Feinstein On Final Four: The Tingle Is Still There

There's nothing quite like the Final Four – and Monday's thriller between Virginia and Texas Tech was no exception

John Feinstein
April 11, 2019 - 3:45 pm
De'Andre Hunter Virginia Texas Tech National Championship

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There were about two minutes left in Monday night’s national championship game in U.S. Bank Stadium and I was trying to jot down a note comparing De’Andre Hunter’s second half (great) to his first half (brutal).
         
I noticed that the words I’d written down were almost unreadable. My handwriting is, at best, pretty awful, but now I couldn’t understand that which I had just written.
         
I looked at my left hand and realized the problem: it was shaking.
         
I didn’t really have a dog in this fight. Oh sure, I knew Virginia coach Tony Bennett a lot better than I knew Texas Tech coach Chris Beard and I’ve been covering games at Virginia since I was in college.
         
What’s more, I’d picked Virginia to win the national championship at the start of the season. I rarely make predictions of any kind because they’re bound to be wrong and because that’s not what I do for a living. But I had a feeling about the Cavaliers and said so even while the world was picking Duke to win both the NCAA and NBA titles based on one game in November.
         
But that’s not why my hand was shaking. If Virginia won, I’d be happy, but if Texas Tech won, that was also a good story and I would have no problem with the Red Raiders as champions.
         
No. The shakes came from The Moment. I had thought about it a couple of hours earlier when the teams came onto the court and the massive building (seriously massive) shook with noise as the bands played and it got so loud it was difficult to hear yourself think.
         
It occurred to me that this was a night everyone in uniform would remember forever—win or lose, whether the game was a blowout or down to the wire. In all likelihood, this would be the first and last time any of these players would perform on this stage.
         
Two hours later, both teams had performed superbly. The game had swayed back and forth, kids—and yes, they are still kids—making plays all night. As the game moved towards a climax, I was reminded of something Jay Bilas had said to me years ago.
         
Bilas was a senior on Duke’s 1986 team, which went 37-3 but lost the national championship game to Louisville, 72-69. That was Mike Krzyzewski’s first great team, perhaps the one he remembers most fondly because, as he often says, “Those guys put their faith in me before there was reason to put any faith in me.”
         
Those guys were Bilas, Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson, Weldon Williams and Tommy Amaker—the only junior in that group. As freshmen, the first five were 11-17, including a 109-66 loss to Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. As seniors, they became a truly great team—only to come up two baskets short of the ultimate prize.
         
“When the championship game is over, I don’t look at the winners; I look at the losers,” Bilas said. “I know what they’re feeling and I’m pretty sure I know what they’re thinking. You know you aren’t going to get another shot at winning that championship. You’re going to have to live with the outcome of that game for the rest of your life.”
       
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to be proud of for the loser. Texas Tech had never been to the Final Four before last weekend, much less a championship game. And yet, as their players filed off the court after Virginia had pulled away to win in overtime, there wasn’t any doubt that they would remember those frantic final moments for years and years to come.
       
One night. One chance. One moment.
       
The Red Raiders will be celebrated for years to come. They’ll be brought back for reunions after 10 years, 20 years, 50 years. They earned that.
       
But, just as the players on that 1986 Duke team remember the Milt Wagner-Bilas block/charge call that went Louisville’s way, the Texas Tech players will remember leading 68-65 with under 20 seconds to play and somehow losing Hunter for an open three from the corner.
       
Maybe Beard should have called time to set up his defense. Maybe someone should have been told to shadow Hunter no matter where the ball went. Maybe they should have fouled.
       
Maybe. Basketball is a game full of maybes, what-ifs and second guesses. Which is why, in the end, you have to rely on the scoreboard.
       
Auburn fans will scream forever about the foul call on Saturday night with under a second to go that gave Kyle Guy the chance to make the winning free throws (three of them) in a 63-62 Virginia victory. Foul? No foul? What about the missed double-dribble a moment earlier, the Auburn fans screamed. What about the foul just before the double dribble, Virginia fans screamed back.
       
There is always tension when a championship is at stake: Super Bowl, Game 7 of an NBA or NHL or MLB postseason series. The fifth set of a major championship in tennis, the final holes of a golf major.
       
But for me, there’s something unique about Monday night. The Final Four has changed in many ways since the first one I covered in 1978. It hasn’t been played in a real basketball arena since 1996 and, the larger it gets, the more difficult it becomes to cover. I’m fortunate that I’ve been around so long I can still get one-on-one time with coaches and, occasionally, players.
       
In his seminal book, “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton wrote that he occasionally had to remind himself to tingle while waking across the outfield grass to get to the bullpen. His point was that he understood how fortunate he was to be a Major League Baseball player; to sit in the bullpen or the dugout; to get the chance to perform in big league ballparks.
       
I try to remember that at every major sporting event I get to cover. I know I am privileged to go each year from the Final Four to the Masters. It’s exhausting and I miss my family terribly, but I understand how lucky I am. It was in college that I first began dreaming of someday being a big-time sportswriter.
       
I wanted the chance to talk to athletes in the locker room; to sit in press boxes or on press row. To get to do it at the Final Four? The Masters? Wimbledon? The Olympics?
       
For the Washington Post, no less?
       
Fantasy Island stuff. All I needed was Mr. Roark, my host.
       
It happened for me at a very young age and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t become jaded at times to the point where I know when the day comes that someone isn’t paying me to cover these events, I won’t be going anymore. If I’m not working, I’d rather be at home watching on TV.
       
But I haven’t yet forgotten to tingle—especially on Monday night. The Final Four for me is like a first love. It WAS the first major sporting event I ever covered and, chances are, it will be the last major sporting event I ever cover.
       
Jack Nicklaus wanted to finish at the British Open; Tom Watson at the Masters. For me, it will be—I hope—the Final Four. (Note: the exception to this rule will be the Army-Navy game. I’ll go there until I die or they stop giving me a credential, whichever comes first).

Seeing my hand shaking on Monday night made me smile. After all these years, I could still feel The Moment, as those kids were living it right in front of me. It was great drama and I was lucky enough to have the chance to write about it.
       
I hope I did a good job. One thing I know for sure: the tingle is still there.
 
 
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “The Prodigy,” a novel set at the Masters about a 17-year-old with a chance to win the tournament who is beset by agents, equipment reps and his father, all of whom want to turn him into a human ATM machine. His latest non-fiction book is, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in The National Football League.” John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com