We should be watching basketball today. But, as we all know, this year is different. Not different as in ‘odd’ but different as in ‘we’ll always remember 2020’. The economic ramifications from COVID-19 are only beginning to be understood. And there are very real tragedies unfolding, both economically and for victims of this illness. All of that is priority, let us be clear. But I think it’s also fair to mourn the loss of our sports games. Humans are social beings, made to be in community. To have that community yanked away feels unnatural. Because it is! And sports form the community many of us find connection with.
Sports provide an outlet that measurably improves student outcomes, engenders friendships, and develops maturity. It’s where we learn the lessons of life. Through the arc of a sports season we learn to come together as a team and build towards the crescendo that is the end of the season. This climax isn’t found just in sports, with those in music working towards their concert or those in theater to their show. Study after study have shown the positive effects of these extracurricular activities. For me, though, it was always sports. Anybody dealing with this year’s cancellations is feeling similar. This year there is no climax. The story has been stopped short. How do we begin to reconcile this loss?
March is my favorite month of the year. Spring is springing, and with it the rites of this season like warming weather, flowers, and spring training come. My birthday is this month, appropriately placed. But what I connect with March more than anything else is the NCAA tournament and basketball at all levels. I have watched the tournament selection show almost every year, and immediately began analyzing year after year of brackets. It’s my favorite TV event of the year. I remember going to the library after school and copying the bracket from the Monday newspaper before the days of the Internet. I love the raw human emotion inevitably captured yearly as the games begin and upsets ensue. And this year we don’t get any of it. It’s all gone. A year that will forever be marked in the record books as a gap. I miss it incredibly. It’s just a game, they say. But it marks so much more.
Selfishly, my first reaction after the cancellations was to be sad for myself. I was sad about what I wasn’t going to get. No Selection Sunday. The team I cheer for was finally going back to the tourney (after too long an absence). I’d have to wait another year. From March Madness to March Sadness. But my mind quickly turned to others who are undoubtedly suffering more. Teams who hadn’t been for far longer. Seniors who had worked their entire career for this one chance at a shining moment. There is no next year for so many. My cousin, a senior in college, was literally about to run out onto the floor for warmups before her tournament game when it was cancelled. The grief at it being so suddenly over would clearly be overwhelming. It feels cruel.
As I contemplated this loss, I knew the feeling only too well. You see, I lost my senior year season. This is not something I’ve talked a lot about, but on February 6 that year my world was rocked. Two fellow starters on my high school basketball team were in a car crash, with one dying and the other severely injured. We had been a tight knit unit. The season did technically go on. But losing 2/5 of our lineup was insurmountable. We obviously weren’t the same on the court, or off. We struggled to even play the games after the tragedy. Our playoff run was short, but our grief was long. It took a long time and some spiritual growth for me to come to terms with what had happened. By then I was gone to college, never to return to my hometown for more than a summer passthrough.
You see, I was devastated at the loss of a close friend. Still am. But I also ached for our team. We never had the chance to see what we could do. What we might have been. We were actually a decent team with dreams of return to the state tournament; a destination our little town hadn’t seen for years. But we’ll never know. To this day, I have dreams about what it might have been. I had to mourn for both my friend and our team’s hopes.
This sort of tragedy happens. Every year somewhere a team’s possibility is cruelly stopped short for tragic reasons. I cringe when most years I read horrible headlines about young lives lost. But this year it happened to everyone.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Almost all of these players will feel this for a lifetime. I still do. For some it will fade as they get a chance at a redo next year. For others, they never will and that will sting. That we have an entire year of kids who must go through this is awful. But I’m here to tell you things get better. Life gracefully does go on. You will find a job, you’ll find love, you’ll have children. Our lives are filled with blessings that we so often take for granted, which, with time, become more and more apparent.
It will take years to reconcile what this year has meant. I truly believe we can come through it. Perhaps even learn to recognize some positives that came from it. But let’s not trivialize the pain. This loss is real. Yes, any sport is just a game. But these games are imbued with a value far deeper. They are as human as we are. Recovering from what we’ve lost becomes about who we are as a community of humans. How we must come together by, for now, staying apart. I grieve with those affected. May each day bring further peace.