The End of the Line

Once upon a time, I was riding a MAX train in Portland, the Green line, headed south to the Portland State campus. It was late evening, getting dark, and there was almost no one on the train. As those few of us that remained pulled up to the platform in front of PSU’s gleaming new rec center, the familiar, softly feminine voice added an extra note to the usual station announcement; “This is the end of the line.”

I stepped off the train with my fellow passengers and watched it head off, starkly empty but still brightly lit, in to the Portland night. It would circle around behind the campus and appear on the other side of the block in a short time to start the line’s run northbound, through the city center and off east to Clackamas.

Unlike that train, the 2012-13 college basketball season will not end quietly and alone. As many as 74,000 people will pack into the massive Georgia Dome in Atlanta, to watch the culmination of the year as the Michigan Wolverines take on the Louisville Cardinals for the NCAA Division I national championship. Forty minutes of play, about two and a half hours in real time, will decide who will win the title that just fewer than 350 teams set out in search of last fall. And yet, the journey through a season of college basketball feels a lot like my journey on that train. And this is the end of the line.

It’s four days shy of six even months between Midnight Madness and One Shining Moment, but time has a funny way of playing with you. How long has it really been since the last three undefeated teams in the country (Arizona, Duke and Michigan) were upended within days of one another, beginning the endless game of AP poll musical chairs that defined so many storylines this season? How many turns of the earth have really passed since Butler edged out Gonzaga on Roosevelt Jones’ miraculous steal-to-runner at the buzzer, or since Louisville’s marathon at Notre Dame, when Jerian Grant scored 12 points by himself in less than a minute to force the first of five overtimes?

The milestones just fly by. From stroke-of midnight dunk contests on the first official day of practice to the preparation to the preseason predictions, then to the exhibitions games to the actual games takes less than a month. Then it’s early season tournaments, guarantee games, non-conference showdowns, and talk about strength of schedule and before you know it, it’s the middle of January and you’re waist-deep in conference season. Big games and upsets and grind-it-out contests mount up and sometimes it feels like they won’t end, until they suddenly do end and you waving goodbye to seniors and planning trips to New York or Las Vegas or wherever the conference tournament is. Conference tournaments whiz by and then it’s Selection Sunday, where so many teams hold their breath and hope for a good seed or to avoid a play-in game or just to go to the dance at all. In another blink of an eye, 68 drops to 16, 16 to four, and now here we are, just a breath away from trophy hoisting, net cutting and video playing as CBS mashes their tournament footage together into musical, celebratory, tear-jerking multi-media requium that is “One Shining Moment.” All of a sudden, it’s all over.

This was the first time that I fully delved into this journey from beginning to end. I started out as a writer and photographer, missing Matt Knight Madness at Oregon but punching my ticket in time for the first exhibition game of the season. From holding off a comeback against Northern Arizona in the opener to upending UNLV to heartbreak in three overtimes at El Paso, I got to see a lot and write about even more. I was there, live and in person, for the defeat of Arizona and the rushing of that crazily painted floor, and I was there, through the miracle of the internet, for the frustration and borderline agony of the absolute blowout on the Farm thanks to Dominic Artis’ bum foot and an apparently underrated Stanford squad.

I thought early in the season that the Ducks had a chance to go dancing, and as I planned in the back of my mind how to get to the Pac-12 tournament on my shoestring barista salary, I also wondered what it would be like to cover the greatest show on hardwood. Circumstances changed, however, and while it was a very positive transformation in my life on the whole, it’s relegated me from my minor participatory role to that of a viewer, a passenger of sorts.

Tonight feels like the natural culmination of that journey, even if Oregon isn’t playing and even if, had they managed to, there’s no way I could have scrounged the money to got or been lucky enough to garner a photo cred to college hoops’ holiest night. Having not followed a season of college ball from one end to the other so passionately before, I’m wondering, probably naively, what I’ll do now that the ride is over. There’s obvious answers: baseball and the NBA and even Major League Soccer, which I’ve promised myself I would take more of an interest in, not to mention my full-time job. But this has been a really special season for me, so I’m sad to see it go.

Unlike the Superbowl, which is practically a holiday into and of itself, or the NBA Finals or the World Series, which are spread out over a week or more and have no definitive end date, there is a full day of anticipation before the title game. I awoke this morning to plenty of prognostication on ESPN from analysts whose brackets had already been decimated like so many others, including mine. If the season could be likened to climbing a mountain, this workday would be the pause just below the summit, before the final push. The difference is, only one team can reach that summit, represented most literally at the top of a ladder, eye to eye with the basket, scissors in hand.

The website I used to write for illustrates the reaching of that summit every year with an animation called The Circle of March. The logos of the 347 teams in Division I are arranged in a circle in full color, and as each team is eliminated, either by missing their conference tournament, missing the Big Dance, or falling to another foe before tonight, their logo turns light grey until eventually, tomorrow morning, only one logo will be left. But even that logo will fade, as the season will be over with only the trophy, the strands of net and the many, many memories to remain.

So it ends tonight. I’ll be there in the sense that so many millions will be, looking through the metaphorical eye that is the CBS logo. Thanks to my Boston Celtics loyalties and “elephant never forgets” mentality towards the mid-90s, not to mention the casual acquaintance with Big Blue that I’ve gained almost by mistake through this season, I’ll be cheering for Michigan. But win or lose, as soon as this game ends, I’ll be looking ahead. Not just to those other sports I talked about before, but ahead to just over six months from now when the logos in the Circle of March will all be brightly colored once again and the metaphorical train will once again begin its journey from Midnight Madness to One Shining Moment.

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