The first time J.P. Primm wore a real basketball uniform, it was the maroon and white of the Dickson (Tennessee) Middle School Dragons. He was just a sixth-grader and he made the school's "varsity,'' playing alongside little boys a year and two years older. For this, they gave him a sweet set of polyester to wear and all the pride that goes with it. "It had my name on the back,'' said Primm Wednesday. "And people actually came to the gym to watch us play.''
That was a decade ago. He played three more years in the middle school and then four years in the blue and orange of the Dickson Country High School Cougars and the last four years in the blue and white of the University of North Carolina-Asheville Bulldogs. That will end soon. It is likely -- but intriguingly not altogether certain -- to end Thursday afternoon in the second round of the NCAA tournament when the No. 16 seed Bulldogs face No. 1 seed Syracuse (the latter suddenly without 7-foot center Fab Melo) at Consol Energy Center.
But even if it doesn't end there, even if somehow UNC-Asheville becomes the first sixteen to beat a one in the history of the expanded NCAA field, it will end soon enough. "One more game or six more,'' said Primm. "It's gonna end.''
This is the unspoken, undersold reality of the NCAA tournament, which draws viewership from the survive-and-advance culture that the late Jim Valvano first put into words that would fit so neatly into the middle of a sentence. That coin has two sides. For every team that survives, another team does not. For every group of players that milks another day from their season, another group goes home. Amid the madness, careers end.
Let's agree that they end in two distinctly different ways. Whether Kentucky is shocked in the first round by Western Kentucky or wins the national championship, center Anthony Davis' college career is pretty much over. After one semester in Lexington, he will be playing in the NBA. Once Melo was ruled ineligible to play for Syracuse in the tournament, it was widely presumed that his days in central New York were finished after two seasons.
That type of departure does not cause purists to swoon. We're talking here about a different type of ending, the kind that comes after four (or sometimes five) years in college and infuses every tournament game with a certain odd mix of sadness and desperation. "It's kind of sad, kind of bitter,'' says senior guard Angelo Johnson of Southern Mississippi, a No. 9 seed that plays No. 8 seed Kansas State in Thursday's first game. "I'm going to miss coach [Larry Eustachy], I'm going to miss the program. But I put in as much energy as I possibly could. Now I've got to go out there and try to make it last a little longer.''
The conflicting emotions are relatable for any adult who has played on a team, or in truth, has been part of something that endures and then ends. It is the last week of high school or the last semester at college, the last day on a longtime job or moving day from a familiar neighborhood. Until the very last minute, it's not real. And then it's more real than you could have possibly imagined. So every game for the seniors is a laundry list of somber possibilities: The last meeting. The last pregame meal. The last warmup session. There is nothing in life like lasts. "I plan on playing basketball somewhere in the future,'' says Kansas State senior Jamar Samuels. "I'm going to play until my body gives out. But I realize, no more nice meals before the game. No more nice road trips where we get to fly. I started thinking about that stuff during the Big 12 tournament.''
Maurice Bolden, Johnson's senior teammate at Southern Mississippi, says, "It's going to hurt when it ends, I know that. I know I'm not going to like that feeling. We've had times in practice this year where we'll say, 'Hey, let's man up for the seniors.'''
But in this way, closeness of the end can be a motivational force. Primm's UNC-Asheville backcourt partner, Matt Dickey, the Big South Conference player of the year, says, "We're had a great four years here. We took this program to two NCAA tournaments. We set a record for wins [24, this year]. I don't want that to end.''
A year ago UNC-Asheville won 20 games and a play-in (against Arkansas-Little Rock) in the NCAA tournament, before losing to Pittsburgh in Washington, D.C. After that game, Dickey, Primm and the rest of the Bulldogs watched as senior John Williams agonized in the locker room, coming to terms with the end of his career. "He was hurting, I'll never forget that,'' says Dickey. "You lose, you go home.''
All of them lose but one, and even for the champion, the seniors are finished, with a trophy to remember it by. So they all chase an extra day on the floor, an extra day in the uniform.