There is a time for tears, a time for reflection, a time for happiness.
Sometimes, those are all the same time.
There was real emotional pain for Alabama basketball coach Avery Johnson on Friday night, when news came that his college coach and mentor, Ben Jobe, had passed away in Montgomery. There was pain of another kind less than 24 hours later when his Alabama basketball team gave as much effort as it had to give in a 79-74 loss to Kentucky, leaving a locker room filled with drained – and, in some cases, weeping – players. There was palpable disappointment. Alabama had a good run in the 2017 SEC Tournament, but they didn’t come to Nashville for a “good run.” They came to win the darn thing and punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“We don’t believe in moral victories,” a dejected Dazon Ingram said, a sentiment that his teammates and his head coach echoed. Alabama owned its mistakes – some missed free throws down the stretch in what was otherwise a good foul-shooting performance, a missed defensive call that let UK forward Derek Willis work his way loose for a critical 3-pointer, a first-half lull that saw Kentucky go on its one extended run, an 11-0 stretch that erased an early 10-point Alabama lead earned mostly by powerful rebounding work.
Some things are simply the price of doing business against a team with well-coached talent like Kentucky has. No one can completely stop De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk from scoring unless they stop themselves on a few trips. Monk had been doing that in recent games, but had a good, if not momentous, 20-point effort on Saturday. It adds up, but, for Johnson, it didn’t entirely even out.
“I wouldn’t trade my guys for anyone else’s,” Johnson said. “They’ve played their hearts out for me.”
That’s how Johnson found himself in a paradox – wishing that the clock could stand still so he could share more time with Jobe, a mentor as close as his own family, then wishing that time had moved more quickly as this team developed.
“You look at our season, and you guys that have followed us know this, there were some games that we could have won — maybe two, maybe three, maybe four — if we had played with the same intensity, the same kind of focus we played with in this tournament. I looked at my guys today and they were locked in. We just didn’t quite mature fast enough early in the season.”
As his main press conference progressed, Johnson was hesitant to talk about the future, even as his fan base is gassing up the DeLorean and pointing it to 2018.
“I don’t want to talk much about next year because that’s a disservice to the guys in the locker room crying,” Johnson said at one point.
On his return to the locker room, things became more balanced for the Alabama coach. He reflected on Jobe, on his his coach at Southern University had lived for 84 years and touched thousands of lives, including his own – “he made me a better person, a better coach, a better husband, a better father.” He noted that Jobe was able to watch at least part of an Alabama win over South Carolina on the final day of his life, something that will become a cherished memory for the Johnson family.
He even talked, at least a bit, about the future of Alabama basketball, even if there is basketball to be played this season
“We had so many of our fans follow us here to Nashville and I hear from a lot of them via social media and the inspiration…for the people who understand where we’re going… we’ve inspired a group of fans and brought some new fans to Alabama basketball. We reenergized some fans that have been a part of the program for 10, 20, 30 years. They can actually see that we’re going somewhere.”
It’s not a painless journey. There are tears, in sports or in life. But they are so much more bearable where there is also that hope.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.