UPDATE: Most of you, not being UNC basketball fans, will not visit the Tar Heel athletics website so you would read Turner Watson's excellent piece there, Turner's Take: This Shining Moment
There are those who would say that sport fandom is irrational. Investing so much of yourself emotionally in the outcome of a game, in something that you have no control over, it's . . . well it's silly, they say.What a great life lesson. Keeping in the fight, even when your "A Game" seems to have deserted you.
Often, it's easy to agree with them. After a tough loss by your team, it's healthy to take a step back, get some perspective. Hug your family and move on. Sport fandom is irrational.
Except, it's not, because our society coalesces around sport like it does little else in life. Sport brings people together. We have pregame tailgates and postgame celebrations. We have gatherings around the television and tickets bought together all so we can share in an experience, witnessing tremendous athleticism and root for our favorite team. We toast to wins and wallow after losses.
As we grow older, our perspective shifts a bit. We don't invest so much in outcomes as we invest in people, those we commune with and those we enjoy watching. We begin to see athletes as three-dimensional people, with incredible talent, certainly, but with thoughts, feelings, emotions of their own. We invest in our sports heroes because they represent a part of us. They are walking, breathing metaphors. We live vicariously through them; weep in times of failure, jump and scream in times of triumph. Whether or not we ever meet them, we feel a connection, one that persists long after their playing days are over.
When one of our favorites is struggling, we want more than anything for him to overcome those struggles. So that they contribute to a positive outcome, yes, but also because, well, we just care.
Isaiah Hicks is one of our favorites. The affable Oxford native began his career on the wing, playing from the outside in as a freshman. He was not comfortable there, and before his sophomore season, Hicks was genuinely excited about returning to the post, playing with his back to the basket, as he'd done so as a dominant high school player. For two years he came off the bench and provided a spark before becoming a senior starter. But Hicks went through a slump recently. After scoring 17 points against Texas Southern in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, he hadn't didn't hit double figures the next two games. Against Kentucky, he was just 2-5 from the field and he gave way to the rise of Luke Maye. In the national semifinal against Oregon, Hicks scored two points –a single dunk– on 1-12 shooting.
On Sunday, Hicks said he wasn't down on himself, enough times that you came around and believed him."I wouldn't say I'm very frustrated or anything, because I feel like I'm out there just trying, and I feel like when you try and it doesn't go well, just keep trying," he said.
Trying. You don't often hear an athlete at the collegiate or professional level talk about 'trying.' A word like 'try,' rather than 'execute,' for example, conveys vulnerability. It takes away some of the myth of the athlete. It makes them human. "The only pressure is just trying," Hicks said. "At the end of the day, I look at it like I've just got to try. Hope to play the best, but all I can do is try."
Roy Williams was asked about Hicks' struggles on Sunday, the day before the national championship game. "It's a tough time for him as an individual," the coach said. "I keep trying to tell him I believe in him, I trust him. I'm going to keep putting you out there. Said many times I'm not the smartest, but I'm not the dumbest guy. So if I keep putting you out there, I must have more confidence in you than you have in yourself. So hopefully things will change Monday night."
They didn't. Not right away, anyway. Hicks' first field goal attempt came 15 seconds in. He got a good look at a baseline jumper, but it went long. So too did his second shot. But he kept trying. He got a block. A couple of rebounds. A few free throws, and then his first jumper fell inside of three minutes to go in the first half. Hicks proceeded to have a very average Isaiah Hicks game. He'd made a strong move to score late in the shot clock five minutes prior, but with a minute to play he had 11 points, 9 rebounds and four fouls. Not dominant, but not bad. He was trying.