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NCAA TOURNAMENT: Break Ups and Basketball

An optimist's guide to finding hope in the dark.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Two Christmas's ago, I moved back home from South Carolina. My girlfriend from New Jersey came to visit me in Lafayette - the hope was that she would like it enough to move there with me. After family parties, local diners, and an unfortunate New Year's Eve trip to Buffalo Wild Wings, I took her to a Purdue game. I was excited to let her in on the little secrets about the team, something an outsider oblivious to sports  like her would have no idea about. In fact, she didn't know any of the history, the names of the players, the heartaches, or the hope that is second nature to a Boilermaker fan. There's no way to properly explain that to her, not in conversation or in one game so all she got was my excited chatter between plays during the game and the days leading up to it. When Kendall Stephens got the ball on a play and connected on a three she said, "That's your guy, right?" Yeah, that's my guy - but really, they're all my guys. This is my team. This is my school.

I love them. I haven't always. As a tiny one - 8 or so, I think - I converted. Drew Brees was playing against Kansas State and I was running around in my house, throwing a ball around, pretending to be him, wanting to be him. It clicked, immediately - whatever silly rebellion I was trying to play at before vanished immediately in a kind of patriotic pride for the gold and black that I barely believe there actually could have been a before.

I don't remember much of my childhood, certainly not in crystal clear detail, but I remember this: as the game was about to start, I called my mother at the bowling alley. It was late, and I was out of breath. In a hurry I almost screamed, "Mom, I want Purdue to win. I want Purdue to win."

Last March, my girlfriend moved into a downtown Lafayette apartment with me. A couple months after that, she got a job working for my Aunt - you guessed it, at Purdue. We went to the Spring Football game together, she calmed me as police escorted me out of the Virginia Tech game(woops), and she recorded video of the men's basketball scrimmage for me to post on this site.

We were Boilermakers and together. It felt like a dream.

About a month ago I was picking up the last pieces of a year lived together from our downtown apartment, and she was heading east on some highway headed back to Jersey with her father and brother. We broke up - not because we hated each other, not because of any one particular thing, but because she missed home and her family and because things don't always work out.

And so here I am, trying to make sense of this new world, this empty apartment, coming home to nothing. Sound familiar? That hollow echo of better days.

I'm struck by the urge to draw metaphors because aren't sports just like relationships? How many games are there?(Dates?) How many teams?(Fish in the sea?) How many seasons?(Relationships?) Sure, you are constantly tweaking and playing and working towards improvement, but in reality, there's only one ideal outcome that everyone wants and only one team gets it a year. Every girl you love, every boy you kiss, every pretty person you become enamored with, at the end of the day the best you can ever hope to achieve is that just one of them works out until the end. There is only one happy ending, one grand trophy, one championship- the rest are all moral victories and consolation prizes, losses.

I loved a girl. A girl that was beautiful and smart, who made weird jokes and smiled like I was some kind of light inside of her that kept her warm, and she never once failed to make me feel like the most important person in the world. But maybe we turned the ball over a few too many times, I got complacent, moved my pivot foot, tried to force a pass into the paint. Maybe I just missed an open look, a late free throw, didn't call an obvious timeout. Maybe she didn't roll to the hoop when I wanted her to - have we gotten convoluted enough yet? - or whatever it was, the fact is, we didn't win. We didn't make it. We thought we'd make it a lifetime - we got a year.

We made it a round.

And that's just what happens sometimes. Sometimes you fuck up, sometimes other people just don't, but I do know that I don't hate her and I don't hate Purdue. Because those moments are still real. They still live. She is a ghost I welcome and so are these 'lost' seasons. Why? Because if we only measure things in championships, in life long commitments, then we are damning ourselves to only one win that will ever matter. They all matter. Each game. Each smile.

We get so worked up, so over wrought with despair and anger, and we just become inconsolable lunatics in these moments. I don't want to sound like I can tell you how to grieve, but maybe I can offer a bit of perspective. For me, the beauty of sports is that the things you lose aren't ever really lost. It's always the next game that matters because you get another game, another season to try and achieve the things you didn't this year.

So you work on being more compassionate - you work on your ball movement. You make sure to not take things for granted - you bring in some better athletes. You try to remember the good moments not as ghosts but as smiles - you tweak your pick and roll defense. You strive to get better, yes, always, but you also can't be ready to burn everything down when you don't.

But this is where the metaphor pulls apart. My now ex-girlfriend is not coming back. She's gone. Purdue is still here. There are more seasons. If that's lost its beauty, then please, rail on. Go ham. Go crazy. But when you've gotten it out of your system, leave, please, because I still want to remember the beauty of this season. I want to remember the last four years that Hammons and Davis gave us, the one year Hill gave us. I want to keep the wins, the smiles, and I want to use these collapses as a foundation for better tomorrows.

And I get it. Fire Painter. Burn the world. We've been here before. It's the same thing over and over and over. You have a right to be frustrated. This shit hurts. It's real, all of it. There are problems, leaks in the foundation.

But tomorrow really is a new day. There's more games. More seasons. More banners to hang. More losses, too, but that's what we sign up for. Loyalty doesn't just hold in the good times. This fire will only leave ash behind you.

As our staff here recoiled from the loss, it was thrown out there that we needed an optimistic post. Almost all of us didn't want to do it, didn't have it in us, couldn't even feel it, and judging from the message boards and twitter, they're not alone. We'll all  eventually calm. We'll all be back next year. That's how this works. And maybe this will frustrate you because it seems like a bunch of empty platitudes and more of the same, and it is.

Maybe what you want to hear is how we'll improve next year, that Painter will grow, a new AD will be here, Haas and Swanigan will take leaps, and that a new freshman will step up.

I'll get there, but not today. First, I want to remember this season, these good times, and store them away somewhere safe. Maybe we won't be able to put this season on banners and hang them in our rafters - ask the people in Bloomington how warm those have kept them at night the last few decades - but I fucking loved this team and I'm not going to let one loss ruin the last year. I'm not going turn black all the memories I have of her because she left before I was ready to say goodbye.

The truth is the hope is the same as it was last year and the year before that. The hope is that we'll do better the next game, the hope is the next game because the beauty of sports is that there always is a next game for us as fans. That the teams always come back.