Erick Green knew the moment was coming and yet it caught him off guard.
In his dreams this week, he saw himself holding the ACC tournament trophy on Sunday afternoon after he and his Virginia Tech teammates “shocked the world” by winning four straight games as the No. 12 seed in a 12-team tournament.
Those dreams never had a chance.
Everywhere Green turned on Thursday afternoon at Greensboro Coliseum, there was someone in a white uniform closing in on him. If he managed to shed North Carolina State point guard Lorenzo Brown, he knew there were four more Wolfpack players waiting to cut him off. Brown did everything but follow him into the locker room at halftime.
“I knew it was going to be that way,” Green said after Virginia Tech’s season had ended with a resounding 80-63 loss to the Wolfpack in the first round of the ACC tournament. “I knew they were going to double-team me all day. Even in transition, I looked up and there were two or three guys waiting for me. I just wish I could have played better.”
Green had no reason to apologize, even after a 5-of-19 shooting performance in his last college basketball game. N.C. State did what every Virginia Tech opponent has done all season: dared the rest of the Hokies to win the game. Even with all the double-teams he faced, with defenses geared to stop him for 32 straight games, Green managed to lead the country in scoring, averaging 25.4 points per game prior to Thursday.
Too often, it wasn’t enough to overcome Virginia Tech’s lack of talent, which is why his team finished with a 13-19 record in James Johnson’s first season as coach.
That was why Johnson called a timeout with 1 minute 5 seconds left in the game. Green had just slipped a pretty pass to Christian Beyer for a layup — his first and only assist of the day. Johnson knew it was time to allow Green to exit to one last standing ovation — not just from the Hokies fans but from everyone in the building — to walk to the bench and hear the cheers and hug his teammates one final time.
It is a moment that comes in one form or another to every college basketball player. Very few go out cutting down a net or jumping into someone’s arms to celebrate. Most who don’t play for the one-and-done factories exit the way Green did: looking up to see a sub coming in for them and knowing that it’s really and truly the end.
The sub for Green was Joey Racer, a senior walk-on. It was clear by the look on his face that Racer understood the emotions Green was feeling as he became the first person to hug him.
Green walked slowly to the bench — there is no longer or slower walk in sports than that last one off a basketball court. He paused to hug Johnson and then each of his teammates.
“It was sad,” he said later. “I knew it was coming but it was still very emotional. It brought tears in my eyes when my teammates were hugging me. It hurt.”
He paused. “I remember people telling me when I was a freshman that four years would fly by and I didn’t believe them. But it did. I’ll miss everything about playing college basketball. I know we didn’t win but I had a great ride while I was here. I’m so glad I got to walk off the court with Coach Johnson and with my teammates. I always remember that.”
Green won’t soon be forgotten at Virginia Tech, even if he played for losing teams his last two seasons. There were a lot of people who questioned former Coach Seth Greenberg when he recruited him out of Paul VI Catholic in Fairfax because he was not one of those players who was touted as an all-American or even as someone who could be a starter in the ACC.
“I liked him because he had a chip on his shoulder,” Greenberg said Thursday evening in a telephone conversation. “He had an insatiable desire to get better. I saw him as someone who was going to keep getting better in college because he was going to be the first guy in the gym and the last one out. He was different than a lot of kids who play basketball: he was never an enabled kid. A lot of that came from his parents. His mother was always his toughest critic. I always saw that as a good thing.”
If Green played with a chip on his shoulder, he never brought it with him once the game was over. Almost an hour after the game was over Thursday, he was leaned against a wall just outside the Virginia Tech locker room, still in uniform patiently answering questions. His teammates were dressed and heading for the bus. Green appeared to be in no rush.
“Honestly, it never occurred to me that we weren’t going to win today,” he said softly. He paused again and shook his head. “College really does fly by. Every year goes by faster.” He smiled. “If I ever get a chance to talk to kids I’ll tell them, ‘When you get to college, savor every second because it’s going to be over before you know it.’ ”
Johnson first began recruiting Green as an assistant to Greenberg when Green was 15 years old. Johnson talked at length during his postgame news conference about what a wonderful player Green had become. As Johnson talked, Green sat next to him, seemingly in a daze.
Then Johnson stopped talking about basketball. “He’s a better kid than he is a player,” he said. “He’s going to graduate on time in four years in May.”
At that moment Green snapped out of his reverie, sat up, smiled and nodded his head enthusiastically. Clearly, he understood that as much as it hurt, the end of college basketball was only the beginning of his life.
A few minutes earlier, when he walked off the court, he looked up into the stands to where his parents, Erick and Tamara, were sitting. He is the oldest of their five children and, like everyone else in the Virginia Tech section, they were on their feet.
“I looked up and saw my mom and dad,” Green said. “My mom looked at me and just mouthed, ‘I love you.’ ”
Erick Green smiled one last time while wearing a Virginia Tech uniform. “That was all I needed,” he said. “It’s a sad day but it’s a happy day, too.”
The sadness is there for every player who walks off the court and into a locker room for the last time. For some players, though, it can be tinged with a special feeling of pride because they know they have given absolutely everything they had give to their team, their teammates and their school.
Erick Green could leave the building Thursday knowing he had done exactly that.
For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.