Uneven awards of almost making it

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Before Will Hardy was the Utah Jazz’s head coach, he was on the Boston Celtics’ coaching staff. And before that, he played for Williams in the Division III basketball tournament.
Boston Globe photo

This is Part 4 of the The Quintessential D3 Moment series. While researching their book Pipeline to the Pros: How D3, Small-College Nobodies Rose to Rule the NBA, authors Ben Kaplan and Danny Parkins asked some of the most accomplished former D3 hoopers for their best “love of the game” moment from their college days. The book is available for pre-sale and you can sign up for Ben’s newsletter here.

By Ben Kaplan

This weekend will serve as yet another cruel reminder that NCAA basketball tournaments have one hell of a lumpy reward system.

Whether it’s fair or not, reaching the Final Four is exponentially cooler than a trip to the Elite Eight or Sweet Sixteen. Winning your quarter of the bracket and cutting down the nets is an unforgettable moment. There is no substitute for the experience of hearing that blaring buzzer, hugging all of your teammates and coaches, clambering up the ladder to snip a piece of net, and spending the night celebrating a successful season.
Pipeline to the Pros cover art

Final Four appearances are also so much better than runs that end up further out towards a bracket’s edges. It’s almost cruel how fans and alums speak glowingly of Final Four teams in a way that disproportionately overshadows other still-excellent squads who fall a game or two short.

The NCAA Tournament structure is reminiscent of the Olympics, where one incredible competitor (the fourth best in the world, in the Olympics’ case) goes home empty-handed, while the next best lives out the childhood fantasy of standing on a podium and receiving a shiny medal. When you really think about it, it’s no surprise that a 1995 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that Olympic bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists. The silver medalist imagines a world where they won the gold, while the alternate reality in the bronze medalist’s mind is one where they missed out on the medal stand altogether. The difference between Olympic bronze and Olympic fourth-place is a massive gulf, as is the gap between silver and gold. Compared to those grand chasms, bronze versus silver is a mere crack in the pavement.

It’s not too different in the NCAA Tournament, where a win in the Final Four just doesn’t quite feel as momentous as a win in the Elite Eight. It’s more of a necessary preamble than a joyful culmination, more of a quick gulp of air than a deep, cleansing breath. This is especially so in Division III, where the semifinals and finals are played on back-to-back days. There’s barely any time to celebrate. It’s all about recovering and preparing for your next game. And that game is the biggie. Champions receive rings they can don on special occasions. Runner-ups take home second place trophies that end up collecting dust in a cabinet (at least that’s where mine is…a prominently displayed D3 runner-up trophy adds weird energy to a room). Being the not-quite-the-winner of what, to most Americans, is the not-quite-the-tournament, is still one hell of an accomplishment. But coming that close and falling just short still kind of sucks.

In Pipeline to the Pros, we detail Chris Finch’s and Will Hardy’s fascinating journeys from D3 players to NBA head coaches. As college players, both men experienced that special brand of heartache that is losing in the D3 National Championship. Hardy was a key contributor off the bench for the 2010 Williams College team that lost in the finals. Finch, who was a terrific all-around player, might be the world’s foremost expert on D3 Tournament heartache. Not only did his Franklin & Marshall team lose in the 1991 title game, they also dropped games in the Elite Eight in 1989 and 1992.

While those national title games were the biggest of Hardy’s and Finch’s college careers, they did not ultimately define their respective D3 experiences. To Hardy, the D3 experience is synonymous with the Maine road trip, when NESCAC teams had to play a back-to-back at Colby and Bowdoin. After the first game, which would tip off on Friday night, the teams wouldn’t even have a full day to recover. The second game was a Saturday matinee.

“You play one game,” Hardy says, “and it’s 10 o’clock at night and you’re driving in the middle of nowhere and it’s snowing really hard and you’re eating some kind of shitty pizza on the bus. But everybody is just hammering it…There’s half as many pizzas as people. Get a teammate. Split the pizza in half…And then you get there and you get to some little hole in the wall motel/hotel and you’ve got a roommate. You’ve gotta wake up the next morning and play again. And you loved it. Not for one second were we looking at each other like, ‘What the f— am I doing?’ It was just like, ‘Oh, no man. This is the trip to Colby and Bowdoin. This is just what the trip is.’”

Even after a decade-plus of chartered planes and five-star hotels, Hardy still can’t help but reflect on how far he’s come. “I think about those bus trips all the time. I really do have to, not actually pinch myself, but you have these moments, like five times a year, where you look around and you’re like, ‘Where the f— am I right now?’…I ‘m the same dude who was hammering that pizza, driving to Maine in the middle of the night.”

Finch also leans on his D3 memories for a healthy dose of perspective. Once he and his F&M teammates returned home from a road trip, they would receive their per diems…but only after they turned in their laundry. Finch’s F&M teammates got five bucks each, a far cry from the generous per diem pocketed by NBA players and coaches. They’d share footlong Subway sandwiches, or use the money to buy a pitcher of beer at the bar that night

“It’s hard to complain about a five-star hotel,” Finch says when comparing his D3 days to his time in the NBA. “We have it so good. I think it’s really good to have those experiences, so you do keep it in perspective.”

Hardy and Finch may enjoy the spoils of their positions now, but they didn’t become NBA head coaches overnight. Hardy endured an unglamorous and low-paying internship with the Spurs before moving up their version of the corporate ladder and becoming one of the brightest young coaches in basketball. And Finch coached overseas, where some of his teams struggled to make payroll, before taking a job in the NBA’s Developmental League (now called the G-League), which eventually led to a position in the NBA.

Their Division III days taught them how to go with the flow and live a no-frills basketball life. They appreciated the journey, and, as a result, ended up at a destination they would’ve never believed was possible. Losing a championship game? Those are the painful memories. The bad food, bumpy bus rides, and per diem pitchers of beer? That’s the good stuff.

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