Those of us who played sports (played being a very broad and generous term, in some of our cases) long before we started writing about them can’t remember a time when we weren’t constantly reminded that sports teaches life lessons.
Honestly, most of the time, it’s a bunch of hooey. We are most often told sports is a metaphor for life after a tough season-ending loss, but let’s face it, we have known since we were as tall as the letters on this screen that only one team ends a season happy, and it’s usually not ours. To try and ascribe greater meaning to it is just a way of dulling the pain.
The sports-as-life sermon is also a handy excuse for coaches to stroke their egos and remind us there was a deeper purpose to the work they do directing the baseball, football or cross country teams. Alas, baseball is usually as simple as pitching the ball, hitting the ball and fielding the ball. Football is usually no more than an opportunity to engage in legalized felonious violence. And cross country really is as simple as running aimlessly in the woods because you weren’t good enough to make the baseball or football teams (or so I have heard).
But once in a while, there really are life lessons to be taught in the games we play and watch. And unfortunately for the Flying Dutchmen, there were more life lessons than wins in the 2012-13 season, which came to an ending equal parts merciful and bittersweet Saturday night with a 62-57 loss to Delaware in the quarterfinals of the CAA Tournament.
The Dutchmen’s 21st loss in 25 games since the arrests of the four knuckleheads was like most of the first 20 defeats. They played well in spurts and hard the whole time, and displayed impressive resiliency in shaving a 10-point deficit to three late in the second half.
Stevie Mejia (13 points), Taran Buie (13 points) and David Imes (12 points) all scored in double figures for the Dutchmen, which marked the 12th time in those 25 games that at least three players scored 10 points—not bad for a team that is down to seven scholarship players and will finish the season as one of the worst offensive teams in the country.
But as always, the Dutchmen were done in by lapses that were usually as brief as they were costly. Emptying the tank was not enough for the Dutchmen, who needed a little bit more (they were 0-for-5 from the free throw line in the second half, including four missed front ends of 1-and-1s) or a little bit less (first half fouls for Moussa Kone or turnovers to start the second half) to pull off the upset.
Hofstra lost 11 of its last 12 games decided by seven points or less. In seven of those defeats, the Dutchmen were either tied or had a chance to tie or take the lead in the final minute.
“It’s a little bit of our story all year,” Mo Cassara said from his hotel room late Saturday night. “Our margin for error’s just very small. Some guys have got to play great and we have to not turn the ball over and make free throws. And, again, tonight, there were stretches of the game we didn’t do that.”
In that regard, the end of the season provides waves of relief. It’s finally over. There are no more cruelties and near-misses to suffer, no more emotional roller coasters to ride. We can all finally begin to shake off the most grueling season most of us have ever observed or endured and look forward to brighter days.
But the ending, for all of its predictability and inevitability, still left the Dutchmen aching, because they truly believed they would pen the most unlikely Cinderella story and Hollywood ending in NCAA history.
“Our guys really felt like we could win three games,” Cassara said. “We felt like we could win tonight. We went into the game as a pretty significant underdog and we’re up at halftime and we put ourselves in a position to win.”
But there’s a reason a Hollywood ending isn’t called a Peoria ending, and so the Dutchmen were left to contemplate a season filled with lessons that are tough to absorb and appreciate in the moment.
“That’s a tough locker room, because part of you is frustrated with the mistakes you made—a couple critical errors, a couple shots we might have missed or a couple free throws we didn’t [make],” Cassara said. “But I’m so proud of that group of guys. Not only did they battle and find a way to be competitive every game, they endured a lot. They had to deal with a lot throughout the course of this year, on and off the court. And they stayed the course and remained competitive. How many games did we have that were [decided by] a couple possessions?”
“I’m rambling here a little bit,” he said, his voice scratchy and subdued. “So upset. Those guys went through a lot and I gotta give them a lot of credit.”
The Dutchmen were reminded Saturday, for the last time this season, that doing your best often does not translated into the desired result. You can work as hard as possible, care as much as possible and have as much faith in the process as possible and still not achieve your goals.
You can wake up early and go to bed late and spend every moment in between sketching out how you want to build the program, as Cassara did last spring and summer, and the vagaries of fate in the fall—a hurricane and a career-ending injury to a potential superstar—can leave you staggered and render much of your work useless.
And sometimes, fate will deliver the knockout blow in the form of four players stealing anything they could get their hands on, which teaches the harshest lesson of all: You will regularly be disappointed by those you trusted and relied upon, and forced to be accountable for and clean up the mess they created.
“There were so many life lessons in this season, from weather challenges to facility challenges to friends and teammates making really bad decisions and having to live with those decisions,” Cassara said. “Some lessons that I think some guys are going to have to take personally, our team has to take as a whole.”
One of those lessons they, and we, may be reminded of in the coming years is that effort and character are not always immediately rewarded, and that the rewards are often earned by those who don’t deserve them.
The arrests of their ex-teammates wrecked the last lap around the track for seniors Mejia, Imes and Matt Grogan and cost underclassmen Buie, Kone, Stephen Nwaukoni and Jordan Allen a precious season they’ll never get back.
Meanwhile, the three thieves who can still transfer to another Division I school will almost surely get a second chance. And let’s face it: As decimated as the Dutchmen are right now, there’s a pretty good chance that one, two or three of those undeserving rotten apples will make the NCAA Tournament before Hofstra does. That’ll be only slightly less painful than Selection Sunday 2006.
When there’s nothing left to do but pick up the pieces, affirmation must be found in intangibles. At some point out there in the real world, the Dutchmen who endured the last 25 games will rely on the experiences of this season to guide them through other challenges in the workplace and elsewhere.
That’s little consolation right now, of course. All they can do now is take solace in knowing they performed with pride, and that the effort forged a collective lifetime bond within the team while earning acknowledgment and appreciation from others who were invested in their performance.
“I gave my all,” Imes said. “I could not ask for anybody else to go through this with.”
“We’ve been fighting all year,” Mejia said. “I would not want to do it with anyone but these guys on my side.”
“I told our guys after the game: The wins and losses don’t really represent what we’ve been through, what we’ve learned and what we’ve endured,” Cassara said.
Four fools ruined a season. But those they left behind to pick up the pieces restored the Pride to Hofstra basketball. And when the brighter days arrive, nobody will forget who navigated the Flying Dutchmen through the darkest of times.
3 STARS OF THE GAME (vs. Delaware, 3/9)
3: Stevie Mejia
2: Taran Buie
1: David Imes
FINAL SEASON STANDINGS***
53: Stevie Mejia
37: Taran Buie
28: Stephen Nwaukoni
21: David Imes
14: Moussa Kone
12: Jordan Allen
3: Daquan Brown
2: Matt Grogan
1: Adam Savion
***21 points vacated