INDIANAPOLIS -- Watch him, the man dubbed the best player in the nation, as he creeps out of Wisconsin’s locker room. Watch him on his way to field the questions he doesn’t want to answer about the end of a career and a game that slipped away.
Watch him pile onto the back of a golf cart as 100 people with cameras and microphones and notepads stare like they had stopped to watch a funeral procession. Watch him bury his head deep in his hands as if he is trying to hide as the sounds of Duke’s celebration trickle through the cinderblock walls.
But at seven feet tall there was nowhere for Frank Kaminsky to hide. So his coach, Bo Ryan, did the only thing he could. Without a word, he walked by his slump-shouldered star and placed hand on his back. Ryan let that hand linger for a few beats as he crept by. It wasn’t a quick pat on the back. It wasn’t an, “It’s okay.” It was an, “I understand.” It was an, “I feel it too.” It was a, “Thank you, Frank.”As the cart finally, mercifully, sped away, fellow senior Josh Gasser draped his arm around Kaminsky’s shoulders. The Badgers’ best player didn’t move throughout the ride, nor did Gasser’s hand, as they were ferried to the same podium where they had been laughing and smiling and whispering jokes to each other and their teammates only a day before. This time, there were no laughs, just a sniffling nose, a drooping face and terse answers after the Badgers fell 66-63 to Duke in a spellbinding national championship game.
“These guys are my family,” Kaminsky said. “It's just going to be hard to say goodbye.”
For the first 36 minutes of this game, it seemed like the goodbyes that awaited the senior after the game were bound to have a different tenor. It didn’t seem like Kaminsky would be sniffling or sitting solemnly at that podium. Throughout the night against Duke, he amassed 21 points -- including a pair of 3-pointers -- and 11 rebounds. For 36 minutes, he was the learned professor. His counterpart, Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor, the pupil.
Before the game, both sides downplayed the potential of a one-on-one clash between the two centers. For much of the night, though, their matchup defined the contest. In an era dominated by guards and wings, Kaminsky and Okafor’s impact on the game harkened back to the 1980s when men walking on stilts with names like Sampson, Ewing, Robinson and Lee dictated who triumphed and who didn’t.
Class was in session from the opening tip. On Wisconsin’s second possession, Kaminsky caught the ball in the post, but didn’t force the issue. Several passes later, it was back in his hands at the top of the key: He buried a three. In subsequent Wisconsin possessions, Kaminsky pump-faked and twirled his way into the lane repeatedly, drawing fouls from Okafor or making baskets or setting up teammates for open jumpers.
The dance the two engaged in gave way to a wrestling match when Okafor wrapped his hands around the ball. The freshman repeatedly pounded his 270 pounds squarely into Kaminsky, who is 30 pounds lighter.
Several times, Kaminsky’s wispy frame bent like a palm tree caught in a hurricane, but it never snapped. After missing his fourth easy basket of the night as Kaminsky stood his ground, Okafor rapped his knuckles on the side of his head in frustration. Brute force had not broken the senior.
It seemed like Kaminsky had routed Okafor in their battle when, only nine minutes removed from a championship, the senior whirled past the freshman in the lane, absorbed a foul and finished with a scoop layup. Duke’s best player -- the one who led the team in scoring and rebounding this season -- was sent to the bench and Duke’s title hopes seemingly went along with him.
But with 3:22 left, Okafor returned. For the first time in the game, he opted to spin around Kaminsky rather than go through him. Beaten, Kaminsky wrapped up the huge freshman, but Okafor powered through the feeble foul attempt and scored. Kaminsky was flustered on the ensuing Wisconsin possession, missing a pair of shots and bobbling a pass.
Soon after, Okafor corralled an offensive rebound and scored. Suddenly, after teaching his master class for 36 minutes, Kaminsky’s team was down five with only two minutes to play and the freshman who seemed overmatched had sprung to life. He had bested Kaminsky for a pair of scores.
“We knew we had to get [Okafor] off the court,” Kaminksy said. “[But he] came alive at the end.”
He came alive at Kaminsky’s expense. For all but three minutes of the national championship game, the senior looked like the national player of the year. He looked like a man destined for a trophy presentation not a slow, somber ride through the bowels of a stadium. He didn’t look like a man who would bury his head in his hands and try to hide as a brother wrapped an arm around his shoulder, holding tight, saying goodbye.