Former Loyola Chicago player Maurice Kirby now watches as a fan and wonders what could've been
“How upset are you right now?”
That question, and multiple variations, flashed across my phone screen as Loyola Chicago hit a shot to knock off Miami and advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
At first, I couldn’t understand why that was being asked. I jumped up and down as I watched a former teammate and friend of mine hit a shot that everyone dreams of hitting. I was happy for him. The raw emotion Donte Ingram and some of my other former teammates showed in that moment was inspiring. There was no hate in my heart, no ill will or anger pulsing through my body. However, as humans we are always looking back on decisions and wondering if we made the right choice.
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Around this time a year ago, I decided to go on a different path. I had just finished what could be classified as my senior year at Loyola Chicago. After spending the past two years there I was able to graduate with a degree in communications and examine what my future could be. For whatever reason, returning to Loyola was just not right for me. When Coach Porter Moser and I met in his office, I talked about being done with basketball even though I had a year of eligibility remaining. Coach Moser encouraged me to do whatever was best for my future and said he would help in any way he could.
After speaking to family and friends, I realized I was not ready to give up on the game that I love. I was granted a release and moved on to IUPUI where I would compete as well as get a Masters in sports journalism.
In that moment, I thought it was the right move and I did not look back. But I did not think about what could have been, and now I see.
I’m watching a group of guys I had grown close to for the past two years go on a journey for the ages. The Ramblers are 32-5 and just got to San Antonio, Texas to finish preparations for their next game against Michigan. When I think about this team and the previous Loyola teams I was a part of, I can’t definitively tell what is different and why they are winning games, but I can tell you they have worked for it.
Every year, coaches around the country talk about how special a group of guys can be. In my opinion, I just think these guys saw an opportunity and took advantage. The opportunity of the exit of Wichita State from the Missouri Valley Conference last year and the possibility that another team could be dominant. This talented group took that upon themselves and hasn’t looked back.
When I look at how they are playing, I know what has gone into the preparation. I know how the film sessions they have are detailed, how the coaches and players hold each other accountable and how the pre-practice drills are all translating into game situations. Coach Moser is big on carryover. If someone asked me, “Is there anything this year that they didn’t do last year,” I would have no clue.
From watching the games during the tournament, I've noticed that Marques Townes is doing the things he did last year on scout team, just at a higher level. Playing against him last year, he was always in attack mode and was aggressive driving to the basket, which I think has helped him this year because his confidence level during scout team was the same.
The nation has seen Aundre Jackson and his flurry of reverse layups, but that is a norm one would notice after playing with him. Not only with Townes and Jackson, but also with Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer. The shot selection, dedication, teamwork, unselfishness and leadership they are demonstrating now and the close friendship they have are not purely for TV. That’s what makes them special. This team plays within themselves and won’t change for anyone. They know who they are, they accept their role and they continue to have success on this once-in-a lifetime journey.
I could never leave out Sister Jean, as she was one of the first people I met when I got to campus the summer of 2015. There was an event for her — and I do not remember what it was for exactly — but I remember her smile. She has a smile that makes you forget about any problems you may have. People say someone’s smile lights up a room; hers warms your soul. I remember giving her a hug and I don’t remember why I did it. Maybe it was because it was the gravity of the moment, that she was being honored and it just seemed like the right thing to do. Or maybe I was just nervous and all I could muster out was a smile and a hug.
Either way, that summer day I was in the presence of Loyola’s biggest superstar and the basketball team’s biggest supporter. I just didn’t know it yet. The stories about the emails post-game are true and I still have some floating around in my inbox. They were always positive and supportive. Would you expect anything different from America’s sweetheart?
"So, how mad are you that left Loyola?"
I’m not mad, but I would be lying to you if didn’t think about what could have been. A year away from what could have been a Final Four run that nobody could have predicted. Nothing last year struck me as, 'Hey, this team next year is on the verge of a magical run.' No flashing signs, no premonitions, nothing. This is no knock on this team, as the Ramblers have prepared, scraped and worked for everything they have gotten. When I decided to leave, I was sure they would be a solid team. I was sure they would integrate the new guys into a system and a culture that has been on the rise even before I came to Loyola. I am upset, though, that I was not given this opportunity. I am upset that I will never get to experience what they are experiencing right now, but that is about the extent of my anger and none of that is directed at this team.
Competitors want to be at the highest level and there is nothing higher than the Final Four and a chance at the championship. But, we all know not everyone gets to win, not everyone gets to hit the game-winning three as Donte Ingram did, or the game-winner that Clay Custer hit, or even the big three that Marques Townes hit to extend this season. Things happen, situations change and sometimes the situation just isn’t right.
But it was right for this team in this moment and I am happy for them. I have been in a film room with those guys, I have been on the beach in the summer working out with those guys, and I have been able to form a lifelong bond off the floor with them as well. I can’t think of a group that is more deserving than them and I am pulling for them to finish it off as the champs.
I am happy about where I am at as a person. I am happy about the journey I am on and how my year ended up. In the end it was not in the cards for me; however, I am human. So yes, I have thought about the team’s success.
It’s easy to think well, dang, if only you knew…
But that’s not how life works, you take what you are given and make decisions based on the information in front of you. That is exactly what I did. And now I will be sitting on the edge of my seat with the rest of the nation cheering my former teammates on as they continue to try and make their dreams a reality.
So, the next time someone asks me, “How upset are you?” I will say I’m sad to have missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
But in the end, how could I have known?
Maurice Kirby is a student in the M.A. program in Sports Journalism at IUPUI and part of the Sports Capital Journalism Program.