On his first field goal attempt of his college basketball career, punt returner/point guard rolled in a three pointer. Moments later he hit Justin Cobbs on a three-quarter court bounce pass that led to a thunderous dunk. A second later it was Rodney Williams streaking to the basket, too contested to dunk but not for a pretty finger roll. And the bench exploded. This wasn’t the typical celebration during a time-out. It was a loud full throated jubilation as the players streamed on the court.
Lawrence Westbrook was the first player to reach Cobbs, jumping into his arms like so many catchers after a no-hitter. Trever Mbakwe got to Allen, picked him over his shoulder, and spun him around a few times. The always sulking, occasionally selfish, always maligned senior captain could barely contain his joy. The junior college transfer who has watched his entire season slip away, with his future soon to be decided by 12 strangers, wasn’t about to let his past or future uncertainty get in the way of celebrating his new teammate’s accomplishment.
This isn’t the same Gopher team that sat idly by as Michigan walked out of Williams Arena with a shockingly easy victory. It wasn’t the same team whose starting back-court couldn’t get through a team meeting without starting a shoving match. For the last two games at least, it isn’t the same team that couldn’t hold double digit lead.
Forgive the Gophers for not having fun until last Thursday. Forgive them for wanting the season too. We all did. The Gophers used to think basketball was everything, and if basketball was everything, then everything was going wrong. Too many blown leads, too many off the court issues, too many clashing personalities, criticism from coaches, media and the fans led to the Gophers getting too down, and just wanting to get out.
In a lot of ways it isn’t a bad thing that the Gophers lost perspective. They are just kids after all. One of the great joys of being a kid is having completely out of whack priorities and a distinct lack of perspective. Life is rough, and perspective and reordered priorities don’t happen until something goes wrong. Immensely talented 19 and 20 year-olds don’t learn that basketball isn’t life until life gets in the way.
Paul Carter has always known that basketball is only a small part of the big picture. The junior college transfer in his third year with the Gophers has led a nomadic existence, and his time with the Gophers is the longest he’s ever spent anywhere. He’s traveled cross-country, been uprooted, and lost everything to a hurricane. He describes himself as a man of faith, and wasn’t about to do anything to burden anyone else. So when he started shaving his head, he didn’ t tell anyone why until Damian Johnson asked.
Carter’s sister Bria had just started chemotherapy to treat life threatening but thankfully curable bone cancer. Carter shared what he and his family were going through. The Gophers shaved their heads as a sign of solidarity, grew up, and became a team.
Suddenly basketball was just a game again. Life showed the Gophers that. Those early losses and clashing personalities didn’t matter anymore. What did matter was showing support for Carter and his family, and giving Bria, who watches every game from her hospital room, something to think about other than cancer.
The Gophers don’t have great shot at making the NCAA tournament this season, but they haven’t given up. They are playing basketball like it is a game and not a burden. They know there are plenty of real people with burdens more real than losing a basketball game or two. They remembered that basketball is supposed to be fun.
Working hard, supporting teammates, and bringing a little joy to others are the new priorities for this new team, and lately, its been leading to some great basketball.