TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — There were tears all over the locker room floor, mixing with the dirt and the soiled, wet towels. Jud Heathcote had cried, and Shawn Respert had cried. Eric Snow sat motionless in a chair as reporters moved through and camera lights blinded the already stunned Spartans players. Someone leaned down, patted Snow on the shoulder, mumbled “Sorry,” and that was it, the floodgates opened, he began to sob, unable to catch his breath. He was every kid after every big game that didn’t go right. This is what they don’t show you on ESPN SportsCenter. How dreams turn liquid and fall from your eyes.
“It’s not supposed to . . . it shouldn’t . . . end like this,” Snow whispered.
No, it shouldn’t. Fewer than 30 minutes earlier, they had still been on the court, Snow and Respert and the rest of this finest Spartans team in some time, they were still the No. 3 seed, the heavily favored team, and they still thought they could get it done. But this team from Utah, these nobodies, these never-heard-of-’ems in the purple uniforms — Weber State? — they kept hitting their shots and making their free throws and grabbing the ball after it bopped off several players’ hands. One of their killer three-pointers seemed to lead to another, and finally, even Respert, the miracle shooter who had made seven three-point baskets of his own, threw up an airball.
And next thing you knew, it was the final seconds, and a Weber State player named Ruben Nembhard was breaking away downcourt, all alone, as Snow, the fastest guy on the Spartans, was giving chase — catch him! catch him! — but all he could do was slap from behind as Nembhard lifted for a basket. The whistle blew. And Snow and the entire state of Michigan fell to Earth with a thud.
“We are devastated,” Heathcote would say after the 79-72 first-round upset that ended the Spartans’ brightest season in years. “Devastated.”
And to think, this was St. Patrick’s Day, when green is supposed to be a lucky color. Respert can only watch helplessly
How did this happen? How did a game in which the Spartans shot nearly 70 percent for the first half — and led by nine at the break — suddenly unravel into a mad dash for redemption in the final minutes, with Snow driving the lane, looking for contact and Respert throwing up one prayer after another, trying to win it by himself. He would finish with 28 points, and had the Spartans won, there would be jokes about the distance of his shots, some of which were launched from another continent.
But there are no memories of that now. Instead, this is what you remember:
Respert, the polite and friendly All- America, the Big Ten player of the year, watching helplessly as his fellow senior best friend, Snow, landed after that fifth foul and lay on the floor. Snow’s boyish face was already weepy. Oh, on any other night, Respert would be right at his side. But now, he remained on the foul line, hands on his knees, looking at the floor, letting another teammate help Snow because if Respert went over to him, that would be it for him too. He’d be crying like a kid, and there were still eight seconds left.
Only after Snow was helped to the bench did Respert sneak a glance in his direction, like an older brother, just making sure.
It was the saddest look I’ve ever seen in sports.
“There were no words,” Respert said later. “No words. We both knew there was nothing to say.”
“Can you remember what were you thinking?”
He bit his lip. “I was thinking . . . that’s it? It’s finished? For four years we were together, and now we have to start all over again, with other people?”
Isn’t that pretty much how all Spartans fans feel this morning? They, too, had been together with Respert and Snow for four years — and with the coach, Jud Heathcote, for 19 years. Nineteen years? What kind of retirement farewell is that? The all-time coaching leader in MSU basketball history? Doesn’t he deserve better? Wasn’t this first-round game, a No. 3 seed vs. a No. 14 seed, supposed to be the reward for his excellent final season?
The reward, not the punishment.
“You know, Jud said to me as soon as the second half started, ‘I don’t like the way this game is going,’ ” Tom Izzo, the assistant who will take over next season, related afterward. His voice was cracking, too. “The old man, he just knew. He just knew . . .”
Oh, Jud tried to save it. He tried zone, man-to-man, substitutions. He tried screaming at the refs, who made some questionable calls. But in the end, all he could do was watch the turnovers mount and the missed shots take their toll, until, when the buzzer sounded, he clumped off in that familiar walk, as if playing drums with his shoes.
But let me say this. When the game was over, Heathcote’s thoughts were not about himself, or his legacy. They were about his players. Under the rules, the coach and the designated stars must attend a press conference immediately after the game. Heathcote, Snow and Respert came, but clearly the kids were not ready. Someone asked Respert what he felt “after a first-round knockout,” and Respert sniffed once into the microphone, and his face began to twist and contort, and no words would come.
“Look, guys,” Heathcote interrupted, “I’ve always said the players shouldn’t have to come to these things. It’s not right. I’ve been arguing it for years. But for now . . . well, could you just ask me the questions. Let’s leave the players alone for a minute.”
And remarkably, the reporters did.
It was one of Heathcote’s finest jobs of coaching. Shining moments blurred by tears
Sadly, it cannot make up for the pain. Spartans fans will have a terrible emptiness these next few days, particularly when they turn on the games Sunday afternoon and do not see their team anywhere.
But let’s be honest. There is only one team that goes home truly happy from this often sadistic tournament. The rest must take solace in the memories they made. And this Spartan team made plenty of memories — never mind that came during the regular season.
Better to remember Respert in those games, like the first Michigan-Michigan State contest this year in which he went unconscious in the second half, scoring 30 points, throwing the basketball through the net as if tossing a pebble in a canyon.
And better to remember Snow for his jet-pack drives downcourt and his flypaper defense, and the eight straight free throws he made to beat Wisconsin. Surely the NBA can find a place for this kid’s skills.
And better to remember Jud from any of a thousand other moments, banging his head like Curly in The Three Stooges, waving instructions as his team ran a play, bouncing off the court on his players’ shoulders after the Magic Johnson-led national championship. You may or may not have liked Heathcote’s style. But in all his time here, he has never shamed the university, he has spoken with candor and intelligence, he has not cheated to get recruits, and, above all — the finest measure of a coach — he has put his kids first.
And so we saved them for last. There is always sadness in a losing locker room. Yet, I swear, I cannot recall one in which the sadness was so contagious. The reporters, the cameramen, the cheerleaders down the hall, everyone seemed to be moist in the eyes. When your seniors are crying, your juniors and sophomores and freshmen are right behind.
This was a wonderful team, gone too soon from a tournament that does that to wonderful teams. When heads are clearer, they will remember the bright spots. But for now, the bright spots were covered with a layer of tears, an aching in the stomach, and the distant sound of a small team from Utah, celebrating down the hall. CUTLINE: Spartans seniors Shawn Respert, left, and Eric Snow are too heavy of heart to raise their heads during their mandatory appearances at Friday night’s postgame news conference. Jud Heathcote grabs his coat and leaves the Spartans’ locker room for the last time as their coach. Assistant Tom Izzo will take over.