The glass slipper breaks

The historic run of Cinderella team Florida Gulf Coast ends, but reminds us that hope is the most exciting element of sports.

Matthew Hoy

 

As the seconds wound down on the Florida Gulf Coast University season, the significance of their accomplishments began to set in.

They beat San Diego State University. They beat the Georgetown Hoyas. This group of unknowns, a No. 15 seed, made it further than any other ever had. Now their dance is done.

Friday night was wild from the start. The Louisville Cardinals displayed their dominance, the Duke Blue Devils controlled Michigan State University and the genius of Trey Burke sent the Kansas Jayhawks packing. None of it touched the excitement of the FGCU Eagles.

 The high-flying young men from Fort Myers, Fla., played an electric brand of basketball, and their status as the most exciting Cinderella team in the history of the tournament immediately endeared them to almost everyone watching. The defense of the Florida Gators, the No. 3 seed in the Southern Region, reminded us that midnight always comes.

Less than 1 percent of people who submitted brackets predicted that FGCU would make it to the Sweet 16. Their game on Friday began well, and 10 minutes in, they led 17-6. The Gators, down 11, rallied to take the lead and ended the half on a 16-2 run, up 30-26. The Eagles never led again and played as if turnovers were the most valuable column on the stat sheet. They lost by 12, and the eclectic group of spirited young men whom we had come to adore faded from the national spotlight almost as quickly as they had stolen it.

It takes a certain level of emotional abandon to cheer for underdog teams. We know our hopes will probably end in disappointment, but on those rare occasions when David topples Goliath, we rejoice as if we felled the giant ourselves.

It is one of the most beautiful happenings in sports. For those fleeting moments of glory, we are no longer sitting on couches and chairs watching young men or women compete through small rectangular screens. We become those competitors, sharing every triumph and failure and hoping that against all odds we can accomplish something previously considered impossible.

The night that FGCU won their first game against Georgetown, I ran around my apartment in my boxers, jumping up and down and howling. Every year we hope for a Cinderella team to capture our thoughts, and, clad in blue and green, one had just appeared.

As their game against SDSU ended, I exchanged excited text messages with my friends, exclaiming my undying allegiance to coach Andy Enfield’s explosive group of young men. It was the first time I had felt this passionate about a team that a week earlier I had never heard of.

The tournament has lost some of its luster now that the Eagles are gone. In a typical year, the Wichita State Shockers would be a more than adequate Cinderella. But FGCU came to embody everything great about underdog teams: Nobody gave them a chance, their cast was diverse and charismatic and they made you believe that anything was possible.

When we watch sports, we allow the games to become metaphors for our own lives. It is what makes underdog stories so engaging. Everyone has to struggle, everyone wants to achieve their dreams and everyone feels small at one time or another. When we see a group of people succeed in the face of impossibility, it gives us hope that we can do the same.