On Tuesday night at the Michigan men’s basketball team banquet, Zack Novak stepped to the podium.
He followed teammate, co-captain and three-year roommate Stu Douglass, whose 18-minute speech gave anecdote-laden thank yous to former teammates, current teammates, coaches, trainers, family members, super fans and Crisler Center ushers.
Novak was quick to mock Douglass and started his speech by thanking his childhood dog, Hoser.
It seemed as though Novak was once again downplaying the gravity of the moment. On his last night as a Wolverine, it was his final chance as a player to address the Michigan public, which saw him transform from unheralded recruit to cornerstone of the program.
All year, Novak was hardly fazed by the sentimentality of his last go-round. He scoffed when reporters asked him about the pressure and urgency of being a senior, or about his last Big Ten game, or his last home game at Crisler.
But in his final address, he shed his “cool” outer layer. He talked about how he dreamed of becoming a Big Ten basketball player, and how his mom joined him for 5-on-5 pick-up games when he was in third grade.
Novak then delivered perhaps the most poignant line of his last four years.
“Then that one day you dreamt about as a kid, it happens. You have that day, it comes, and that day you dreamt about was yesterday, and you’re left with the memories.”
Douglass and Novak both know how much they are loved in Ann Arbor, but how do they manage when that love is transferred to the next batch of players in Trey Burke or Glenn Robinson III?
Maybe that’s why it took Douglass so long to get off of the podium.
His last moments as a Wolverine were dwindling, and he wanted to make them last as long as he could. By stepping off of that stage, he’d be conceding that his run was over, and that he would now be former Michigan guard Stu Douglass.
And maybe that’s why he never was ungracious or condescending to the media, despite the leading questions and incessant prodding at team minutiae. And that he shook the hand of each reporter at the conclusion of the banquet.
He knew that there probably wouldn’t be another time in his life when hundreds of people cared what he had to say. Or that the mood of the largest alumni base in the country hung on whether his 3-point try was a tad strong and hit the heel of the rim, or ricocheted through the net.
Douglass and Novak were living their dreams, and they knew it.
Four years turned them from nobodies to heroes of Michigan basketball. After Tuesday night, they remain heroes, but the problem is that they’re no longer Michigan basketball players. Fans will no longer eat up everything they do, and their status as Michigan athletes will lose its luster over time.
Both plan to play in Europe, and they can bet that their European fans won’t be fawning over them the way they did in Ann Arbor. They will go back to being the unknown guys with a sweet shooting stroke, deceptive athleticism, and a knack for stepping in front of a careening ball-handler. But they will have been stripped of their context.
They’ll likely never see the amount of love and adoration in their whole lives as they did when they were 21.
Sounds like a pretty grim outcome for a couple of bright guys, who will undoubtedly be successful in whatever they do later in life. But that’s a natural consequence when you reach such a peak early in life.
It’s different for guys like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., who are bound to spend time in the NBA. College ball may be a highlight for them, but their sights are higher.
For Novak and Douglass, this was it. That’s part sad and part happy.
You rejoice that two of the best guys to come through Crisler got careers far better than what they could have expected coming out of high school, and you feel bad that it’s over. Seniors graduate all the time and it’s certainly not a notable event, but for these two it seemed different.
The finality of endings strikes differently for everybody, and it’s a testament to Douglass and Novak’s success that their departure was so tough.
Sometimes four years isn’t enough, and that’s when you know you had something special.
— Rothschild can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @nrothschild3.