Thursday, April 18, 2013

Life and Loss with Michigan Basketball: Volume VI

Part VI: Uncharted Waters

Part I: Baptism in Dirty Water
Part II: The Fall from Innocence
Part III: Yellow Badge of Courage
Part IV (In Progress)
Part V: The Way it Was

"At some point you are not what you were, and then you are nothing. It's at this point people start putting themselves together, once you have had that year where you do too much of something - drink, play video games, feel sorry for yourself, brick threes, fumble - feel terrible after, and then do too much of that something again." - Brian Cook, via Mgoblog

It had been years since I had hugged my little brother. That night, though, ended with my brother and I instinctively embracing each other. It felt like that's exactly what I was meant to do that night, exactly where I was meant to be that night - a feeling I haven't felt in a long time.

Moments earlier Trey Burke crossed half court, the seconds seemingly ticking down on Michigan's best season in two decades and a glorious tournament run up to that night, as Kansas had spent the first thirty-eight minutes of the game picking apart Michigan's flaws in what appeared to be an onslaught towards an easy Jayhawk victory. Mitch McGary collided with a Kansas defender and tumbled to the hardwood. Canadian import Nik Stauskas could only watch from his home behind the three point line in the corner. Columbus, Ohio's own - another inconceivable story line in and of itself - Burke boldly stepped up from an improbable distance and launched a thirty footer. The orange ball seemed to hang in the basketball heavens for an excruciatingly anxious moment, Michigan's Final Four hopes and my heart hanging in the balance. The crowd fell into a ghastly silence. Team captain and symbolic victory cigar Josh Bartlesein anticipatorily jumped up from the Michigan bench as the ball hit its crescent, apparently having more confidence in Burke's thirty-footer than I, as my heart sunk gut-wrenchingly deep into my stomach. Indeed, that thirty foot prayer seemed to be sent from the heavens directly to me. The sports gods knew I needed this one bad, probably more than I had ever needed a basketball to drop through the net before.

When it did finally sink, it was hard not to think, at that moment, that Michigan's improbable comeback was explicitly tied to the comeback I had embarked on earlier that day. That the cosmos had somehow mysteriously aligned the events of that day with me in mind.

Five minutes of overtime later, Michigan was headed to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1993. Uncharted waters. Earlier that day, I walked into St. Mary's hospital with my dad and signed up for an intensive outpatient rehab program for alcohol abuse. The red flags had been there throughout the years, usually with me unwilling to notice them. Things had gotten pretty bad this year, though, and after a particularly bad bender the week before (of course it was losing the B1G title to Indiana in the closing seconds as I watched in the seats of Crisler that triggered this bender), I knew it was finally time to ask for some help. You just know when it's time to finally be honest with yourself. Uncharted waters indeed.

I went for a long drive after I left my brother's house that night. At one point I screamed in ecstasy alone in my truck; I felt happy for the first time in a long time, as if things had finally turned a corner for me. The events of the day were a lot to grasp between the hospital meeting and the miraculous Michigan comeback culminating in Trey Burke's all-out takeover of a game, solidification of his status as the National Player of the Year in college basketball. I blasted the country music and just let it all sink in.

It was all so improbable, from Michigan's win to my brother and I embracing. But I couldn't help but feel like it was all meant to be that way. As always, sports and life had converged in a moment all-too real to be coincidental. I watched the next three games with my brother at his house as well, and those were probably three of the best nights I've had in years. My brother and I had grown apart over the years just a bit - a lot of that probably due to my drinking and his not - so it felt like a new chapter for all of us concerned: my brother and I on a new chapter of our relationship, Michigan basketball on a new chapter as they annihilated the Florida Gators en route to the Final Four for the first time in two decades and then marched onwards to the National Championship game, me in the midst of beginning my own new chapter in the early days of my outpatient program.

Sometimes a game is more than a game.

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