At a minute after 6 p.m. ET on Friday, Damion Lee sat down at a press table with a blank face and a sigh. A couple seconds later, Trey Lewis, Louisville’s other graduate transfer standout, took the chair to his left. Then the rest of the Cardinals roster filed in behind them, and frankly, Lee and Lewis probably needed all the support they could get: They were there to explain the unexplainable, to put into words how they felt about a calculated, ruthless decision that atomized their last chance at the NCAA tournament.
Naturally, they did not characterize Louisville’s self-imposed postseason ban in so many words. They wouldn’t fail their school the way their school failed them so massively on Friday. All they had was the honesty of their disappointment. Each was set to compete on the biggest stage in March for the first time, and then the hypocrisy of college athletics was laid bare once more, surprising no one except two kids who apparently aren’t jaded enough to know better.
“When you’re a little kid and you work so hard for something, and you get to that moment where you feel you finally have it, you can finally taste it, and it gets ripped away from you—it’s like you lost your best friend,” Lee said.
There’s no profound analysis to offer here. There’s nothing smart or clever to say. This is pure bad, a batch of distilled rottenness. It is reality, and it must be swallowed, and it will feel like molten lava on its way down: Lee and Lewis will finish their college basketball careers without logging a single minute in an NCAA tournament game. They had some hope, and then comically nefarious cheating from years ago inspired their school’s cynical machinations of today.
As a result, their hope was pulverized beyond recognition. And that is just a family style helping of awful.
Lewis and Lee came to Louisville from Cleveland State and Drexel, respectively, to gain exposure and play college basketball at the highest level. None of that has been lost in the bargain. They are the team’s top two scorers and Lee, in fact, is one of the nation’s most valuable high-major players, ranking 12th nationally with 4.6 Win Shares. But just as surely, there was some quid to the pro quo in this arrangement: These graduate transfers helped the program mitigate a significant roster overhaul after last season. They helped prevent the Cardinals from cratering in 2015–16, or at least substantially limited the team’s downside. As of Friday, their team was 18–4, ranked 19th in the polls and sitting in second place in the ACC.
“We were both hurt and devastated as soon as we heard this,” Lewis said. “We both feel like we don’t deserve this, this team doesn’t deserve this. We worked very hard. And we put ourselves in position to fulfill our dreams, and that was to play in the NCAA tournament.”
They held up their end of the deal. If only the school had returned that favor.
Louisville could have done a lot of things differently, particularly all the way back to not hiring prostitutes for recruits, the alleged scheme that prompted the NCAA investigation and the postseason ban. But having done a lot of irreversible wrong, the school could have done right by Lee and Lewis on Friday. It could have taken the remarkable step of allowing those two players to realize a dream and put off the postseason ban for another year. It could have set aside the cold-blooded appraisal of the bigger picture and taken a stand for the student-athletes it claims to serve, especially two of them who more or less have kept its precious basketball program afloat.
Would a 2017 ban harm the long-range prospects of the program? Probably. Do executives make decisions daily that prioritize the good of the whole over the good of the few, even if it has crushing effects on that few? You bet.
The world of college athletics, we’re assured at every turn, is more compassionate than that. But setting aside that hilarious fiction, wouldn’t it have been nice for a school, just once, to match its mistakes with a correction of the same size?
Wouldn’t it have been something refreshingly noble if Louisville acknowledged how embarrassing its follies were by preserving this year’s postseason, and therefore highlighting the contributions and accomplishments of two players who evidently represent the program in a commendable way?
Hours before their appearance Friday evening, Lee and Lewis were told of the postseason ban. Lee recounted his reaction clearly: Is this real life? Is this really happening?
“They were hit with a sledgehammer for actions they weren’t involved in,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said at an early afternoon news conference. When the Cardinals were informed, they went to Lee and Lewis and embraced them, and a few tears were shed.
By 6 p.m., when the graduate transfers had their say, they were able to smile and laugh at least a little. Lee talked about his affection for his teammates, built in the relatively brief time he’s known them. Lee noted that he expects to attend their weddings in five to 10 years, and the team had a chuckle pointing out one Cardinals player who, evidently, everyone had on the fast track down the aisle.
“When we first got here, me and Damion together, we said we’re in this together, whatever happens,” Lewis said. “Right before coming here, he’s like, ‘I love you no matter what.’ We still have each other’s back. This team wanted to be a part of this [news conference]. We’re going to get through this together.”
Said Lee: “There’s no other place in the world we would rather go. There’s no other coach or other team that we would rather play for and play with.”
It’s tough times, Lee added. But he insisted there was a silver lining, even if he didn’t quite know what it was.
Likewise, Lewis said he was sure something good would come of this, even if he couldn’t quite explain how that was possible.
Louisville will not play in the postseason this year, a choice driven by anything but what was best for two fifth-year seniors that had helped make the postseason a near-certainty. They were stampeded mercilessly by their school’s pitiless decision. By Friday night, on their last ride and their last chance, Lewis and Lee had only begun to peel themselves off the ground to make sense of it.
Nine games are all they have left. That will make 243 combined college basketball games played in their careers. And Trey Lewis and Damion Lee will not have spent a second of any of those games on the floor during an NCAA tournament.
It was tough to see the good in that, through all the bad.