The assistant coach’s son stood in the shadows, waiting in the tunnel for his favorite player. His father held him. The boy in the Syracuse t-shirt was crying.
Their team had lost, 77-70 to Ohio State in the Elite Eight, leaving them one game short of Syracuse’s first Final Four since 2003.
But at this moment — as the 11-year-old son of assistant coach Mike Hopkins waited for point guard Scoop Jardine, as head coach Jim Boeheim explained that his team should have taken more advantage of the Ohio State big man’s foul trouble, as senior forward Kris Joseph stared toward the klieg lights at the postgame press conference so he could stanch the tears — the fact that Syracuse had just lost a basketball game was so very, very beside the point.
The point was this: It was the end. This awful, wonderful season, in which the young men on this team had weathered sex-abuse allegations against former assistant coach Bernie Fine, an investigation of the program breaking its own drug policy, and its starting center being declared ineligible days before the NCAA tournament, was over.
They’d been bounced from the NCAA tournament, just a few missed shots and a few referee calls away from heading to New Orleans for the Final Four.
Jardine left the press conference, his eyes rimmed in red, and trudged toward the locker room. When he saw the boy, the point guard bent over, and the two hugged. For more than a minute, they did not let go. The boy wailed and quaked. Jardine cried too, then rested his head on Hopkins’ shoulder and cried some more.
“My son, on the senior night after the (team) banquet, he cried for 25 minutes,” Hopkins said in a somber locker room a few minutes later. “My wife couldn’t stop him. (Jardine) has that effect on a lot of people. He’s just such a caring kid with a big heart.”
This is what happens when you go through a season when the world seems allied against you: You retreat inside your fortress. You lean on each other and you trust each other and, yes, you even start to love each other.
“This is a family,” Hopkins said, his voice croaking from shouting all night. “It’s been a weird year. But when you’re around great kids and you have amazing chemistry and everybody sincerely loves each other, that’s the hardest thing. The moments of . . .” He paused. “There’s not going to be any more of these moments. The finality.” He thought. “That’s the toughest thing. The finality of the moment.”
Jardine walked into the locker room. In a flash, a dozen reporters and cameras surrounded him. The tears disappeared, and Jardine put on a stoic face. It was his final time as the face of this team, so he dutifully, classily answered all the questions. He gave Ohio State credit. He said Syracuse didn’t hit enough big shots. He spoke about missing layups and not capitalizing on the time when Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger was on the bench.
“The loss hurt,” Jardine said. “But not playing with these guys no more is gonna hurt me even more. That’s what hurts right now. I don’t have to go to practice with these guys no more, and play with these guys. What we fought for — it’s over.”
Jardine broke down again. He went to his locker and sat there. Boeheim stood in the hallway outside the locker room. Ohio State guard William Buford walked by, carrying the East Regional trophy. Boeheim said he was proud of his young men: The winningest squad in Syracuse history, going 34-3. Not withering in the face of intense, and intensely negative, media scrutiny that dogged the team throughout the year. Making it to the Elite Eight after losing the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Fab Melo, on the eve of the tournament.
“You take Sullinger off Ohio State, you take (Gorgui) Dieng off Louisville, you take (Anthony) Davis off Kentucky, see if they make the regional finals,” Boeheim said.
But he was still talking about basketball. The basketball part of this season was over, with Ohio State’s big men proving too much for a depleted Syracuse squad that was called for an astounding 28 fouls. What was happening inside this locker room was about more than basketball. It was about a group of men that had made it far together, farther than anyone thought they would, and yet not quite far enough.
Joseph sat at his locker. He tilted his head back against the wall, and he closed his eyes.
“When you think about the season we’ve had, it’s something,” he said. “I just can’t believe it’s over.”
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.