Buddy, Spangs, and the rest of the boys have introduced to me something that had previously been a foreign concept: fandom. For the first time in a long time, I removed myself from the arena of competition and donned my number 34 Kevin Bookout jersey in support of the Sooners. I scheduled my Wuerffel Trophy flight around our Kansas showdown. Out of superstition, I sat glued to my seat during our late second half rally against Texas (per the Mayfield-Darlington Sooner Hoops Comeback Theorum). I cursed every player on the team when we lost to Texas Tech in Lubbock (Sorry Spangs even you).
We. Our. Us. My team.
And I’ve never made a basket.
It’s a crazy thing that happens when you get to thinking that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. You start skipping class, missings workouts, and buying plane tickets to California. I went out there to be a fan, and that is exactly what I did. But then I’m reminded that, no matter how zealous I get, I’m not just another Sooner. I know these guys. I did FCA events with Austin for years. I watched Jamuni posterize a Haitian child. Drank beer with D-Harp out on the lake. Buddy and Isaiah used to blast their reggae above Trev and I in the Bud. I unsuccessfully tackled Spangs off the back of the boat on the Fourth (no exaggeration we both have scars). So after the game, when Buddy ran up into the stands to hug his mom and Spangs was cutting down the net, it hit me hard. As happy as I was, it did not compare to the joy written all over their faces. A joy that I remember and still cling to. It took me back to ol’ Boone Pickens Stadium and the 58-23 drubbing we put on the Pokes to send us to our own Final Four. And as I reminisced on my glory days, I began to realize that these two magnificent manifestations of Sooner pride were not all that different. The formulas for success are the nearly identical.
40-6…. 8-5….. Emblazoned in my memory as I walked off the field in Orlando. Two weeks later, those numbers were the topic of discussion once again, this time in Nila Kasitati’s apartment. Nila. Strike. Trev. Zack. Shep. Tap. PL. Me. We talked into the late hours of the night. What went wrong? How did this happen? What needed to change? That night, we took ownership of our season. The next day, we called a players only meeting, and as a team we made a pledge to be different. We weren’t perfect by any means. We still had guys miss class sometimes. The locker room was left messy all too often (Sorry Brad and Blake). But there was a commitment to excellence and a promise to leave a legacy, and that endured through a brutal winter, a campus crisis, and a trying summer into a season that was one to be remembered. We had good leadership from our captains, but it went far beyond that. Captain is just a title. Guys like Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal, Zack Sanchez, Dominique Alexander, and (maybe most importantly) Baker Mayfield stepped up and performed admirably as leaders. When you combine this with a legendary head coach and transformative offensive coordinator, winning started to take care of itself.
If our number of significance was 40-6, theirs is 104. Consecutive starts by the same four guys. Never an injury. Never a sickness. Never an off the field issue. It’s absolutely incredible. Besides just being providence, it’s a testament to leadership and accountability. This is a veteran group, with exemplary senior leadership that has proved to be unflinching in the toughest of moments. Behind closed doors, people are not always as they seem. Every conversation I’ve had with Ryan Spangler throughout the year has displayed nothing but confidence in his teammates and trust in his coaches. Even in the bad spots, there was never any blaming, frustrations, or pessimism. Buddy Hield might be the most positive, infectious person I’ve ever come across. At moments where I think I would’ve been a little more than pissed (i.e. the WV buzzer beater that wasn’t), he showed class and humility. I am not in the locker room or in the practice gym with them, but every observation I have made has led me to believe that this team has fantastic leadership.
Samaje Perine rushed for 427 yards against Kansas in 2014. He might not have rushed for that in the first half of the season in 2015. But he never complained. He never griped. Never hung his head. Instead he fought his tail off, waited patiently, and even volunteered to block for Joe at times rather than carry the ball. That is what makes a great team. When great players are willing to put aside their own agendas and completely surrender themselves to the will of the TEAM, extraordinary things can happen. Lincoln Riley preached this. He taught it, literally. With handouts, articles, and examples, he taught us how we can become so much greater than the sum of our parts if we are willing to lie ourselves down for each other. And that became one of the defining characteristics of the 2015 Sooners, from the players, to the coaches, to the staff. Hoka Hey.
This is not a difficult parallel to draw with the Hardwood Sooners. Each man is content to play his role and nothing more. Each man brings a different skill or ability to the floor, and no one tries to be anything other than what the team NEEDS him to be. Our superstar can be unselfish, almost to the fault of not being aggressive enough (multiple first halves with single digit points and limited FG attempts). Ryan brings the toughness and the rebounding. Khadeem plays defense and blocks shots. Isaiah has become a facilitator at the point, when he is a guy that could be scoring at much as anyone. Jordan settled into the two guard spot. Each man does his job to the best of his ability. No one is concerned with who is getting the glory, even Buddy. Selflessness is a unifying factor for all championship teams.
This is the big one, and probably not the most obvious. JOY!! Love of the game! When the 8-5 season ended, I was burnt out. Football wasn’t fun. I think I might’ve been content if my career would’ve ended right then. I had believed with everything in my being that the 2014 Sooners were a team of destiny. Because of that, each loss was just a little more sickening than the one before it. There is a danger that accompanies great expectations: greater disappointments. When you jump and reach for something with everything you have, the painful crash can almost be too much to bear. So after 2014 I was done believing. And I had all but given up on having fun playing the game I love. Instead, the focus was on legacy. But this team produced a miracle more astounding than Tennessee and more euphoric than Baylor: it brought my joy back. This past year, I had the time of my life playing the game I love. And that is a testament to my teammates and how much they loved playing to together. The practices were fun and competitive. The pre-practice dance battles were hilarious. The flights to and from games were out of control (Club First Class, Captain Strike in full uniform, K-State Pillowfight Massacre *RIP Farni). Wherever this team went, we had FUN, and this was evident in the way that we played (YEAH WE TURN UH ERRRYYY………..). That was the difference. We loved each other. We enjoyed playing ball together. We cherished the opportunity to chase our individual and collective dreams together. Though we all know we could’ve taken it a step farther, it was still the most incredible season I’ve ever had. Thanks guys. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.
More than anything else, THAT is what I see in this basketball team! It’s the same joy that we experienced in our locker room every day. When they say they want to win just to have another day to practice together, they mean that! Think back on this season with me…. When haven’t you seen Buddy smiling? When did anyone pout or throw a fit? (possible exception to Zae kicking the ball against K-State but that was hilarious). It didn’t happen! These guys genuinely celebrate each other’s successes and stand by each other’s mistakes. It’s made an impression on me to the point where I felt the urge to tell you guys about it 30 minutes before tip. Do not ever underestimate a group of people who love what they are doing and who they are doing it with. These Sooners are not done yet. I pray that they play to the best of their abilities and that they succeed where we failed.
Good luck boys.