancy built on its own local civic pride despite the toughest of economic circumstances. Each was fueled by a “stick-to-itiveness” not shown on the dour national news, each scratching the ground for a few pieces of grain to feed off of until conditions improve. And NCAA basketball gave them that hope—where there was little to be found--to keep on keeping on. It is the kind of hope that our large corporations and big governments have lost—afraid to journey out of their boardrooms and caucuses, only talking to and about themselves.

I enjoyed discovering “Marquette America”, finding it to be in a very different place than I thought back in September. The extreme ups and downs of the season matched the cities that hosted the Golden Eagles—getting knocked down and picking themselves up time after time, lost and looking for their identity, finding a way. I met multiple generations of Warriors, each with a different story and passion built on faith and lifetimes of basketball memories—loyal to their school to the bitter end, yet critical to the standard that they want upheld. Donors who give plenty, but get much more in return. A committed and friendly athletics department, the families and friends of the players so prideful, and wearing their emotions on their sleeves…and the tremendous devotion of the players and basketball staff, who give it their all for their school so that the fans can escape reality for a few memorable game moments that will be stretched a lifetime.

The old steelworks of Steinbeck’s day have been replaced by the glass and aluminum arenas--each being the cornerstone of an urban rebirth, the wishbone of a fallen city’s future. Entertainment districts, museums and hotels rely on these new-aged, painted ladies for their livelihoods. Somehow, some way these cities have been able to keep their original uniqueness and heritage, rebuilding with hope from within: The Kansas City BBQ, the Nashville two-step, the Louisville Sluggers, the Washington Monuments, the Cleveland Rock ‘n Roll Reinvention and the Newark Hustle. As Steinbeck found in his travels, each place I visited has its differentiating qualities. Likewise, each has a hard-edge that makes it tough to love. However, it is the people and their unsinkable spirit of hope that is the basis of their endearment.

After the soul crushing loss in Louisville, one born of a total collapse of Chernobyl proportions, our coach, Buzz Williams, like Barkeep Jen and Mayor Booker and so many others I met along the way, stepped out and found a way to gather the day with a message of hope and optimism when there wasn’t any to be visibly found (as relayed in the Louisville Courier-Journal):

“...And then there was Patrick Bouldin. The die-hard U of L fan always watched Marquette games with his friend and MU alum Doug Burchett, until Burchett died of brain cancer in 2009 at age 38. On Sunday, Bouldin was in the KFC Yum! Center with Burchett's 7-year-old son, Ryan.

Bouldin has seen all the U of L-Marquette thrillers, the Jerry Smith, Reece Gaines and Francisco Garcia last-second heroics, as well as those of Dameon Mason. He watched Steve Novak and Dwyane Wade break his heart. But he had never experienced anything like watching his beloved Cardinals come back, with a 7-year-old beside him tearing up. Bouldin had a confession to make. As much as he loves U of L, he wasn't cheering the comeback. “I was cheering for MU for Ryan's sake, telling him things like Terrence Jennings was a bad free-throw shooter (as he then did his best Milt Wagner impression),” Bouldin wrote. “Ryan quietly hid his face in the sleeve of his jacket and cried as U of L won and the crowd went nuts.” The story has a nice ending, though. Bouldin had arranged for Marquette coach Buzz Williams to meet Ryan after the game, and after such a heartbreaking loss, he worried that there was no way that would happen. But afterward, despite it all, here came Williams to shake Ryan's hand, smiling and talking to the two, even arranging for him to have pictures made with Marquette players.”

Anyone who thinks that college basketball is just a game that starts and ends with a horn blast needs to pack up their hobo bindle and hop the next box car out of town to experience the hope of the New Americans, to put the “Age of Instant Criticism” behind them, to rediscover their Warrior self. It is about love stories, friendships, hobbies, livelihoods, parent pride, families, stewardship, civics, emotions, competition, faith, memories, care giving, connectivity, community, laughter, anger, tears and tattooed-faced smiles of a child. “Marquette America” is alive and well, leaving a drop of Warrior hope at every stop along the way. We are Marquette! And, I thank you all for every minute of it.

"Epilogue" is the latest in a series chronicling the 2010-2011 Marquette hoops season from a fan's unique perspective. If you missed the first entries click on the tags below for earlier installments.

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