CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This wasn’t a season that could be captured in a still frame. It wasn’t a team that could be defined in 900 words. And it wasn’t a moment that anyone — not even Darius Morris — had words for.
No, to understand what happened in that moment, that game, that season, you need to hear to believe.
And few will actually listen for it, because you would have to look for those sounds in the unlikeliest of places. You’d have to listen to the silences. And no one is looking there.
Just like no one was looking at Michigan before this season started.
All that can be said, explained and extrapolated about this team and its emotions were heard in those silences throughout Time Warner Cable Arena yesterday.
It was the sound of silence as the ball left Morris’ hands and arched perfectly toward the basket until that idyllic silence was broken by the ding of the ball meeting the heel of the rim.
But in that moment of silence, there was hope — desperate hope. The hope of a team of ragtag kids who were under-recruited and underappreciated. It was the hope that the team, led by two Indiana boys in black sneakers, has held this entire season. It was the hope of John Beilein as he leaned forward, anticipating the exact result he’d seen in practice so many times when Morris took that same shot.
And then came the ding.
There was the silence of the aftermath. The silence of disbelief. The silence that shook the team to its core that comes with a rude awakening, paralyzing the brain. The silence that over took Tim Hardaway Jr. as he looked up at the scoreboard and bit at his uniform to fight back the tears.
Yes, the scoreboard read correctly, Duke won, 73-71.
“Everything went blank,” Hardaway Jr. would say after the game.
He heard nothing. Thousands of Duke fans screamed as Mike Krzyzewski notched his 900th win, but Hardaway Jr. heard silence.
Then there was the silence of Jonathan Kirbitz packing up his drum set for the last time. For four years, he’s been the Michigan pep band’s drummer, but when that ding came, his career ended. The band director looked up at his band and asked the seniors to lead the group for their final round of “The Victors.”
Kirbitz is graduating in May and doesn’t know what he’ll do. He wants to continue playing music, he says, but it won’t be for Michigan. Unlike every member of the Michigan basketball team, he won’t return.
His career ended the moment that silence did.
And then there was the moment no one saw when Lauren McLaughlin meticulously placed a sticker reading ‘Duke’ as the winner on the bracket that hung outside the arena. It was a placard that represented the Wolverines’ defeat — perhaps the first physical manifestation of the loss. She attached the sticker and said nothing.
Perhaps she expected to put the Blue Devils’ name there, like so many others, but the NCAA had printed up Michigan’s sticker as well.
She wouldn’t need to use it. She carelessly threw it into the trash. There was no rebound. That shot was perfect and the crumbled sticker lay unused and silent in the bottom of the can.
Right now that sound is the silence that filled Zack Novak’s heart as he stood at midcourt coming to the realization that his junior season was over.
It’s the worst feeling in the world, like someone died, he’d say.
And then there was the silence of the arena after the game, as Morris reemerged from the locker room and walked onto the court where his season had ended less than an hour before.
A handful of reporters and maintenance workers fell quiet. He looked at no one and walked across mid-court towards the basket that may haunt him until next season. With an invisible ball, he reattempted that shot.
His right hand, with perfect form, glided through the empty space. His headphones jiggled around his neck. He jumped off his right foot and landed again.
But the sound of the prospects of next year’s team roared throughout the arena. A team that will lose no one. A team that will return with a chip on its shoulder. A team that will no longer have a target on its heart, but rather, on its back.
And then a voice from the upper deck broke that silence, just like that ding broke the silence of the ball rushing those the air.
“Keep your head up.”
Morris looked up and continued walking.
It will be what this team needs to do. Because for now, there will be silence and it will be a painful silence. It will be the sound of people not knowing what to say. Whether to apologize or congratulate a team that brought Michigan basketball out of irrelevance, if only for a few weeks.
It will be a silence that represents the end of a hopeful season and a quiet March for the Wolverines.
Morris won’t get that shot back.
But on Thursday or Friday, they’ll be back in the gym again. And that silence that represented so much, yet held nothing, will be filled with sounds of a team preparing to do work again next season.
Chantel Jennings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org