“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Like many other seniors in March after a loss that ended their collegiate careers, Brandon Sherrod fought back tears on the postgame NCAA Tournament podium as he was peppered with questions that ranged from inane to sentimental.
However, in Sherrod’s case it was tough to tell whether they were tears of sadness or joy. Knowing Sherrod and his story, I’m going with the latter.
The Yale ride ended with a 71-64 loss to Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but it was a journey for the ages. It was so good, in fact, that many of the Yale players like Sherrod were aware enough to take the advice of modern philosopher Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Even in the midst of what would have been an historic comeback on many levels Saturday, Sherrod looked out at the roaring crowd of 12,000 or so yelling “Let’s Go Bull-dogs” and knew how special a moment it was. So did most of his teammates.
The fact that Yale was on this court was no fluke, the culmination of more than decade of hard work by James Jones and others (including his assistants) at the university, but this was still Yale. Against defending national champion Duke, they of the 105 NCAA Tournament wins, 25 Sweet 16s (23 under Mike Kryzyewski), 16 Final Fours, and five national titles.
And Duke led 46-19 with 2:30 left in the first half. The biggest NCAA Tournament deficit EVER overcome was BYU over Iona in 2012. But this was Yale. Against Duke.
Yet against all odds, the Bulldogs embarked on a 15-0 run to turn 52-30 into 52-45, featuring dunks from both Sherrod and two-time Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears that had the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and millions of others at home on their feet. The Bulldogs never did take the lead, but the smiles on their faces told the story. They were having the times of their lives.
Because it was the time of their life.
“I really don’t know (how we came back),” Sears said. “We had four seniors on this team, and Duke, they hit us with a barrage of — a heavy haymaker they hit us with. And we got in the locker room and we said, we have 20 more minutes to make a statement. So the four seniors, they led us out there and we just gave it all our heart and effort. I didn’t know if it was going to be my last game, so I just played like it was my last game. That’s all we could do, and we had a valiant comeback.”
These past 4 years have flown by and I couldn't imagine playing anywhere else. Proud to be a Yale Bulldog. #RollDawgs
— Justin Sears (@Jussears5) March 19, 2016
Speaking of odds, the confluence of things that had to come together for Yale to be in the position to be on CBS as the only college basketball game taking place Saturday afternoon were lottery-like slim. Yes, Yale was favored to win the Ivy League this season (barely), but go back a few years. Tommy Amaker was building a dynasty at Harvard that poor James Jones would have to keep up with, and Jones was a nice guy but he wasn’t Amaker, which showed in the standings every year when Yale would never be at the bottom, but never on top, either.
However, behind the scenes Jones could play Amaker’s game, too, to some extent, and was able to piece together the lineup you saw out there this weekend. Sears, whom Jones aptly described “unique”. Sherrod, who was extremely overweight when he first started playing high school basketball. Newly-found heartthrob Makai Mason, who eschewed the AAU circuit and scared off bigger names. Nick Victor, who was athletic but only saw the ball enough at Winchendon to be an honorable mention NEPSAC pick in prep school.
And so here they were in Providence (another stroke of luck, but hey). Beating Baylor might be been the smallest of the surprise, anyone who had watched Mason knew he would be ready for a big game, and he darn well was. Sherrod and Sears had proved against any competition that they could hold their own and the rest was history.
Justin Sears brought the Yale team over to say thanks before leaving floor: pic.twitter.com/xs9oRuRbE9
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) March 19, 2016
“I think during that moment I was just saying, this is March,” Sherrod said. “This is why I love March. This is why I play basketball. This is what you live for as a student-athlete and as a college basketball player at the Division I level. At any level really. But just to have that energy and to have people rallying behind you and to be on such a fun run, we were really enjoying ourselves out there on the court and just feeding off each other. So that was really great, but I had to take it all in and count my blessings. It was awesome.”
The line outside the Yale locker room was about 20 deep with media. James Jones, yes James Jones – who I had seen walk through the local grocery store unnoticed at least a dozen times in the past few years – was awkwardly talking with every national sports show who tried to piece together an interview with things they read on the Internet (maybe my feature on him and his brother from the Mid-Majority days).
Harvard and Cornell have spoiled the Ivy League by winning NCAA games recently, but it struck home to me how hard it is after Providence – a Big East team – won its first since 1997 late Thursday night. Obviously, it was Yale’s first in its 121-year history and first time in the NCAA Tournament since 1962, but that Providence stat stuck with me.
By Friday, Mason was also on national talk shows and the young volunteers, who said their their friend’s cousin’s sister was friends with him in eighth grade, were trying to think up the best strategy to get him to accept their friend request on Facebook. Sherrod was doing his best Charles Barkley impersonation for the real Charles Barkley, and Sears had to be dragged away from the dozens of interviewers that wanted his attention.
Yale locker room celebration pic.twitter.com/jxcYdrYTVe
— Michael Shamburger (@mshamburger1) March 17, 2016
(Sadly, all Victor got to do was talk to me. Sorry, Nick.)
And so Saturday came and mighty Duke hit everything they threw up and the rollercoaster looked to be sliding to a stop. But there was one more hill left. It was as amazing as the rest even though it would be the last.
“Well, the last thing you want to do is go out in your last game losing by 40,” Jones said. “No one likes the way that tastes. So it certainly was important. Now our guys will digest this and know and think and go, gosh, if we would have played a better first half, maybe we would have had a better opportunity. But they know in their hearts that they deserved to be on the floor and that they proved it, and I think that will make it a little easier to digest.”
When Jones finished his final press conference, he looked a little down as he came back onto the court, but as soon as he saw what awaited him, a giant smile came across his face. His parents, there from the beginning, were there to congratulate him, as were about a dozen former players who would have killed to have a chance to be on that court Saturday, but were pretty happy just to see guys in Yale uniforms have an NCAA logo on their shoulder.
“My dad is unique,” Jones said. “He’s a wonderful man and loves his son, sons, and children deeply. He’s gotten to the point where he’s learned how to text, so I get texts from him all the time. For the most part, over the years, he’s told me, ‘Hey, hang in there. You’re going to do it. You’re going to do it.’ He’s had this great belief in himself, and that’s kind of worn off on me. He’s a presser in a dry cleaners. And I don’t know if anybody knows what that is, but it’s kind of the hardest work that you’ll ever do. I used to be with him most every day in the summer and every weekend I spent with my dad, and it gave me life lessons every day. And one of the things he always talked about was how good he is. He don’t believe in second place, my dad. He would talk about how he’s the best presser in the world.”
Sherrod, Sears, and Mason’s path back to the locker room happened to cross the Hillhouse band, who had been among the people on the back of the Yale ride, a local New Haven school called in to replace Yale’s band, who was on Spring Break, and was impressive enough to draw the attention of some national celebrities. The timing was great, Hillhouse was trying to raise about $6,000 for badly needed new equipment. They got it quickly and then some.
The trio could have walked past the band or given a cursory wave, but they understood that the moment they had just experienced went far beyond them. They posed for pictures, shook hands, gave hugs, and just chatted for a few minutes before finally getting back to the locker room for one last look before going home.
Thanking the Hillhouse kids pic.twitter.com/1EZ8zrPJ0K
— Mike Anthony (@ManthonyCourant) March 19, 2016
Sherrod – who had traveled around the world as a member of the Whiffenpoofs, came back to set an all-time NCAA record for consecutive field goals made (30), and also has a sister that appeared on American Idol – was asked to sum up his experience. Good luck.
“I’ve seen a lot. It’s given me a great perspective on things, I think. I’m very blessed.,” Sherrod said. “I can’t really believe the last two years. I don’t think anyone expected it to be like this. I didn’t expect it to be like this. I’m just blessed, what else can I say?”
Not bad. Not bad at all, Brandon.