It’s been almost 48 hours now. I still haven’t had a normal night’s sleep, but last night was better than the one before and tonight will be better yet. Those awful moments of remembrance and realization are coming less often. I have almost stopped thinking “if only….” Life moves on. One of the lessons cancer taught me is this: the very best way to deal with depression, hurt, anger, bitterness, fear, or any other negative emotion is to count your blessings. Gratitude changes attitude. And in this instance it’s not hard to be grateful.
I am thankful for Marcus Paige. First, I’m thankful as a fan of college basketball. Marcus gave us some great basketball. He is fun to watch. He’s smart and skilled which is a tremendous combination. That shot to tie the championship game is just one of many thrilling moments he gave us. I’m grateful.
I am also thankful as a high school teacher. Marcus is an exemplary student athlete. His excellence extends off the court and into the classroom. These days it’s not easy to find examples like Marcus Paige. Too often academics gets pushed to the side for those with athletic skill. Teachers at some schools I’ve heard about are asked to lower standards for athletes or even to change grades. Marcus showed us that it is possible to be a great athlete and a great student. This gives me hope. I appreciate that.
I teach teenagers because I love teenagers, and as a lover of young people, I am thankful for Marcus Paige as a leader. He came into a very difficult situation, one he was not expecting, when Kendall left early for the NBA. I loved Kendall Marshall. He was a great leader too. Marcus had some big shoes to fill and he did so with amazing class. Marcus never gave up. Whether it was getting the ball to someone who could make a difference or making the clutch shot himself, he was always going to do it. Even when he was struggling with his own shooting, he always made things happen. He never complained. He was such a leader that he would turn the tide and change a game’s momentum time after time. This is why, during the Indiana game, my son sent me this text: “I want Marcus Paige to play for us forever,” and I texted back, “Me too.” His consistency is why, at the half in the Syracuse game I could send, “Marcus will come alive in the second half.” I knew it would be so, and it was. He is unselfish and he doesn’t quit. He leads by example. He showed Carolina fans that you can have these qualities even when you’re young. Kids need to know that. Our world needs them to know that.
Most of all, though, I am thankful for Marcus Paige because I am a grandmother. On Wednesdays several of my grandchildren come home with me. I usually fix breakfast for supper and then my husband takes them to youth activities at our church. I hadn’t seen my eighth grade grandson since the game. He walked slowly into my room after school and gave me a big long hug. Eighth grade boys do not commonly hug grandmothers, especially grandmothers who teach at their school, especially AT school. We both knew what this hug was about. It’s a Carolina thing. On the way to the car he talked about his frustration with the officiating of the game. I listened, but then as gently as possible I said, “You know, I’ve heard people talk about that, but I haven’t heard ONE word about it from any of the players. No one made any excuses.” In the midst of a culture that thrives on the shifting blame, I am very thankful that Marcus and the boys did not. I was able to tell my grandson that Marcus will always be remembered for the way he played, but that I think he and our entire team made more of an impression on the national media in the way they lost. They lost with dignity. No pouting, hiding under towels, stomping out of press conferences or refusals to speak with media. They cried honest tears, they congratulated the other team, and they took the loss like men. I have never been so proud. My grandmother heart is overwhelmed with gratitude.
On the way home my granddaughter told me that she was worried because her mother had packed her a Carolina t-shirt to wear to youth group. She said she was afraid of what other people might say. We had dinner and then while they were changing, I checked social media. One of my friends had posted a video of Roy and the boys talking to the crowd of fans who showed up to welcome them home to Chapel Hill. I clicked on it because I am at the stage in my grief where I would rather face it together than alone. There was Roy, talking about how much fun the last five weeks have been. That was a good reminder. Marcus, of course, said all the perfect things and he thanked the fans for their support and said he hoped they’d made us proud. We couldn’t be prouder.
Sometime while Marcus was speaking, my grandchildren returned to the living room and started watching over my shoulder. Brice Johnson spoke too. He talked about how they really wanted it all to end differently, but that winning the game was just not in God’s plan for us. He also hoped that we were proud. The video ended and my granddaughter, who is not quite the fan my grandson is, asked me who it was that said winning wasn’t in God’s plan. I told her and she smiled, straightened her Carolina shirt and said, “WE ARE PROUD!” “That’s right,” I respond. “Go–and hold your head up.”
Thanks, guys. A grandmother can’t ask for a better lesson than that.