Of Mourning and Miracles

Jonathan Millerover 6 years


Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 12.42.31 AM March Madness is sport at its most dynamic and magical -- filled with the kind of small, secular miracles that lift us up and inspire memories that are passed down for generations.  There's no counterpart to the Big Dance's abundant -- and expected -- supply of last-second shocking surprises, of Davids regularly slaying Goliaths, of artistic mastery and stoic courage dazzlingly modeled by precocious teenagers, often having emerged from the most challenging of childhoods. That's why it's fitting when the Final Four intersects the spring holy days: Passover, in which Jews remember the Ten Plagues and cheer the Red Sea's parting; and Easter, when Christians commemorate the most celebrated miracle of all, Christ's rising. At church and in our family seders we are reminded that there are things much bigger and much more important than basketball.  But college hoops, especially here in the Big Blue Nation, embodies a spiritual, indeed a quasi-religious character: the deeply-felt shared sense of community realized among a diverse and too-often divided state populace is, in essence, a kind of miracle. Alas, the kind of miracle that we'd come to expect from this Kentucky Wildcat roster -- whether it was Aaron Harrison's trinity of treys in last year's runner-up run, or Andrew Harrison's refusal to lose in this year's Elite Eight Notre Dame comeback -- never materialized in the 2015 semifinal.  What appeared to be inevitable when Wisconsin superstar Frank Kaminsky improbably missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw tandem with seven minutes left, mysteriously vanished into the ether, as the Undefeateds, the Unstoppables, the Unbeatables, revealed that they were...in fact...human.  Mortal. It's no wonder that so many of us felt like there had been a death in the family.  In the hours following the game, the language of mourning burned up my iPhone: so many friends, especially from out of state, calling, texting, emailing sincerely "I'm sorry for your loss." Whether onsite in the Kentucky section of Lucas Oil Stadium, or in the virtual cloak rooms of Facebook and Twitter, UK fans quickly manifested the five stages of loss and grief: First, denial metastasized into anger (at the refs, at the disappearance of our offense), until finally and abruptly, we settled into acceptance.  The bus ride from the game to our Indianapolis hotel, much like the social media discourse over the course of the late evening, took on the personality of a wake -- combining a nostalgic gratitude for the joy these young men brought us, with a wistful aching for what might have been. It's that sense of a 40-0 dream deferred, of history denied, that served as the greatest disappointment.  I'd picked up my 21 year-old daughter at college to join me in Indy, to participate in what I had hoped would have been an experience that she could pass on to her children, much in the same way I had shared how her grandpa and I reveled in the majesty of Goose's greatest game. In the end, enduring memories developed organically.  We toured the site where my dad's hero, Bobby Kennedy, delivered the greatest speech of the 20th century -- his impromptu eulogy of Martin Luther King, Jr. -- on the precise anniversary of its delivery. We visited ground zero of today's greatest civil rights controversy, noting the proliferation of signs posted by businesses that boasted to serve everyone. And as we hunted down red outfits to cheer on Wisconsin in their championship matchup with Duke, we were already plotting out future games we'd attend together in Rupp Arena, rooting for the next squad in blue and white to take on the quest for a ninth championship banner. That's a pattern repeating itself in family after family, community after community, in every hometown and holler in the Commonwealth.  Each spring brings a new rebirth: of hope for next year's team, and passion for a journey that binds every generation of Kentucky fan. Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords once bemoaned, of all things, the automated garage door opener:  She argued that it encourages us to isolate ourselves in our homes, avoiding encounters with our neighbors, chance meetings that casually, effortlessly build community.  Kentucky basketball returns us to our front porches, our cul-de-sacs and street corners, sparking the kind of animated dialogue and mutual experience that engender a more civil society. Yes, it's just a game.  But as one magical season ends, and the promise of a new one begins, our beloved Bluegrass State is strengthened by our shared spirit. And that's the kind of miracle that we all can believe in.

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