If you’ll indulge me, Tuesday night’s Horizon League championship game brought back one of the most vivid and indelible memories of my journalism career.
Billy Donlon is now a head basketball coach at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He’s a terribly bright guy who took a team that was picked to finish last in the league all the way to the championship game at Valparaiso.
I first met Billy in the spring of 1998, when I was a rookie reporter at the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News. I covered some of his games for UNC-Wilmington that year, and liked him immediately. He was barely 6-feet; a scrappy guy who you just knew spent every waking minute in the gym, trying to get better. He wasn’t a great athlete, but he had terrific point guard instincts and was as smart as anyone on the court.
I interviewed him a few times and was struck by how much thought he put into his answers, and what good kid he was. (silly me, I expected most athletes I interviewed to be like that from then on. Eh, not so much.)
That year UNCW made it to the finals of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, and was just one game away from making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.
I was at the title game in Richmond, Va., and for a while, it looked like Donlon and UNCW would finally get it done. But they crumbled and lost, and in a league like the CAA, only the league champ gets a chance to be in March Madness.
After the game I walked into the locker room to interview the players, and Donlon was off in a corner, sobbing.
More accurately, wailing into a towel. He looked completely, physically exhausted. A few teammates went over to try to console him, but it didn’t help. Hell, I felt like putting my arm around the kid. I have never seen another athlete, before or since, so emotionally devastated by a game.
I wished right then and there that Donlon would get a chance to play in the NCAAs one day, but he never did. But whenever I’ve thought about the agony and cruelty of sports, his face is what I saw in my mind’s eye.
After his playing days ended Donlon became an assistant coach in college, slowing moving up the ranks. He became the head coach at Wright State in 2010, and slowly has built up that small school.
Tuesday night, Billy Donlon had a chance to finally make it to the NCAA Tournament. I stumbled onto the game on ESPN and immediately smiled when I saw his face; he still looked like he was about 12 and was Opie Taylor’s kid brother.
For two hours, I pulled hard for a college I knew nothing about, but really it was because I wanted a happy ending for a great kid named Billy.After staging a big comeback, Wright State led by six with three minutes left.
But just like UNCW did 15 years earlier, Wright State faded, and Billy Donlon again had his heart crushed.
The beauty of sports is so often celebrated in our culture, but the agony of defeat, as shown on Billy Donlon’s face all those years ago, is also what makes sports so wrenching and beautiful, at the same time.
You’ll get there one day, Billy. And I can’t wait to see the look on your face when you do.
**Sometimes photographs take your breath away. Like this one, which deserves to be seen huge. In the middle of the desert in southern Utah, there exists the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), which is a research facility designed to find out if it’s possible for human exploration of Mars.
The scientists are trying to create similar conditions to what you’d find on that planet, and have been there since 2000.
What an amazing photo, and what an amazingly cool research project. For more photos of the site click here.
**Finally, with a new Jackie Robinson movie due to come out soon (it looks amazing from what the trailer shows), it looks like he’ll finally get the big-screen treatment he deserves.
Besides being an incredible ballplayer and a trailblazer for all African-American baseball stars who came after him, Robinson had a civil-rights conscience as well.
On March 9, 1965, Robinson sent an urgent telegram to President Lyndon Johnson urging him to stop the massacre that was ongoing in Selma, Alabama. Read it below…
Very cool recently discovered document. Sadly, the massacre continued.