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Let’s honor the college seniors on the day the NCAA Tournament would have started

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Tom Izzo has seen a lot in college basketball, possessing the kind of storage base of memories and emotions that you’d expect from someone with four decades in the game.

He’s coming up on a quarter-century in the hot seat at Michigan State, long enough to have experienced all the peaks and dips and intermittent heartbreak that college hoops never ceases to provide.

Yet last week was unique for Izzo, with the decision to cancel the NCAA Tournament standing alone in the worst way and for the most global and serious of reasons.

“It was probably the hardest, worst day of my coaching career,” Izzo told ESPN, about the moment when he told his players that their season was done. “I don’t think people can understand, when you are a senior, you’ve worked your whole life. It was like I pulled the rug out from under them. I get another day to coach. The other players get another day to play. For the seniors, boy, this was devastating.”

There are no winners from all this upheaval that we are living through. The only victory is the one we all want, not even to conquer COVID-19, but to wrestle it under control to a manageable level that doesn’t cause drastic loss of life.

It must also be considered that there are some that lose worse than others. Like those already compromised by age, prior illness, or without the necessary financial means or health coverage to cope with an emergency.

And then, in a far different realm of importance, yet real nonetheless, there are some who suffer by a confluence of timing. Izzo’s heartfelt thoughts for his seniors is a tale that is being replicated all across the country.

Today was supposed to be one of the great days of the sporting calendar: the first proper day of the tournament. Remember how bad you felt when the NCAA was forced to cancel March Madness? It’s not much fun being on this special Thursday and with no bracket to have a vested interest in, no outlet for office banter, no elaborate set up of laptops and tablet and television and phones arranged so that not a single game-changing moment was missed.

But imagine being a player who was supposed to be taking part. Imagine being one that thought they had a chance to win it and now will never know. Imagine being one for whom participation was a long-held dream that will never now be realized.

American professional sports are so appealing for one chief reason, in that they provide the best of the best in terms of athletic entertainment. The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL are not an open house. Those league are homes for a tiny fraction of specially talented, resilient and hard-working individuals, who are rewarded for their skills and effort with riches on an extraordinary scale.

Just below them are a group of players nearly as good, who maybe didn’t quite get the breaks. They’re still insanely good at what they do and better at it than 99.99 percent of the population, but they will never to get the chance to shine on the grandest scale.

Calling off the tournament was the right move, but it is a painful one. For many of those, the end of their college career is a defining life moment. And, as Pat Forde beautifully yet hauntingly pointed out in a column for Sports Illustrated, men’s basketballers make up only a small part of the college sports class of departing seniors.

Forde wrote about his son, Clayton, a senior swimmer at Georgia, a tale that was really about the plethora of athletes in a similar, demoralizing boat.

“I’m sorry, son,” Forde wrote. “I’m sorry for every other NCAA championship-bound senior in every other winter and spring sport, all of whom had their college careers ended Thursday in a completely unimaginable way. I’m sorry for the ones you’ve heard of, like Cassius Winston and Sabrina Ionescu, but also for the ones you haven’t.

“I’m sorry for the wrestlers and the runners and the rowers and the softballers, all of whom worked (and worked, and worked) to get to this point. And, yes, for all the senior swimmers we’ve gotten to know and love and cheer for.”

Thousands of athletes whose future lies in an office, behind a desk, or some other workplace have been deprived their one last shining moment. For a really good, but not quite Olympic level NCAA swimmer, there is no next. In football, shy of the XFL and the NFL, there is no progression outside of becoming a weekend warrior. In basketball, overseas leagues are a valid means of staying in the game, sure, and there are golfers and tennis players who will be club pros; none of these, of course, shine nearly the same wattage of spotlight on the athlete or have the same emotional weight of a senior season fulfilled.

The last season of a college career, whether it be through the drama of the basketball tournament or not, is the last chance at glory for many. The reality is that the effort the athletes put in makes it unfair that it should ever end, yet it always does.

There is a lot to think about right now on a truly worldwide scale, yet the sharpest impact of the global pandemic will always be how it affects those people and causes and communities nearer to us. However widespread the social impact, for anyone who has lost a family member to coronavirus, that will be the enduring memory of this time in history.

For someone like Izzo, who has made a career out of trying to give young men life-building experiences, the sporting shutdown is a devastating blow. He knows how his seniors feel, and there is not a thing he can do to make it better.

For us fans, this should have been one of the best days on the calendar. Yet while we will miss enjoying it, there are hundreds of players who will miss living it. So let us honor the college seniors — across all sports — whose seasons and postseasons were cut short. This should have been your time. And we’ll never forget that.

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