March 23, 2023 

‘My first and last time’: On endings, with Iona and Duke

A column on NCAA Tournament grief

DURHAM, N.C. — One of my favorite things to write about is grief. It is an immensely complicated emotion, and I am fascinated by the sheer magnitude of ways large and small, that we as human beings create and involve ourselves in things which must inevitably end. And thus grief management is one of the most powerful skills people can have in terms of adapting to the absurdity of life. It is something I observed up close this past weekend, through Duke and Iona’s losses in the NCAA Tournament.

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For a while, I found the world continuing to turn in the face of my own grief to be quite cruel. That in the face of my needing to process, basically every aspect of life remained unfazed, continuing the next day as it did the last. Grief needs time and space to process, time and space which our culture so rarely affords.

But there is a beauty in how the world keeps turning, regardless of what you’ve lost and what you’re going through. It is a reminder that grieving emanates from something specific but that the rest of life can go on. If you surround yourself with loved ones, then you will be afforded space and care by those who hold you dearest. But the fact that everything else does not think twice of your loss is not a cruelty as much as it is a beauty: it ensures that you remain present within the rest of the world, that you are still a part of nature, tuned in to other aspects of life which persist even in the face of monumental grief.

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For countless athletes, this weekend, the sport that has defined their lives is suddenly one in which they no longer participate in. It is a grievous truth to have to face, but it’s one that can provide incomparable meaning if it can be processed:

“We walked in yesterday,” Iona head coach Billi Chambers said after the Gaels’ Saturday loss to Duke. “We walked them and wanted them to take a moment: ‘You are in a historic building — take the pictures, capture the moment. Enjoy this with your team.’

“You want them to cherish this moment. … We want them to have special memories about it. We obviously wanted it to go a different way on the court. But it is so much bigger than basketball. You look at these young women — [grad student Kate Mager] working with students with autism, going out to be a teacher. … Izzy Lipinski, one of our other seniors, who already has a job offer to move into the city. It is so much bigger than what they do on the court. I am proud to have had the opportunity to share this moment with them, so they can take it with them for the rest of their lives.”

There is an inherently bittersweet nature to basketball: every player who comes into a program must someday leave. A long-tenured coach has to watch dozens come and go through their program, knowing from Day One that there will come a day when they’ll play their last game together.

For Duke head coach Kara Lawson, this past season was one of her first times truly appreciating that dynamic:

“It just was a special group (the 2022-23 Duke team), and I’m not just saying this — I really loved every day with them. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t want to come to work, or I was frustrated with this or frustrated with that. Every day, this group came in and just worked so hard. I think that’s more of the sadness that you don’t get to spend more days with this specific group. It changes every year. I just loved this season. I’ll remember this season for a long time, probably the rest of my life.”

Life beyond basketball is bittersweet by nature: all things must someday end, no matter how beloved. The temporality gives meaning, but only if that temporality can be psychologically accepted; you can either bury your head in the sand and fret about the impermanence of all things, or you can embrace the absurdity and choose to focus on the “sweet” rather than the “bitter.”

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For Duke grad student Imani Lewis, that came to a head as she stepped on the court against Iona, just her second time seeing game action in the past three months.

“It was a great feeling, being that this is my first and last NCAA Tournament, sadly,” Lewis told The Next. “It’s a bittersweet moment, being that I came to Duke mainly to be around a great group of people, have great culture, and most importantly make it to the NCAA Tournament because that’s just something I never experienced. So being able to step on the court one last time was a good, memorable moment. And even that, looking at everything I’ve been through, it’s a blessing I was able to step on the court and be able to play in the NCAA Tournament — my first and last time!”

Ultimately, you don’t really have a choice; everything is going to be bittersweet in some way, shape or form because it all ends. Whether you can find beauty in it is up to you. For players and coaches alike, NCAA Tournament losses provide an opportunity to face that conundrum head-on.

“Since I never made the tournament [before], I was always watching it,” said Lewis. “It felt amazing, and it’s something I can always cherish and look back on.”

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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