Poof and it's over." Gonzaga Coach Mark Few uttered these words Saturday afternoon, just as I was getting home from Kansas City. Eastern Washington University's season had come to an expected but still premature end, and now Gonzaga's season was over, too. The harsh reality of March Madness is this: After the opening weekend, 48 of the 64 teams are gone from NCAA men's basketball championship tournament. And when it's all said and done, only one team gets to finish its season on a winning note.
In traveling with Eastern for the school's first-ever tournament trip, I felt "poof and it's over" firsthand.
A couple of hours had gone by after the Eagles' 19-point loss to Oklahoma State, yet the press corps following the team was still lingering around Kemper Arena. What we were really doing was taking in the moment. Eastern players didn't have the same luxury. They got 10 minutes to cool off, 30 minutes to meet with the press and then they were kicked out of what was their locker room to make way for the next team. The games must go on.
"It's so weird," EWU Sports Information Director Dave Cook comments. "One minute, hundreds of media people want to talk to you. The next minute, it's silent."
But for that 10 minutes right after the game, a season's worth -- even a lifetime's worth -- of emotions were pouring out; all you could hear was the sound of cameras focusing in on one Eastern senior after another.
Center Gregg Smith was in one corner of the locker room wiping away tears. "I have so many thoughts right now I can't separate them," says Smith. "I'm choked up. It's the ending of a huge part of our lives."
Josh Bernard was sitting across from Smith trying to stare his sorrow into oblivion. "This is a great team," he finally said. "I love them to death and would like to play with these men for 10 more years."
Smith, Alvin Snow and Brendon Merritt finally stand up in front of their lockers. Their time of grieving together is up. NCAA officials are here to take these seniors and Coach Ray Giacoletti to the post-game press conference.
"We're going to miss Alvin a ton," said junior forward Marc Axton as he watched the three make their way out of the locker room. "His rebounding, assists, scoring and sky-ing are tough to get in one combination."
Out in the press conference area, Snow, Meritt, Smith and Giacoletti have made their way to the podium. "I'm proud as heck, it's been a great journey to get here to Kansas City," Giacoletti tells the gathering. "I'd go fight any battle with these guys." His voice quivers, but then steadies, and the rest of the news conference goes off without any emotional hitches.
As Snow makes his way back to the locker room, he is decidedly upbeat. "I couldn't ask for anything more," he said. "We have lots to be proud of. I know these guys are winners. It was good to be together."
Hearing this, Merritt perked up. "I'm disappointed, but we put a stamp on Eastern," he paused, letting it sink in again. "For the first time ever, we went to the NCAA."
Giacoletti is the last to reappear from behind the curtain where the press conference is staged. He smiles, remembering Alvin Snow's first words to him, in that morgue-like atmosphere in the post-game locker room. "Alvin looks at me and says, 'You're going to be back here,'" Giacoletti told me. "I say, 'You, too, only you'll be wearing a suit, probably coaching somewhere.'"
The Eagles gathered together again in the locker room, grabbing their bags. The bus is outside, ready to take them back to their hotel, where within hours they will begin celebrating their remarkable achievements.
Later that night in the hotel lounge, former EWU assistant coach Mike Burns showed up. He'd been in Kansas on a recruiting trip for his new employer, Washington State University, so he drove the four hours to see his team. Burns recruited many of these Eastern players.
"I believe it was God's will for them to play in this tournament to help EWU validate the program," said Burns. "It's their destiny to be in the situation they're in. I believe things happen for reasons that are greater than us."
In the midst of the celebration that began to unfold, the feeling of emptiness from the "poof and it's over" started to fade.
"You get to watch these kids go out there and be successful in the real world," Giacoletti said between slaps on the back. "That's the piece that is so gratifying to me."
"Basketball has been such a big part of our lives," said Josh Bernard. "Now it's over. That's exciting, but scary. It's hard to say goodbye, but next year's team will strive to do what we did."
"I'm excited to get back here," sophomore Danny Pariseau told me. "It's the most fun I've ever had. Plus Marc Axton will go out like a million bucks his senior year."
And so it goes with every one of those 63 teams who wind up on the losing end during March Madness: We'll get 'em next year.