It would have been even more than a dream realized. That’s an almost too plausible description. This would have been the realization of something that at one time couldn’t have even occurred to a single individual — the realization of a thought that wasn’t even a whisper in the ether, like going to sleep in poverty and waking up in Forbes Magazine.
To say that something is too cliché even for a Hollywood script has, itself, become a cliché. But honestly, look at this story board: university under investigation, head coach fired and best player deemed ineligible only weeks before the season, barely any familiar faces, rag-tag team rallies around interim coach with no job security, a better than expected season that ultimately results in a conference championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament? Seriously?
Hawaii came up just one win shy of completing a season that shouldn’t even be labeled improbable. Improbable implies at least some sort of foreshadowing. There was nothing but darkness hovering over this basketball season at its outset, only to give way to the sun delivering warmth and almost projecting a rainbow squarely upon the vista of March Madness.
The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors won’t hear their name called during today’s NCAA Tournament bracket announcement. They came within 40 minutes of having that occur for the first time since 2002. But winning 22 games — two more than their 2013-14 resurgent campaign — is a far better resume than anyone could have reasonably expected. They’re a really good team that had every reason to have a really bad season. Most would have, given the circumstances. But Coach Benjy Taylor implemented a style, a persona that enabled UH to ignore every one of those reasons and to just play some ball.
You can look at any college basketball team’s season and make it a compelling story from beginning to end. Every team has ups and downs and adversity to overcome. But Hawaii’s season has been unique. From not even having home uniforms for their first game at the Stan Sheriff Center, to the NCAA investigation, to the school’s search committee waiting until summer to find a new athletics director, the key word all year has been “uncertainty.”
Everything has been uncertain from top to bottom — everything except that the ‘Bows were going to play hard, force the issue defensively and get contributions from different players every night. With everything around them making absolutely no sense, these kids ignored all the distractions and rose to an even greater challenge than what they had signed up for. As Coach Taylor intimated after Thursday’s win, he knew this was a special team when they made it clear to him that they just wanted to play basketball.
It’s a shame the rest of the country won’t get a glimpse of what the ‘Bows have created in a very short time period. This team swarms as a unit and makes opponents visibly uncomfortable. They share the ball and have a great feel for everyone’s offensive strengths. They fight for loose balls, get their hands in passing lanes and crash the glass. They take nothing for granted, because how could they? I guess when everything around you is chaotic, you either learn to thrive among the chaos or you fall victim to it.
The ‘Bows have thrived and it’s been fun to watch. It’s been fun to watch Roderick Bobbitt steal every opposing guard’s pride at least a few times a night, fun to see Isaac Fleming and Stefan Jankovic develop into offensive juggernauts, fun to watch Garrett Nevels grow into the leadership role as the team’s only senior, fun to see Aaron Valdes do all sorts of Aaron Valdes things.
It would have been more fun to see them run onto the court in some Mainland arena and get to represent themselves and Hawaii in the best sporting event of the year. But there should be no sadness, no disappointment. This coach and these players have risen above and artfully redefined what’s possible.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.