The 2020 NCAA men’s basketball tournament had gone dark before it opened on late Thursday afternoon, the coronavirus nixing the country’s annual binge of frivolity, mythology and bracketology. And of the 13 programs which already had snared automatic bids for the event, one knew the deepest ache.
Eight, after all, had just graced the brackets in 2019, while two had ended three-year hiatuses, one a five-year, another nine, and then came Hofstra of Hempstead on Long Island. Thirty-six hours before the first cancellation of an event held annually since 1939, Hofstra had healed a bummer from March 2019, had won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament held in Washington, and had aimed for the big bracket for the first time in 19 wanting years, epitomizing all the familiar toil and hope and camaraderie.
“Tuesday night, it’s euphoria,” said Joe Mihalich, the team’s seventh-year coach. “It’s dreams come true. It’s climbing up the ladder. ‘Are we really climbing up the ladder? Yeah.’ We’re cutting these nets down. Thirty-six hours later, you’re stepping into a nightmare.”
He said: “I mean, we’re gutted. We are gutted. Somebody just ripped our guts. We are devastated.”
And he said, as did all his three seniors in some way: “Just because you understand something doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept.”
“I just feel so sorry for Long Island; with what Long Island did for me the past four years, I was just so happy to give them something they were craving for 19 years,” said Eli Pemberton, the 6-foot-5 senior guard from Middletown, Conn., who played 129 Hofstra games, 4,481 Hofstra minutes, and averaged 17.6 points and 5.6 rebounds for a team that won 26 games and lost just eight this promised-land year.
Then he said, “I’m getting choked up just thinking about it.”
Pemberton took his drive through rainy roads suddenly lighter in traffic in pandemic times. He listened to PartyNextDoor. Thoughts and tears took turns, and in one thought, he embodied precisely what citizens hope for their college students. “I remembered my first game,” he said. “I remembered my mind-set coming into college, how badly I wanted to start. It was more individual accolades as an 18-year-old. And the growth since then. . . . I wanted all the awards. I wanted all the other things. And to see how that changed. I don’t think for myself anymore. The last two years, I put my brothers first and the last two years have been the best years of my life.”
He got to his mother and stepfather’s place in Middletown. He heard them say, essentially, “This isn’t the end.” He knew they don’t and can’t quite understand fully. The singular American experiment of March Madness had grabbed his imagination in 2010, right at the cusp of his teens, when John Wall dazzled the tournament, when a 33-2 Kansas lost to Northern Iowa in Oklahoma City, and a kid saw the stands and the bands and the verve and thought, “I’m like, ‘This is insane.’ . . . I couldn’t even imagine then what that was like, at that age.”
He said, “I may have a career beyond this, but this experience is what basketball players live for, the NCAA experience.”
And he said, “And to get to that point — in the tournament . . .”
He rode on later to Storrs, reached his friend and “just kind of emotionally broke down, I guess.”
He slept poorly for three hours.
His teammate and fellow guard, Desure Buie, had reached the Bronx, after his Hofstra-record 141 games and his 3,636 minutes and his closing 18.2 points and 3.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists. He talked to his older brother, Dennis. He played video games online with friends who sat in rooms elsewhere. He said at one point, “I don’t even want to really be outside.
“I’m hurt,” he said, “because I’m a senior, I worked for this my whole career, I finally got over the hump to a chance at my goal, what was cutting down the nets one day [as an automatic NCAA qualifier], and now I don’t get the chance.”
A player who overcame a daunting knee injury at Hofstra had the tournament’s crazy sets of promises and possibilities stretched out ahead. “I think it’s kind of, it’s hard for people who don’t get enough exposure and stuff like that,” Buie said. “Look, we’re not all lottery picks. We’re trying to create something for our families, for ourselves. It’s hard. You don’t know what could have been different [in terms of gaining exposure to pro teams], after going on a run [in the tournament], or something like that.”
The tournament had snared him in 2011, also on the cusp of his teens, when fellow Bronx man Kemba Walker shepherded a lukewarm Connecticut team through the kind of 11-game run — Big East tournament, then NCAA tournament — that could spawn decades of deluges of optimism. “That’s what I was looking forward to trying to do, just being the underdog,” he said. He did surmise, as he works toward a master’s degree in higher education leadership and policy studies, that he might recall this bummer to help younger people later on.
He slept poorly, for a second straight night.
By Thursday just after 4 p.m., after Hofstra had shut its classrooms and taken its mission online, senior guard Connor Klementowicz helped a friend move out of a dormitory. The two walked a hallway. They passed a women’s soccer player.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“Sorry about what?” he said.
Klementowicz is that vivid feature of March Madness tapestry: the bench player, always bouncing up in support, always working even while not often playing, always true. So he reached for the phone he had avoided all day, and the texts had piled up. “Right away, I had to sit down,” he said. “My legs turned to jelly.” He sat, head in hands.
Then he felt the natural human wish that something true might be untrue, so he barged over to the office of assistant coach Mike Farrelly. “He was just holding himself up in a chair,” Klementowicz said. “ ‘Yeah, it’s true.’ ” So they sat there for 30 of those wordless minutes where the wordlessness seems right and not awkward.
The team had a meeting, which sparked another curious wave of human nature. “Oh, I mean. . . . I was like, almost like, I don’t know, I just, I felt like I didn’t really want to see everybody — I don’t know, because I feel like the more I see my teammates, the more upset I’d get,” Klementowicz said. He said, “This might be the last time.”
He and teammate and chum Hal Hughes went out later for pizza in the ghost town. They went back to a room and talked. Klementowicz slept poorly, then had that fleeting moment in the waking process when a person thinks the bad truth might not be true — until a check of the phone again declares otherwise.
Their one chance had gone, and their coach, Mihalich, had told them of the pandemic, “We don’t want to be the people who made the problem worse; we need to be the people who made the problem better.” He had told them, “The last memory as a player you’re going to have is winning a championship.”
Then Mihalich made the quick drive home, a man with nine tournament appearances for La Salle and Niagara and the wish to see the tournament upon the faces of his debutantes, and he waited for his wife Mary to return from a trip, and they talked all evening. They discussed the exhilarating fruits of this week, all lost: the speculation about tournament destination, the sight of the name “Hofstra” repeatedly crawling across the bottom of the TV screen as a qualifier, the selection party.
“You counter that with what a great year you had, how great the kids are, how lucky you are to be their coach,” Mihalich said, soon adding, “It was more than a team. And that’s why we won,” and, “They had it, man. They cared about each other. They loved each other. They brought the best out of each other.”