The Perfect Season
My perfect season began by being tossed a bottle of purplish Vitamin Water in an office at the Indiana Daily Student. The sports editor who would be overseeing and choosing the Indiana men’s basketball writers asked me to describe it.
It was the end of my junior year and I was interviewing for the men’s basketball columnist gig.
“This advertises that it has vitamins b5, b6 and manganese,” I said. “Who the hell wakes up in the morning and says, ‘yea, I really feel the need to up my b6 today?’ This crap is for yuppies who get up before the sun, run on the treadmill at the gym and then spend the rest of the day telling everybody else about it.” (no offense to anybody with a b6 deficiency.)
The management team ate it up. A few days later I got a call that me -some kid from Maryland- got the job of writing columns throughout Indiana’s 2011-12 season.
The Hoosiers’ “perfect season” (not in the literal sense, but I’ll get to that later) began on a Thursday in November at Washington High School. Cody Zeller committed to Indiana that day and set in motion a turnaround from three previous seasons that were as miserable as the Indiana winters they were played during (28-66 overall and 8-46 in Big Ten games, but who’s counting).
Indiana basketball was once again going to be grea- well, respectable. That was the expectation of many. The team would go back to at least being competitive and that was good enough for now.
They say you can’t have it all, but I did my senior year.
Living in a fraternity house among friends and always having something to do. Family time during breaks and vacations. Finally experiencing Bloomington as a 21-year-old. Falling in love for the first time. Covering the IU men’s basketball team and having the most fun I have ever had “working.”
Each week was a new adventure and it never got old. The long drives to conference away games, being lucky enough to have a credential and one of the best seats in Assembly Hall, soaking in the games, talking to players and coaches, breathing life into columns and interacting with readers.
But my senior year would not have been perfect had it not been for the team’s performance that season.
The only thing better than success is unexpected success.
Nobody had Indiana ranked in their 2011-12 preseason Top 25 poll.
After a few games it was evident that IU had improved, but a win against undefeated, No. 1, All-Universe Kentucky still seemed unlikely.
That’s what made IU’s upset of the Wildcats so great -it followed a narrative. The previously downtrodden program on the rise gets a signature win against its own Goliath and does so on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
It was the perfect season. No, IU didn’t win it all, but that didn’t matter. The Hoosiers made it to the Sweet 16 that year and did so again the next year, but that first NCAA Tournament trip was so much sweeter because it was unexpected.
Indiana is actually the last college basketball team to put together a literally perfect, undefeated season, but I’m willing to bet memories from the 2011-12, 27-9 squad will be equally preserved in fans’ minds.
The funny thing about perfect seasons is what happens after the confetti is cleaned up off the floor.
You have to consider this: in the summer before my senior year I landed this awesome internship with MLB.com covering the hometown Baltimore Orioles, then got the columnist gig and then all the positives going on with my social and personal life.
You kind of just assume that’s the way things are going to continue to go. Coming out of college I had this misguided certainty that I just had to land a major D-I beat because it was the natural progression of things.
After some humbling months unemployed I was hired in Beaumont, Texas, where a sports reporter had recently left after less than a year to cover a major college football team at a metro newspaper. So naturally, I thought I would follow the same path. I didn’t even buy a couch when I came here because I foresaw it being too difficult to move when I left.
Yea, I know. Pretty bad.
That was two years and three months ago.
I could have done a much better job of coping with my time in Beaumont by accepting my own -albeit imperfect- story.
Indiana was supposed to get better after its perfect season. It received a preseason No.1 ranking and the adjoining hype.
But IU was eliminated in the same round of the NCAA Tournament as the previous year. Then Zeller and Victor Oladipo left and the Hoosiers regressed. Twenty-nine wins to 17 with no postseason.
Then this past offseason, off-the-court issues compounded the losses from the prior year.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go down. The plateau of success wasn’t supposed to stop at the Sweet 16. Indiana basketball was supposed to be “back” and not just for an abbreviated visit.
So the college basketball world’s narrative of the Hoosiers shifted with IU’s season set to tip off. Suspended players from drunk driving and drugs, another player in the hospital and an increasingly hot seat for the coach was supposed to spell doom.
And to be fair, a home loss against Eastern Washington followed that story.
But then IU beat Pittsburgh. And Butler. And most recently, at Nebraska.
There’s still a lot of season left, but an 11-3 start was more than many expected.
The story of Indiana basketball over the past few years hasn’t correctly followed the script. The ups and downs seem erratic and random. Maybe that’s because when it comes to sports or life, there is no correct script to follow and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can get to living.
We’re naturally drawn to stories and sometimes they shape the expectations of our lives.
Yes, I’m talking about the idealism of movies and novels, but also the narratives of those around us. If you go on social media and see people sipping mimosas as part of Sunday brunch in a major city before going to a pro sporting event (as a fan), you might convince yourself that that’s what you’re supposed to be doing because if they’re happy, that means you would be happy, right? And if that one reporter was in Beaumont for about a year before moving to something bigger and better, that means you should be able to do the same or be a failure, right?
I formed these little stories in my mind of what I thought my life was supposed to be like instead of living the one I was in. For months, I would wake up with an urgency that I had to get out of the situation I was in and although that led to a strong work ethic, that’s no way to live your life.
Here’s the thing -you’re not living the life of anybody else but yourself. You’re going to go through your own hardships and successes and there’s no telling when those are going to come. I reached a point where I thought there was no way life could throw me another uppercut, but it came anyway. The circumstances that make the most sense in our heads according to some hypothetical narrative rarely come to fruition.
One of the biggest lessons in life is accepting that some of the things out of our control are just part of our own unique, individual stories. From day-to-day, but more importantly with the bigger stuff in life, thinking things are supposed to happen a certain way can drive you insane.
It took me almost two years to figure this out and I wish I would have sooner.
I wish I bought a couch.
I have learned that perfect seasons end and it’s tough to deal with the aftermath, but it is still just one chapter in a larger story.
And maybe, if you start embracing life and its turns, that perfect season won’t even be the best one of your life.