The sun had just set on Buzz Williams’ first season as Marquette’s head men's basketball coach. And, in the opinion of many Marquette fans, it had done so in a particularly shady way.
You remember that 2009 NCAA tournament game against Missouri, right? The swan song for Marquette’s three amigos. Jerel McNeal scored 30 points. Wesley Matthews added 24. And even though Dominic James didn’t take a shot in 17 minutes, he provided some inspiration by just being on the floor about a month after breaking his foot.
But what you probably remember most is the ending. The Missouri kid who was too hurt to take a free throw – thus letting coach Mike Anderson choose a substitute shooter. Which would've been fine, except the kid wasn't so hurt that he couldn’t re-enter the game less than two seconds later. It gave the perception that Missouri was gaming the system. Was the kid's injury exaggerated to give Missouri an unfair advantage? The sequence proved so unpopular that the NCAA changed its rulebook, and opposing coaches would choose future substitute shooters.
Other controversial calls down the stretch – some of which got Williams particularly animated on the sidelines – didn't sit well with Marquette fans, either. And the Golden Eagles lost the game, 83-79. Marquette was out in the tournament's second round.
|Marquette coach Buzz Williams
Back in the team's locker room, everyone faced the reality of finality. The season was over. The college careers of McNeal, Matthews, James and fellow senior Dwight Burke were over. And in the midst of all that emotion, that frustration, that disappointment, in the midst of all those basketball expectations that would go unfulfilled, what did Williams do?
"We got to the dressing room, and he's calm, he's collected," remembers Lewis Orr, the man who long ago gave Williams his first coaching job, then saw the relationship come full circle when Williams hired him as a Marquette consultant.
"And he says, 'Let's pray.'"
But this wasn't your typical five-second team prayer. It went much, much deeper.
"He starts praying for each one of these seniors that have just been disappointed, about the present and the future of these young men," Orr says. "He just went individually, one by one, praying for each one of them to finish strong, get their degree, their future, and just continued to do that for all four of those seniors.
"It gave us a real reflection of, hey, the game's over. This is important," Orr continues. "The future is important. There is a future."
Williams recalls it all with staggering detail. Which shouldn't surprise you, because Williams recalls pretty much everything with staggering detail.
"You're 25-9 entering that game," Williams says. "And then you get beat the way that you get beat in the manner that you get beat, and arguably the most heralded class ever in the history of this program. That's their last game. That's how they're leaving.
"As much as what we do is based on competing," he continues, "as much as what we do is based on work, at the core of everything we do, it's based on love. And I knew – I've done it every year – but I knew then that the next day, even when you leave the locker room, when it's your last game, you'll never have that bond again. So I just prayed over them."
It's far from the only time Williams has prayed over someone at Marquette. He starts every practice with a prayer. He prays over individuals on their birthdays and special occasions, or when someone's facing personal adversity. He'll pray over injured players. He'll pray over children. Christian faith is paramount in his life.
And yes, the people in his life hold a little weight, too.
"I did that because it's more important than winning or losing," Williams says of those prayers in 2009. "I did that because that's my responsibility. I did that because I'm gonna have a relationship with those guys the rest of their life, and I want the last thing that I do for them as a coach is to pray for them."
Sometime soon, another Marquette season will end, and so will the standout college careers of Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. It may happen this week or it may not happen until next month. It may end in crushing defeat or it may end in unthinkable joy. But the season will most definitely end.
And other things most definitely won't.
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