A friend of mine has said that he doesn't watch men's college basketball because he finds it depressing to watch the athletic careers of players he likes either flame out in the pros or screech to a halt in their early twenties.
From that perspective, watching a small school like Seattle University - a school transitioning into Division 1 -- would be exceedingly difficult.
The Redhawks entered the season without the possibility of post-season play and in the process of learning to win at the Division I level, they fell to 6-21 after a 20 point loss to Cal State Bakersfield on senior night last Saturday. One could imagine how that would be a disappointing end to one's basketball career, more agonizing than triumphant. No hoisting of trophies, a shot at a championship, or plans to move on to the professional level.
After years of hard work with little concrete recognition to show for it, it's all suddenly over.
And then there's a senior night.
In describing Stanford University's senior night, Mechelle Voepel recently wrote, "Let's face it, senior days/nights are not created equal. Not all women's basketball programs have a history that's successful. Or even if it is successful, it hasn't mattered enough to the school or community." Obviously, SeattleU lacks the Division 1 championships, history, or success that make Stanford senior night so special.
So I came to SeattleU's final home game wondering what the seniors felt about finishing their careers in this way. We can all pontificate about what that's like, but I wanted to know how they would describe the experience of playing out their senior years in what was essentially a "lame duck" situation by most people's standards.
I think I got the answer without having to ask the question.
After senior forward Ashley Brown began crying as she walked from center court toward her parents with a bouquet and framed jersey, they transitioned into the player speech portion of ceremony. Senior guard Cassidy Murillo - introduced as one of the best players to ever wear a Redhawks jersey -- took the mic looking more composed as she started to say a few words to the crowd. The business major from Yakima, Washington who has already secured a job at Boeing started to choke up as she reflected on her four years at SeattleU.
"I loved putting on a SeattleU uniform and coming out to play," said Murillo, tearing up before continuing. "And the thing I'll miss the most is just coming out and being with my teammates."
Murillo finished abruptly and handed off the mic to the next speaker - Mercedes Alexander - who also gave a tearful speech to the crowd. Next it was Brown's turn to return to center court to make her speech. She took the mic from Alexander, walked slowly to a halt, and took a deep breath, trying to keep her composure.
"I loved my teammates I'm gonna miss you guys," said Brown, unsuccessfully keeping her composure. "I've been with you for four years."
Coach Joan Bonvicini, one of the most successful coaches in women's collegiate basketball history who brought 29 years of experience to Seattle this year, took the mic next and told us a bit more about Brown. Brown went from scoring 2.6 points in 14 games her sophomore year, to missing her junior season with an injury, and emerging this season as the team's top scorer against Division 1 competition with 14.0 points per game.
"To know that you've battled back and stayed strong says a lot about your character," said Bonvicini of Brown. "You're going off to law school and you have a great family."
When the ceremony came to an end and the crowd of 387 in the intimate Connolly Center gave their seniors a standing ovation, I caught a glimpse of Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans giving a light inaudible applause, her hands safely behind her laptop monitor. Although I could barely hold back applause myself, I joked with her that the Times probably wouldn't approve of her cheering from media row to which she rightly responded that it was hard not to be moved by the whole scene.
I suppose it's hard to put in words exactly why it was so moving except to say that unless you're a scarecrow, the collective, public display of affection among any group of people has to evoke something. Even without being with them for every practice for four years or on the bus for every road trip, it was hard not to get a little choked up watching the players speak to their fans.
The fact that they showed up every night despite low expectations and seemingly impossible odds says more about their character, commitment, and general love for the game than almost any other metric of "success".
"I think you can tell we have some very special girls here," said Bonvicini in her remarks to the crowd during the ceremony. "Although this season hasn't been the best in terms of wins and losses, I couldn't ask for a better team."
I can definitely see how this whole thing might be "depressing" - watching a lifetime of dedication to a beautiful sport come to an end is hardly a "fun" Saturday night. Obviously Murillo's place in SeattleU's history is far less significant in the context of women's basketball than anyone at Stanford. And it's worth noting that I might just be a sucker that feels these things way too easily. But for me, that dedication to one's craft - especially one that is known to be terminal - is worthy of our respect. There will be no national accolades for SeattleU and 10 years from now, this whole season might be forgotten outside of the women on the team.
"I started doing this after the game at Arizona because I didn't want to do it before the game because I felt they were always rushed and it was too emotional," said Bonvicini in her post-game interview. "But it was a really good time for them to get I think the respect that they were due and have their families enjoy it and then have an opportunity for them to address the crowd. And I thought it was really nice. And I think you can tell - we have really good kids on this team."
So yeah only a few hundred people showed up, the program has almost no national significance at this point, and the players will be "going pro in something other than sports." However, it doesn't diminish the power of this event: a time to show our respect for all that these athletes have poured into the game for four years.
In the moment, I'm not sure it matters whether they're created equal or not.
For more on Seattle University's season, see our section on the team.