Story by Frank Macdonald
For anyone who has followed Seattle Pacific University athletics, or men's basketball in particular, it was a scene to behold.
Well before the final buzzer, Ken Bone, who has coached the Falcons for 10 seasons, glanced across the court from the team bench. He could scarcely believe his eyes. The usually demur SPU fans -- and most notably the students, who had stood since arriving an hour before tip-off -- were jumping up and down and cheering in unison. The building and floor seemed to gently shake. As far as the eye could see, there were no empty seats.
It was pandemonium, but moreover it was a time to be proud.
Proud of a basketball team which was on its way to winning a school-record 27 games, capturing the NCAA West Region for the first time in 35 years, and reaching the Final Four for the first time ever. Proud of a campus community which rallied behind the team and seemed to relish every moment. And proud of a big city that paused long enough to rediscover and support a small treasure which has been there all along.
Donte Quinine, the Falcons' high-flying forward who was voted the outstanding player of the regional tournament, had played before much larger crowds while attending the University of Oregon. "But with the Pavilion packed out, it really felt like a big-time college atmosphere," said Quinine. "It reminded me of Oregon, only there we never got to cut down any nets."
"The people of the city -- especially the campus community -- supported us," said Bone. "Not only were they there at the games, but they shared our passion."
Reveling in the moment were students such as freshman Robert Levy. A season-long member of the Orangemen -- a traditional group of rooters from the sixth floor of Ashton Hall -- Levy watched as the students turned out in larger and larger numbers. Six of the Orangemen, including Levy, made the trip to Louisville, where they were briefly joined in their signature overalls by President Philip Eaton.
Levy and the rest of the Orangemen hope the groundswell of support will carry over to next year and beyond.
During an extended six-month season that began in Brazil and culminated in Kentucky, Bone and his team learned many lessons, both about basketball and about life.
Outside a gym in an impoverished area of Sao Paulo in September, Bone noted how his players pulled off their T-shirts to give them to children -- not so much for souvenirs as for essential clothing. It was a lesson in humility.
Beaten in the first and final home games of the regular season, the Falcons discovered a new fortitude that would carry them through tougher circumstances to come.
At the Elite Eight in Louisville, the Falcons learned they belonged by beating Georgia College and State 77-65 in the quarterfinal round and nearly completing an upset of defending national champion and local favorite Kentucky Wesleyan in the semifinal, before falling 87-81 in overtime.
"Our guys, and especially those who are coming back, realize we have a good enough program to win the national championship," says Bone. "We can compete with any team in the country."
Before the season began, Seattle Pacific was touted as very talented and the team to beat in the Pacific West Conference. However, there was lingering doubt whether the players, five of them newcomers, would close ranks. When some didn't, Bone took disciplinary measures, even excusing one individual.
"Thinking back, maybe the most valuable lesson our guys learned was that championships are won as a team," Bone says. "You win conference, regional and national titles by having great team chemistry. It means giving up your self for the betterment of the team."
It was in the locker room following the season-ending loss in Louisville that these special young men showed their true colors. They tearfully spoke of how they had stuck together, learned one another's strengths and weaknesses, and become friends for life.
"It was everything a player could ask for, to play for a good coach, to share the dream with these guys," said Drake Hudgins, one of six seniors. "We have a lot of confidence in each other. We didn't give up. We kept fighting. It's amazing what we went through this year."