The Gift

I really never thought it would come to an end. That is the mindset we get into with great seasons when we are so swept up by the emotion of every single game. Ironically that only seems to heighten and intensify as the season draws closer to an end in March.

It is far from an original thought, but it first struck me when I was 12 years old. I was getting a ride to go golfing with my friend Jeff from his dad. On the way, his dad was giving us grief about the idea of paying money to walk around a big open pasture, hit a little white ball, follow it, and rinse and repeat. That level of psychoanalysis is available with any sport, even basketball.

So you’re telling me ten guys are going to get together, run around a 94 foot long court with a ball and two circles suspended ten feet in the air with glass backboards and see who can put the ball in that hole more often? What’s the big deal about that?

It’s silly, but I literally sit and think about that sometimes and happened to a couple of weeks ago. Why do we care so much about such a silly game?

The answer is easy, though. Because of the emotions it elicits.

Think of how the 2013-14 Iowa State basketball season unfolded, it was jam packed at every turn with amazing wins, emotional twists, and a whole lot of fun.

By the fourth game of the season Iowa State had already beaten Michigan, a top ten team and won on the road at a very difficult place to play against BYU in Provo.

On the day of the Michigan game I was at my niece’s birthday party two hours away roller skating with my kids before I hopped in my car (that I drove separately from my wife so I could leave early) and listened to Johnny Orr coming out on the court through the words of John Walters. I missed my last opportunity to see Johnny and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ll never forget listening to Walters as it unfolded while I was weaving through west Ames.

It was just over six weeks later when Orr unfortunately passed away on New Year’s Eve. When the news broke, if you’re like me, you were stunned and in disbelief. Orr was a larger than life figure for many Cyclone fans. What if he had never come to Ames? Iowa State basketball may have had stretches of success but would it have been the same? Would there have been the exciting up-tempo brand of basketball in Hilton Coliseum? There would likely be no Hilton Magic, as we know it, and there is a chance there is no Fred Hoiberg the player at Iowa State.

That is what Johnny Orr built in Ames with his coaching ability and his charisma. That is what he did for Iowa State and Cyclone fans. The connection the exists between fans and players today was a seed planted by Coach Orr during his tenure that ended 20 years ago.

That Magic was never more evident than on December 13th when Iowa came to Hilton. It was the first time that both teams were ranked since the classic 1987 Lafester game and just the second time in the history of the series. With 1:29 remaining, the Cyclones trailed 82-77 and things seemed bleak at best. But then something happened, something that has become familiar when Iowa State puts good teams on the court. They made plays and the fans helped, too.

After Georges Niang made a reverse layup to take an 83-82 lead, Mike Gesell got to the free throw line with 13 seconds remaining. The fans did what they have done in the past when opponents shot free throws late in a game at the west end of Hilton. Gesell missed both, and the Cyclones sealed up a victory in one of the most anticipated games between the two universities.

That win though, was preceded by what would be a foretelling game for the rest of the season. Down 17 against Northern Iowa in the second half, Iowa State climbed all the way back to take a three point lead with seconds remaining. But then, a familiar scene unfolded when the Panthers banked in a three at the buzzer to force overtime. An ominous sight for a fan base that lived through last year’s season of heartbreak. But this team was different. The Cyclones did not relent and stormed on to a victory in overtime. It was another early sign of what the team was made of and what to expect going forward.

Through December and the rest of the non-conference schedule the Cyclones just kept winning. By the time they played two conference games the Cyclones had racked up a winning streak of 14 games, a school record. It was capped with a win over a top ten Baylor squad where Iowa State more or less ran the Bears off the court and DeAndre Kane introduced himself to the rest of the country with his 30 points, 8 rebounds, 9 assists, and 5 steals.

The Cyclones then stumbled through a tough three game losing streak before responding with a win over #22 Kansas State. That was the fourth win over a ranked team and it was only January 25th. Iowa State would stretch that number to nine wins by the time the season came to an end.

One of the most thrilling wins came on Big Monday in Stillwater against Oklahoma State. The Cyclones hadn’t won at Gallager-Iba Arena since 1988 and in that span had lost 18 straight games against the Cowboys. ISU had played close games there for the three previous seasons but finally got over the hump. It was a three overtime affair but as the time dwindled and the Cyclones trailed by three Naz Long saved the day, for the first time.

His buzzer beating three forced a third overtime where the Cyclones were able to prevail. In part because of Naz Long’s defense and his crucial assist to Monte Morris in transition that gave Iowa State the win. A win that was Fred Hoiberg’s first over a ranked team on the road as a coach or player. Entering that game he was 0-13 as a player and 0-13 as a coach.

I don’t know if it was the physical exhaustion that fans often experience from intense games that did it to me, but that was the first game of the year where afterward I felt the way I did. I was spent and a little bit emotional and I have no idea why. Maybe it was the disbelief or other personal thoughts that did me in, but I had to pause and catch my breath. It was emotion that would carry on through much of the rest of the season.

The next time out was the following Saturday against TCU when Melvin Ejim wowed us all with 48 points and 18 rebounds in a historic performance in the history of Iowa State basketball and in Big 12 Basketball. No other player in the previous 19 seasons of Big 12 Basketball had ever scored 48 points before. It was the second win of what would be a string of seven victories over the course of eight games.

The home finale came just a week after that 7-1 stretch was halted by losses at Kansas State and at Baylor in the previous week. Oklahoma State was rejuvenated and back to playing how everyone had expected before their conference issues took hold. Iowa State stormed back from a 16 point deficit in the second half to earn the lead. The Cowboys persisted and with a two point lead and their best free throw shooter at the line, Phil Forte, they looked to ice the game with just five seconds remaining.

But he missed the second and Naz Long would once again kill the Cowboys at the buzzer to force overtime. From there, Iowa State was able to grind out a senior day win.

There was more magic to display and it didn’t come in Hilton.

The Cyclones stormed in to Kansas City ready to claim the Big 12 Tournament title for the first time in 14 years. After a gritty win over a tough Kansas State team the Cyclones encountered a familiar nemesis from the past two seasons in the Kansas Jayhawks. Iowa State played exceedingly well and held off the Jayhawks in the second half to move on to the championship game against Baylor.

From there, Cyclone fans all but physically moved Hilton Coliseum to Kansas City to do whatever they could to urge Iowa State to victory. There were some early struggles but ISU came on late in the second half to get the offense clicking and over power Baylor for the tournament championship.

The first round of the NCAA tournament for Iowa State saw a victory over North Carolina Central but ended in near despair as it was learned that Georges Niang didn’t just lightly roll his ankle, he broke a bone in his foot. Somehow, a tournament win which should always be celebrated because all NCAA Tournament wins are difficult, had all of the joy sucked out of it.

But as the team had done in the past in clawing back into games from huge deficits, this Cyclone team again responded. On the back of DeAndre Kane, the Cyclones managed a last second victory fueled by the entire team but once again Naz Long was crucial down the stretch.

Against UConn this past Friday night the Cyclones couldn’t overcome the slow start and great play of Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels without one of their key players, Georges Niang. The Cyclones didn’t stop swinging though. After trailing by as much as 17 the lead was trimmed to four with a couple of minutes remaining. But Niels Giffey hit a huge three for the Huskies and the game was essentially sealed.

The season was over, though none of us were ready and most of us probably couldn’t believe it just yet. It wasn’t just any season, it was unquestionably by any objective measure a top five season since the days of Gary Thompson and one could easily argue it is even higher on the list.

I didn’t go through some of the high points of the season solely to remind you of everything that happened; I wanted to remind you of those events so you could reignite the emotions of your memories during those events. There were so many great wins and incredible moments it is hard to believe it was all packed in to five months of basketball.

I have a lot of personal highlights from this season, all attached at the hip to Cyclone basketball; where a bunch of guys try and do something as silly as putting a round ball into a hole ten feet above the floor.

Just sixteen hours after the win over Iowa my wife and I were blessed with our third daughter. I was at the game, phone in hand and waiting for the call to quickly evacuate. It didn’t happen then, though. Kinley Grace allowed me to witness history.

The memories that were sparked in the aftermath of the news of Johnny Orr passing was another incredible portion of the season. We all have our favorite Johnny stories and we got to hear them all in those days, from everyone. And little can be greater than that.

The elation against Oklahoma State both times, but especially when all seemed lost in Ames, is something that I will never forget. The roar when Naz’s three dropped at the buzzer was probably the loudest I have ever heard Hilton.

The win over North Carolina was for the ages. It wasn’t against all odds but it was done in the face of difficult circumstances where Iowa State once again battled back from a late deficit. Down eight points with less than four minutes to play the Cyclone rally was capped with DeAndre Kane hitting Ejim up the middle to tie it up at 76 with 2:03 remaining, I can assure you I have never yelled “and one” louder.

But for me, there is one memory that I’ll never forget that nearly gets me whenever I think about it. I was a pacing nervous mess during the Kansas game in the Big 12 semifinal. I couldn’t take any loss to the Jayhawks again, let alone a heartbreaker. I stood and stewed the entire game. Part of it may have been that I knew I would be in Kansas City the next day, and with a win, I had full clearance to go to the Sprint Center.

When I watch games I’m pretty controlled. That is maintained through even the biggest games, but more is internalized than usual. The internalization of that game had to be released when the clock hit zeroes. I raced out my front door and sprinted down my block and screamed incoherently. When I finally stopped, that same emotion that hit me after the game in Stillwater hit me once again. I crouched down to catch my breath and collect myself.

It was then that I heard my five year old. She had run outside too and was making her way down the sidewalk as fast as she could screaming, “DADDY! DADDY! DADDY!” Maybe it was just one of those moments that strikes you every so often as a parent. Or maybe it goes back to my perception on everything since my dad passed away nine and a half years ago. But that moment just struck me.

Pure elation. Pure joy. And it just got me.

That is why we care and that is what makes it all worthwhile. That is what this Cyclone basketball gave me this year in a remarkable season for the ages. One has to believe that there will be more years like this in the future because of what Fred Hoiberg has built in his hometown and the talent already coming in. Those memories and moments are the gift that Iowa State basketball gave me this year.

What did it give you?

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