Maybe it isn't deserved. Maybe it is. I suppose, ultimately, if we don't see eye-to-eye on it, we just don't. The backlash. The flack. The whatever you want to call it that I received for loudly vocalizing my ambivalence with Auburn men's basketball. The athletic department stopped caring about the program, and I stopped caring to have my heart broken. In college athletics, in politics, in life, there is one way for the softest voice and loudest voice among us alike to display that they aren't satisfied - ambivalence. No more support, no more money, no more passion, no more attention. I did that. And I realize that it isn't my voice that brought change, but significant change came, so clearly I wasn't the only person that felt the way that I did.
When I was a student at Auburn from 2000-04, I probably cared more about basketball than football. I was a Cliff Dweller. I dressed up in a thrift store leisure suit, afro-wig and sunglasses at each home game and we boasted our own cheering section, "Kyle's Block Party," named as such for all-time leading shot blocker Kyle Davis. I was hardcore. It was easy to be hardcore then, sure, but I was hardcore nonetheless.
After the fallout at the end of Cliff Ellis's tenure at Auburn, I wasn't expecting much. There were going to be a few bad years. But get it back to the tournament. Make a showing in the conference tournament, at the very least. Something. Anything.
But instead, we got nothing. We got nothing on nothing on nothing on nothing on nothing. The program deteriorated until Tony Barbee set it on fire. Who saw it burn?
So yeah, I stopped caring. By the final year of Barbee's tenure, I had no problem letting people know, loudly, that I didn't care. If I continue beating my head against the wall and it continues hurting, I am eventually going to stop beating my head against the wall.
But after Auburn's athletic department decided to once again show that it cared, I decided to show that I still did, too. Auburn hired Bruce Pearl, and I made a donation to Tigers Unlimited Fund and purchased season tickets. If I counted correctly, I made it down from Birmingham this year for 10 of 17 home games, and I even made one road trip to Athens. My dad bought a seat beside mine, and I was fortunate enough to catch a few of those games with him. It was one of the best investments that I've ever made, and I look forward to many more seasons.
Plenty has been said about the size of this team's heart. And I'm fortunate enough to have seen it all season long. I think those of us that were paying attention knew that an SEC Tournament run like that was possible, and I'm not sure that any among us were wildly surprised.
Proud? Absolutely. Shocked? Nah.
But not only was Coach Pearl never playing with a full roster, the roster he had was a shell of itself for the near entirety of the final month of the season. Tahj Shamsid-Deen was out with injury, and Antoine Mason went through hell. And then Auburn finds itself facing the most formidable foe, possibly in the history of college basketball, without Tahj, without Jordon Granger and without Cinmeon Bowers. Alex Thompson became a hero in the SEC Tournament. Devin Waddell was seeing significant minutes. What Bruce was able to cobble together this season is nothing short of spectacular.
Imagine this team without the bodies that Bruce went out and found to put on the floor. Auburn was one injury away from putting me at power forward. And for folks that watched occasionally, it's easy to grasp why what happened in Nashville last week is astounding. But for those that watched religiously, it would have been just as easy to expect miracles.
Very few times this year was I disappointed in the effort. Coastal Carolina. Mississippi State at home. Both Alabama games. Well, certainly the one at home. I guess that's why your investment in this team likely equaled your amount of shock - if you just checked out the box score or saw the score on the late local, there's no way that you had context for effort. There's no way seeing a line that read "KT Harrell - 18 points" could tell you how much heart the kid had.
And on KT Harrell - K3 is one of my favorite athletes in Auburn history. He's up there with Dameyune Craig. He shouldered this entire team. He strapped them to his back and willed them to victories, the same way that Coach Craig did as a quarterback. Chris Porter had help. Even Charles Barkley had plenty of help. KT didn't have much. Barely any.
So thanks, Coach Pearl. Thanks for reminding a generation of us that were in school when Auburn, against all odds, was a basketball powerhouse, that this can be fun. There's an entire generation younger than us that doesn't remember it at all. There's four or five classes of students at Auburn right now that are in for the greatest days of their lives. And frankly, I'm not even that jealous. Because I'm among a class that lived it, too. And not many classes at Auburn ever have. The Jungle - you're my spirit animal right now. Have a ball, and I'll be waving at you from my view at the top next season, too. Let's do this together.