What a great time it is to be a Georgia State alum. The world knows our name now, and it’s bought me an extension on my vacation. I’m actually writing this column from my temporary remote office down in Florida, and I’ll be here a bit longer thanks to the new Cinderella. Man it is sweet to be on the side of the underdog when they come out on top.
I’ve been a diehard fan of Georgia State sports since right before I actually even started attending the school. In the spring I was set to graduate from high school, I had already decided to attend GSU. One of my high school friends, Colleen, was already up at GSU, and I went to visit her. I loved the feel of the school. It was big but somehow intimate and I liked that it had the feel of an underdog. A lot of people really didn’t even know about GSU. I wanted to be a part of a school that had something to prove. That decision to attend coincided with their last trip to the Big Dance in 2001, and I got to watch them upset Wisconsin in round one as a fan. I assumed that would be just the first of many proud moments as a fan, but unfortunately that hasn’t exactly been true.
There has been a lot of frustration and heartache. After our legendary coach Lefty Driesell retired, things went off the rails a bit. There was very little buzz around the program. At times we were decent, but never great. We didn’t sniff a tourney bid. At times we were even just bad. When I was in school there, every game, my roommate, Steve, and I would trudge down to the arena to cheer on our team. Most nights the crowd would be laughably small, but we stuck with them.
We got a new football team back in 2010 and that reignited fandom for a lot of people, though the lack of on-field victories doesn’t even make that easy. Georgia State is a big school, but it’s still working on finding its identity with its own fan base.
Last year was the first time we thought we were ready to jump back to the big stage in basketball. We thoroughly dominated the conference in regular season play. Coming out of a mid-major league like the Sun Belt, though, we knew we had to win the conference tourney to get into the Big Dance. But that wasn’t going to be a big deal, right? After all, we had only lost once to our conference foes all year. Everything was going well. We had a nearly double-digit lead with three minutes to play in the finals. Then we let it slip away. When we lost in overtime to keep us out of the true March Madness, I felt disappointment I had seldom felt in my life as a sports fan. I laid on the floor for a while, then just stood in the shower for half an hour saying a lot of words that certainly aren’t fit for print.
But you know what? That makes what happened Thursday even sweeter. All of those frustrations were washed away. After beating Georgia Southern twice, once to win the regular season conference title and once to win the conference tournament, we had already done all I really needed to call it a successful year. We were back in the dance for the first time since 2001, and that was enough.
Everything was working out almost too well, so I didn’t want to bank on a win because that would be just too greedy. Not only were in the tourney, but we had a draw that had us opening within reasonable driving distance in Jacksonville. I was 100 percent going at first until I saw the tickets certainly weren’t cheap. Thankfully my awesome wife demanded that I go. She reminded me that it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance after all. I can’t thank her enough for pushing me. On top of that, my old roommate, the same one who sat through all of those empty seat games with me, worked it out to fly down from Philadelphia at the last minute. Just being in the same arena watching our Panthers play again was awesome. That was plenty, right? Our team played well. They weren’t embarrassing the school. That’s all you can realistically hope for against a talented squad like Baylor, right? When we were down double-digits with less than two minutes left, the hope was dwindling, but we weren’t ready to give up. It took a lot to just get to that point, so why not? Then the Panthers pulled off the most improbable comeback. In fact, I’ve seen that our odds of losing when we trailed by that much that late was a robust 99.9 percent.
When RJ Hunter’s ridiculous three-pointer (I still can’t believe he was crazy enough to even attempt the shot) went in, it was just absolute pandemonium. I screamed so loudly that I ended up with a pounding headache. My voice was gone. I hugged and high-fived more strangers than I ever thought possible. All of us Georgia State fans there were truly Panther Family (which happened to be the motto for the program this year). We were the ones who stuck through the down years just hoping for a moment like this. All the lows made this high so much higher. We finally had something great to celebrate together.
It felt like all of us shared in the joy, all of us who had seen so many losses. This win was also for my friend, Booker, who has gone to too many GSU events with me to count. We’ve made so many jokes along the years at games because sometimes if you don’t laugh, you cry. He still works at GSU, and I know they were going crazy back on campus. It’s of course for my parents too who have supported the Panthers with me like it was their own school. If fact, they’re the ones boarding me in Florida at the last minute so I don’t have to stay in my car outside the arena. My dad will be going with me on Saturday since Steve had to return to Philly. That only seems appropriate since he’s been at loads of Panther games (and thousands of other games) as well, and got me started on this whole mess of being a sports fanatic for better or worse.
The rest of the day, dozens of fans from other schools congratulated us the rest of the day on the win as if we were on the court. When you’ve stuck with a squad for so many fruitless years, you do start to feel like their failures and successes are your own. Finally we were on top of the world for the day. We were all winners.
I had hoped we would win against Baylor, but my bags were packed just in case I was driving back home after the game. Instead, my bags are unpacked again, and I’m hanging out in Florida a little bit longer because I’m staying for game two against Xavier. No matter what happens from here, this has been one of the most rewarding sports seasons of my life. It may end soon, but I’m going to enjoy it a little bit longer. Hopefully the Panthers will keep this vacation going.