By Netta-Lee Lax
“Hail to purple! Hail to white! Hail to thee Northwestern.” – The Northwestern Alma Mater
Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald waited by the tunnel for his basketball counterpart, Chris Collins, to leave the court after a dramatic loss to No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But as he extended his arm to let me pass by, he smiled at me.
In that moment, it felt like he was waiting for me. In that moment I could not hide my allegiance. In that moment as the Northwestern band played the alma mater, I was a Wildcat through and through and so was Fitz, as he’s known by the NU faithful. In that moment, it took a lot of will power not to just hug Fitz and let all of the pent up emotions of the past week out.
The very first story I covered as a student was an attempt by Northwestern’s athletic department to legitimize its men’s basketball program. In 2010, Northwestern hosted its inaugural, and only, Friday Night Hoops open practice at the student gymnasium known as SPAC. That night they held a make-shift dunk contest won by senior Mike Capocci, who barely made the rotation that season. The staff had not let future pros Drew Crawford or John Shurna partake, worried they might injure its best players. A few hours later, Snoop Dogg played a concert with the whole men’s basketball team on stage at the now “old” Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern was trying to mimic programs like Duke, which fills Cameron Indoor when it holds open practices.
Instead, Northwestern emerged looking more like the knock-off barbie dolls at the dollar store with uneven eyes and immobile arms. It was not until last Sunday when Northwestern’s name was physically displayed on the bracket during the selection show that it sunk in that Northwestern now really has a legitimate men’s basketball program.
Over the past seven years as I’ve covered and followed Northwestern basketball, emotion has never been lacking.
When Michael “Juice” Thompson set a scoring record in the 2011 Big Ten Tournament, I could not comprehend a better feeling surrounding the team. The next season when the team collapsed in the same tournament and I entered their somber locker room, I thought the look on former walk-on Reggie Hearn’s face was the lowest I would ever see the team sink. Then this season happened. I was hesitant to buy in, worried that my masochistic basketball tendencies would drive me crazy.
But this was not the Northwestern I had come to know. This was not the Northwestern I had come to love and despise all at once. As Chris Collins noted in a press conference earlier this week, Northwestern fans were not sure how to handle this team.
“Is this the Northwestern we are used to seeing?” senior Sanjay Lumpkin said, summing it up best. “This has been a magical season.”
It did not sink in that this was real. It did not sink for me until this morning when ESPN’s Mike Greenberg addressed a group of Northwestern alumni at a pep-rally. As he pointed out that Northwestern was just one of six schools to win a bowl game and make it to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. It finally hit me. Northwestern is a legitimate Big Ten athletic school.
This week has been filled with a mix of deep grounding breaths, like the look senior Nate Taphorn had on his face when Northwestern went down 28-12 with just under four minutes left in the first half. It maybe began to sink in that this was his last game as a Wildcat when he crouched down along the sideline cheering on his team as they clawed their way back into the game against Gonzaga late in the second half.
This week has been filled with bizarre moments and strange calls. From the intentional foul by Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis when his team was up by one late in the game to the missed goal-tending call that led to a technical on Collins, there was rarely a dull moment.
At times during Saturday’s game against Gonzaga, there was a dreaded sense of familiarity as Northwestern played isolation offense and chucked up contested runners in the lane. But for the most part there was a newness that left most Northwestern fans, clad from head to toe in purple garb, looking at each other and saying, “Wow. This is awesome.”
Chris Collins’ motto is “Pound the Rock.” It comes from the writing of journalist Jacob Riis, who exposed the hardships of tenement life. The passage reads:
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
After Northwestern’s season-ending loss, redshirt sophomore Vic Law declared, “This is just the building block…this is just the beginning.”
The rock has just begun to show cracks, but it has not yet split. Next year the majority of Northwestern’s players will return to Evanston. The Wildcats will play away from campus as their home arena is renovated. Next year, as Collins explained, Northwestern will be “a different team.” But for Northwestern fans, for the students, for the alumni, for the staff and certainly for the players, this season will always stand alone. This team will forever be the first.
“We made history in a way that has never been done at this university, “ explained Law. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget this for the rest of my life.”
Lumpkin told me after the win against Vanderbilt, “This is why we came here.” Lumpkin was referring to himself and his teammates, both past and present, and their drive to make it to the big dance, but in a way it was also true for the Northwestern fans.
Moments like this are why we are sports fans. Moments like this are why we put ourselves through the pain of watching a team we’ve invested so much energy and emotion in fall apart. Moments like this are what we come for.
So tomorrow I will watch the video of Fitzgerald running into the locker room of a victorious Northwestern men’s basketball team again, and I will think of the elation and the pride. I will think of my alma mater and what it stands for. I will remember why I continue to call myself a Wildcat.
“Alma mater, praise be thine, may thy name forever shine.” – Northwestern Alma Mater