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When Basketball Becomes a Tragedy

Michigan Falls Short of Ohio State, NCAAs 65-61

Good American cinema usually involves a flawed hero. The hero isn't a perfect human being. He has his warts, his addictions, his inner demons. It is important to note this because it builds our sympathy for the character. Helps us identify. Helps the reader to bond with this tragic figure. Because that flawed character could so easily be one of us.

Perhaps that's one of the things that makes this Michigan team so intriguing to me. They are the perfectly flawed hero. Supremely talented yet ridiculously inconsistent. Capable of great things yet capable of very little. They are sympathetic characters. They are people with whom we can relate.

What makes an American movie unique is the hero triumphing over his demons to accomplish great things. Whether it's Rocky, or Hoosiers, or Bull Durham, the hero, despite his flaws get the win, the girl, and lives happily ever after. The hero is able to overcome. Basketball is supposed to be like that.

Russian story telling is a different matter altogether. The characters are flawed and at the mercy of those flaws. No matter their struggles, they can not overcome the forces that limit them and ultimately doom them to a life of sorrow and remorse for the chance they had and the opportunities they could not convert. In some way this form of story telling is more like real life than any other form of written expression. That is why it is so hard to read. There aren't happy endings. Only the reality of regret.

Perhaps that is why on Saturday, after I watched Michigan fumble away its greatest opportunity to become relevant in almost a decade, I felt more like I had finished a Tolstoy novel than watched a basketball game.

Michigan's loss was not due to lack of effort. Not at all. The Wolverines played with energy and heart. They electrified Crisler arena for the first time all year with treys, dunks, and defense. All the flaws we knew existed in this basketball team disappeared for 37 minutes. They were someone else, somewhere else. Michigan was playing in borrowed bodies. Making shots they hadn't all year. Defending and shooting as though it was their last chance at redemption. Because, in reality, it was.

Like a true tragedy, all of their effort wasn't enough. With three minutes remaining the demons this team has known for four years awoke and wrought a terrible vengeance. A missed dunk. A sloppy pass. Free throws given away. An inability to stop a tricycle from driving the lane. Ohio State finished the game on a 10-0 run to seal their victory and Michigan's third trip to the NIT in four years. And as we all looked for answers the demons quickly receded behind the cover of "good effort," "passion," and "good kids."

But we know who they are. We've seen them before. The bad passes. The missed shots. The "let someone else take it" attitude. Fear. Tommy's head in his hands. The terrible demons that doom us despite all we do to overcome them.

It's terrible not just because of the blown opportunity. It's terrible because Brent Petway and Dion Harris, two individuals who embody the Michigan spirit will leave without ever representing Michigan in the NCAAs. It's terrible because Courtney Sims was three minutes from redemption and instead is left with a missed dunk as his legacy. It's terrible because Lester Abram simply couldn't overcome all the injuries and return to the form he showed as a freshman no matter how hard he tried.

It's terrible because we went through this all last year. A different chapter of this long tragedy played out with Graham Brown, Chris Hunter and Daniel Horton left last year. Knowing one win would seal it, Michigan couldn't overcome. We were left with the thought that this year would be different. We knew there were problems, but this year they could do it. We could overcome our destiny. We were wrong.

What makes this worse is Michigan still has an outside chance at a tournament invitation. Seeded eighth in the Big Ten Tournament, if Michigan can get by Minnesota and Ohio State they may yet garner an invite.

But isn't that like a true tragedy.

There's always a glimmer of hope before it goes pitch black.