"They deserved better."
Missouri didn't deserve to win on Friday afternoon. Missouri also didn't deserve to lose. Funny how that works out when two talented teams are given only 40 minutes to declare a victor. (And, of course, countless credit is owed to Norfolk State for playing a phenomenal game on Friday. Respect, y'all.)
We here at Rock M Nation have a very odd niche in the grander purview of college athletics, Mizzou Athletics in particular. To describe a typical Missouri fan as self-loathing would be an understatement of almost criminal proportions. Missouri fans are the most optimistic masochists you've ever met in your lives. They'll spend their lives preparing for the gut punch and let their guard down only as the blow is in mid-delivery. Bill and I have long since scoffed at the "Same old Missouri" mentality, and with valid reason hidden behind the thickened layers of cynicism. Beyond the blinding reflection of confirmation bias lies the fact that metaphorical bar continues to be pushed, a fact lost among those whose metaphorical bar somehow filters success through a colander that leaves behind only the black sludge of carefully handpicked moments of despair for use in our collective misery.
Woe is us, indeed, but woe is not us forever. The death of hope is our home but the hope of hope is our mistress. We'll always find an odd, numb, sickening and prostrating comfort in the helplessness of being the Charlie Brown to fate's Lucy with a football. Yet, there's the dimmer of an eternal flame of hope that remains somehow unable to be snuffed, a mistress to which we can't help but return. From an outsider's perspective, it is what make Missourians, and Missouri fans in particular, such an astounding group. No one is quicker to embrace his or her own flaws than a Missourian, and no one will fight more viciously to defend a charge of the exact indictment they just acceded to. You have your flaws – we have our flaws – and we collectively wallow in them until challenged from the outside. It's equal parts damning and pride-inducing, one part admirable and one part frustrating.
Which brings me back to Missouri's seniors, who – if you haven't deduced by now – is the group targeted by the phrase I can't escape at the moment. There has been and will be no shortage of words dedicated to the role of Missouri's senior class in the rebirth of the Missouri basketball program. There are Missouri fans among our RMN midst whose years of fandom outnumber my diminutive number of years on this planet. There have been tremendous highs (Hey Norm!) and tremendous lows (Hey Quin!), all of which many of you have borne on your shoulders while praying for some of the burden to be displaced amongst your equally weary peers. Fandom of any team is both a blessing and a curse for any non-frontrunner, and many of you have borne this weight for years, if not decades or generations.
I, on the other hand, am new in the scope of Missouri fandom, Missouri basketball fandom in particular. My time at MIssouri did not include the highs and lows of Norm. It didn't even include the lows or highs (DRUG USE PUN ALERT) of the Quin era. Good fortune and the ability to somehow cheat the space-time continuum placed me in Columbia with a No. 1-ranked football team five months into my MU experience but also placed my nascent basketball fandom square in the crosshairs of the Athena scandal and the Darryl Butterfield era – two scandals I find equally as damaging to the program.
This class of Missouri seniors (and, damnit, Laurence Bowers, you're included) deserved better. They've had more moments than Missouri fans have had any reason to expect, believe, or even wish for. There were moments... we wanted a moment. It's an almost unbelievable quirk of human communication that the mere slanting of the letters in the word "moment" in the previous sentence conveys what I mean, but the way in which I phrased it means every Missouri fan felt the knife twist a little bit in his or her gut reading this in the exact same way I felt it in writing it.
I know many of you got emotional reading Bill's post from this morning, as you should. It was a well-deserved tribute to a senior class whose impact on this program is immeasurable, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. Trying to quantify what this group of seniors meant to basketball at the University of Missouri is one of the most futile exercises my [admittedly inhibited] brain can conjure up at the moment. Several years ago, Bill, myself, and a few others sat in the Lot X parking lot after Mizzou's stunning football loss to Oklahoma State, in which the joke "At least Mizzou has a good basketball team!.... Aww...." was bandied about. And, make no doubt about it, no matter the fact that Mizzou was in the Elite Eight six months later, this was a joke.
The impact of this senior class is measured by the fact that the joke expressed on that oddly gorgeous and still Missouri night became a joke that was almost impossible to understand for the student class that walked through the Columns for Tiger Walk just one year after I did. I have never experienced the deepest depths that Missouri revenue sports have had to offer - in fact, empirical evidence would show I'm an outlier in that regard in the best way possible. But here sits a Missouri graduating class that has never known March without madness, Mizzou Arena without noise, or a relationship between a crowd and team without love (no matter how begrudging or frustrating). When I entered, Missouri basketball wasn't an afterthought. That would imply neutrality. Missouri basketball was not the gold block M, it was a scarlet letter in the community. Perception painted the program with the image of thugs, and unlike many football programs of the 80's and 90s that won in spite of that label, there was no winning for Mizzou basketball to ease the stain of that mark. (Here is the part where I credit Mike Anderson not for just turning Mizzou into a winner again, but completely rehabilitating Missouri's image in the community in an appallingly short amount of time. Say what you will about his exit – his tenure will carry whatever black marks already exist, but history will prove it to be one of the most crucial stretches of coaching the University has ever seen).
The legacy of Missouri's seniors is that those memories are baffling, distant, and almost utterly unbelievable in hindsight. We'll always have Kimmie's free throws against Marquette, Denmon's already solid legacy being cast in stone against Kansas (twice, though only one performance ended on the preferable side of history), a "project" recruit named Steve Moore becoming one of the more oddly beloved figures in MU fandom. These moments are part of Missouri history, yet we weep (literally for some, metaphorically for others) for the moment they could never provide. But it's not what they did, but rather what they meant, that makes this senior class what it is and makes the people that comprise it who they are.
Those seniors sit on what music legend Bob Seger would only describe as "a long and lonesome highway east of Omaha," sadly having to listen to the engine moaning out its one-note song tonight. The song would implore us to turn the page, but it's everything that senior class did for Missouri that makes it so hard to leave behind.
For everything they did for Missouri, Mizzou's seniors deserved better. But this is the hand they were dealt, yet all I can do is leave my chips at the table and hope I can chase them across the casino and tell them just how damn grateful I am they decided to play.
I'm well aware this post is "TL;DR," and for that, I apologize profusely. But this is a reminder of the beauty of sports. In this age of instant communication, reaction, overreaction, reaction to the overreaction, it's easy to forget: It's never been a better time to be a sports fan in search of news or reaction, but in the process, it's a tougher time to be a sports fan in search of meaning. I have been blessed beyond measure to make my living within the realm of athletics, and in the process, it's implausibly easy to lose sight of this beauty. But even in the ugliness of this afternoon, my motivation to write tonight is further proof of the beauty in the drama that only this form of human theater can provide.