A 21st birthday, a national title and a family journey: How one Villanova student got it all
There's a mathematical explanation for Kris Jenkins' historic buzzer-beater against North Carolina. Jenkins' follow-through put just enough force behind the parabolic arc of his jumper to allow the basketball to slide perfectly inside the 18-inch diameter of the rim.
But this buzzer-beater of epic proportions also had a twinkle of magic. In fact, the entire weekend was magical for me. For one weekend in Houston, an entire community known as the "Nova Nation" united behind one unifying and magical force—basketball.
I began my trip side-by-side with my father in his Toyota Camry, driving to the airport. It was my 21st birthday on April Fool's day—no joke—and my parents had decided to give me the gift of a lifetime, a room at the Villanova team hotel with my dad, along with tickets to all three games that weekend.
I spent every moment that weekend with my father. We sat side-by-side on airplanes, shuttles, and section 111, row FF, seats 11 and 12 at NRG Stadium. He bought me my first legal beer, a moment he had talked about with a smile for quite some time. And yes, when Jenkins' buzzer-beater kissed the inside of the rim before smoothly flowing through the net, I turned to my father, screamed in disbelief, hugged him, and cried on his shoulder.
"Unbelievable, bud," he said as we moved closer to the floor to watch the players cut down the nets. He put his hand on my shoulder, as fathers are born to do, and squeezed so as not to let go.
The excursion didn't just reinforce my relationship with my father. In the security line before the Oklahoma game, I met a trio of elderly Oklahoma alumni. Their Oklahoma drawls and wool sweaters in 80-degree heat were stereotypical. Yet they were real. Topics of conversation included Buddy Hield, attending Oklahoma in the 1960s, and Kevin Durant's impending free agency.
"We sure do hope he stays," one of the women said. "That'd be real nice."
Photo courtesy of Larry Flynn
Once I matched a face with the mask of Sooner maroon, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the three Oklahoma fans I had met. As much as I wanted Villanova to advance and play the best basketball of the season, I remembered the gentle twang of the three Oklahoma fans I met and understood their disappointment.
But the strongest bond I formed this weekend was with the "Nova Nation." Villanova alumni, families of the basketball team, and current students converged on the city of Houston to root in unison for their beloved Wildcats.
During the trip, I met a man named Scott, who was a freshman during the 1985 National Championship team. Just the day before, I had seen him heckle an Oklahoma fan. But he was more than a heckler, I learned. He was an accountant, a father of three, and a man who wanted at least one of his children to attend Villanova.
After Villanova's win over North Carolina, I saw Wildcat legend Ed Pinckney in the hallway. A basketball monument was standing right in front of me, high-fiving fans and cheering loudly for his team. I high-fived him too. And I realized the cyclical nature of Villanova basketball, imagining that Ryan Arcidiacono or Daniel Ochefu could, one day, be doing the same to other young fans.
I met guard Henry Lowe's mother in the elevator after the National Championship game. She told me she read and enjoyed my writing, which I was pleased to hear, so I returned the compliment.
"I'm so proud of your son," I said.
"Thank you," she said, the mother of a national champion. "That means a lot."
She was too happy to cry.
Whether it was the time I spent with my father, Oklahoma fans, alum, Ed Pinckney, and Ms. Lowe, I realized I was a part of something bigger, a magical web of connection that will grow.
In Latin, a "Villa-Nova."
Translation: A new home.
Larry Flynn is SI's campus correspondent for Villanova University. Follow him on Twitter.