I hadn't seen my alma mater play a basketball game in person in six years.
That was one of the first things that came to mind when I sat down in Houston's NRG Stadium to watch the Syracuse Orange in the Final Four.
And strangely, a couple hours after Syracuse wrapped up its unfortunate loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels, that was still one of the main thoughts in my head: "I got to see them again. I missed this. It was worth it just to see them, even if the outcome wasn't what I wanted."
Many of you have been around here long enough to wonder how any of the above could be me speaking. Don't worry, the surrounding fans in my section heard every profanity you'd normally hear on Twitter or in the comments here. But it was still a bit reserved. Still a bit less than one would expect. Was this a result of "playing with house money?" Hardly. It was the result of being glad to be in the moment, enjoying it for what it was. I watched my team play in the Final Four. That, in itself, is a victory.
From my seats in section 311, the game played out as you'd expect. Syracuse actually came out shooting well (my friend Scott, who's with me here, remarked that they were hitting all their shots in warm-ups, whatever that's worth), but errors seemed to derail what could've been a decent lead in those first five minutes or so. I wasn't sitting amongst the larger group of Orange fans, so I was left to exclaim to no one in particular what I saw as glaring miscues.
"WHY DID GBINIJE DO THAT?"
"WHAT ARE WE THINKING?!"
"EFFFFFFFF" (multiple times)
All were warranted. Michael Gbinije, for all he's given Syracuse this season, was playing a bit of hero-ball in the early stages. That and some (very quick) foul trouble for him and Malachi Richardson would derail the promising start. The second half started less-than-positively. You looked at the scattered SU fans near me and reality was setting in by a few minutes after halftime.
It set in for me, too. "Could we do it again?" I had some faith, but not much. Things looked dire for the team, and they couldn't rely on the press as much as they had in previous games against slower opponents like Virginia and Gonzaga.
Admittedly, I started to convince myself we were probably done for.
Not in an overly-negative, angry, hating-the-team way. Just in a way that allowed me, as a fan, to rationalize a likely outcome. It was oddly quick, cathartic and painless. I enjoyed the remainder of the contest just the same, with the same amount of excitement I'd enjoyed the first half.
Even when the thoughts of a comeback crept back in when Carolina's lead was cut to seven on the back of Trevor Cooney, the other thoughts were in the back of my mind too... "don't get too caught up.... you planted yourself in the loss, so you can't switch just yet. Wait for it to get to five."
It never got to five.
And, maybe for the first time as a fan, I was oddly okay with it. I was okay with losing. It didn't mean I wanted it. I was simply at peace with the occurrence. And part of that was because I was in-person, watching my team, when they probably should've called it a season weeks ago.
Yes, we're talking gravy at this point.
We weren't supposed to make the Final Four, and that's what made this trip so special for fans everywhere, and for me being here. Reflecting on this after midnight local time, I'm so strangely calm because maybe in the back of my mind the pessimistic side of my fandom knew all along. But I didn't let that or even the impending loss in those closing minutes get in the way of enjoying what we, as a fan base, got to witness.
Maybe this is what growing up as a fan feels like. Maybe this is what maturity (I'm in my "late 20s" after all...) looks like too. But more than that, this is what finding the rewards of fandom looks like. And what finding the joy in something unexpected looks like too.
I'm proud of what the 2015-16 Syracuse Orange basketball team accomplished. I'm proud to root for this program, and I'm proud to write about it too.
Now let's just hope it's not another six years before I see them again.