Embracing March Sadness: How a Lifetime of Duke Fandom Prepared Me for a Season of Grief
There were six and a half minutes left on the game clock when it hit me. All of us in the crowd had been on our feet, stomping, clapping, yelling and cheering, but the writing was on the wall…we were going to lose to UNC, our biggest rivals, at Coach K's last game in Cameron Indoor Stadium. And in that moment all I could think about was how much I missed my dad, the man who taught me everything I know about Duke men's basketball. I was grieving.
Grieving and sports go hand-in-hand, whether we realize it or not. I can't say that this is something I'd spent any time thinking about before my dad died at the start of the Pandemic, but it turns out that grieving can look and feel like a college basketball game.
College basketball is top of mind right now in America. We are in the middle of March Madness, with the men's and women's Sweet Sixteen and Elite 8 this week, and the Final Four just around the corner. Grief is central to how we watch the NCAA tournament. At the end of every game, the cameras zoom in on those vulnerable moments: fans crying in agony, players sobbing into their coaches' arms, tears streaming down the faces of players' parents, a senior coming off the court for the last time to the bench with a towel over their head. In every game, a team loses, so in every game there will be grieving. Over a hundred teams, 63 in the men's bracket, and 63 in the women's bracket, and their fans, will be grieving. Only two teams in the country, the winners of their respective tournaments, won't be.
March Madness is America’s annual grief porn. Sure, we watch the tournament because we love that occasional happy Cinderella story, but we also watch because we love to see the big teams fall. We like to watch the grieving. We tune in for the tears, for the sadness…for March Sadness, if you will.
Meanwhile, I've been sad watching basketball all this season, even though Duke, the big team that’s always had my heart, has had a great run. I've grown up a Duke fan in Durham, North Carolina, and I’ve been lucky enough to go to Duke men's basketball games in Cameron every year with my father since I was a child. Even when I attended Duke University as a student, I'd come up and sit with my dad in his seats instead of standing in the student section with my peers. Some of the last conversations my father and I had were about college basketball and the ACC tournament's cancellation in 2020. Dad was a men's basketball season ticket holder for over forty years– it was central to his life and our father/daughter relationship.
And then, suddenly, my dad was gone. I wondered if it would hurt too much to be a Duke fan without my dad, and thought I wanted to completely opt out so I didn't have to face that grief.
But when Coach K announced his retirement after 42 years coaching the Blue Devils, I decided to watch his final season in honor of my father. I committed to going to as many Duke men's basketball games as I could. I've gone to games in Cameron, I traveled to Brooklyn for the ACC Tournament, and I'm in San Francisco right now for our Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games. I shed many tears in Cameron this season, feeling suddenly empty walking into the stadium I had only ever been to with my father. I cried in the car after our first ACC game at home, knowing how much my dad would've enjoyed it. And I was a wreck after our loss to Carolina. I know it's such a privilege to have these highly coveted tickets. But it's been both joyful and acutely painful at the same time, doing something I love, but without my dad. That's what makes grief so complex: it's never just one emotion at a time.
Hopefully you're not feeling as much compounded grief as I am watching the tournament this year, but who knows, maybe you are. Watching Duke’s regular season was hard enough for me and my grief—watching March Madness this year, seeing all of that grieving up close, it’s been at times too painful for me. I’ve found myself looking away when the camera zooms in on tears this year. After so much grief over the past couple of years, I don’t want to see the March Sadness like I used to. But maybe, just maybe, when UNC finally loses, I’ll want to watch that grief up close again.