A year ago it stole March Madness from all of us. It took away the lives we’d been living.
We all know what “it” was – Covid-19.
Sports of every kind died. Worse, we didn’t know if we’d get them back or in what form.
Then one year later – almost to the day – we were resurrected from our sports’ graves. We came out of the ground, saw there was light again after so much darkness, and watched the rebirth of sports like, in some way, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on Easter morning.
Gonzaga and UCLA gave us this chocolate candy gift. A treasure of a basketball game – one of the top three or four of the thousands I’ve seen in my life – told us that, yes, our lives are returning to normal, one we once had, before Covid-19 tore up everything.
This wasn’t just a good basketball game. It wasn’t just entertaining. It wasn’t just a nice relaxing evening on our couches watching a Final Four game.
It was more. It meant more. Because of the context, what’s happened to us over the last year, which is to say our lives were upended like never before.
After the longest of waits, two basketball teams went at it like inspirational heroes, as if it were the last game they may ever play, as if they were so glad to be there after not being allowed to play in the Final Four last year.
Shot after shot, blocked shot after blocked shot, all game long, under pressure, they came through every guy on the court. It was a game in which everybody played well. That’s a rarity.
Johnny Juzang, after last night, will always be remembered as the guy from UCLA who Gonzaga could not stop. He’d drive, get to his spot, and stick a jumper in the face of whoever was guarding him. From downtown, uptown, and the next town.
Again and again, Johnny wasn’t good. No, he was superb when you consider he was playing out of his mind against the nation’s best team in the Final Four who was playing for eternal history as one of the few undefeated teams in college basketball history.
Johnny to his left, Johnny to his right. Johnny stopping on a dime. Johnny from the sideline. Went for 29 points on 12 of 18 shooting. That level of sharp-shooting isn’t supposed to happen against top-ranked teams in the Final Four under hot pressure, but Johnny didn’t get that memo.
You knew early on something about this game was different when in the first few minutes Jaime Jaquez of UCLA (19 points) went down the middle of the lane and tried to dunk the ball. His message: “we’re not intimidated by you Gonzaga guys; we’re here to intimidate you.”
When he did this, I howled throughout my house. This game was officially on. We buckled up for the ride, a nation of sports fans.
Back and forth, clutch play after clutch play. Steals, blocks, defense.
Late in the game, Drew Timme (25 points on 11 of 15 shooting) took over on the inside. Spin move to his left, then to his right, in overtime no less, putting the Zags on his shoulders, unwilling to let this dream season fall short and make the Zags just another good team that couldn’t win the big one.
Then Johnny again. Rebounding his inside lane miss, he grabbed the rebound and tied the game in overtime with less than 10 seconds to play. OMG – it’s tied again. UCLA won’t stop coming. Who are these guys? They’re supposed to get blown out tonight. They weren’t even supposed to make the tournament. Lost their last four regular-season games.
Yet here they were on the brink of the colossal upset right before our eyes. Then Jalen Suggs of the Zags drilled up court as time ran out, heaving a shot from 45 five feet.
He banked it in.
I howled in my house again. So did you. So did millions of Americans, a collective sound of exhilaration, pure joy, and shock. As the shot went in, so did the American sports fan rise from a yearlong coma.
We opened our eyes. We saw it go in. March Madness came back to us like a beloved son who had run away for a year without us really knowing if we’d ever see him again.
Last night’s March Madness resuscitated our souls. One basketball game, two gritty teams, players galore who gave us so much more than we expected. It was supposed to be a blowout.
It was instead riveting theatre, which is why we keep watching sports, to be riveted and understand better what spellbinding means, to get lost in the emotions of it, to imagine what it would be like to be on the court as a UCLA player thinking you might be playing one of the greatest basketball games ever and on the verge of the most stunning upsets in March Madness history.
We watched and thought about these intriguing possibilities. We longed for the joy of UCLA winning. We also were concerned about how devastating it would feel as a Gonzaga player if they came one game away from basketball immortality, an undefeated season.
We didn’t think about Covid-19. We didn’t think about economic destruction. We didn’t think about illness and coughing and ventilators.
We thought about basketball players experiencing ecstasy.
We felt alive again.
Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here:
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