In pure jubilation for my first real job, I was glued to the TV. John Shurna dropped a game-high 21 points and Northwestern hung 91 points on the Yellow Jackets. This appeared to be the start of something special for Northwestern. Four wins over cupcakes were validated by a blowout of an ACC opponent.
A friend even told me: this could be the year for Northwestern. Those were words I would hear many times in my two and a half years on the beat. The excitement was palpable at the time, but there were just 4,455 fans inside Welsh-Ryan Arena on that November night.
The first game I covered came two weeks later, a drubbing of Long Island which saw John Shurna pour in 26 points on 10-11 from the field. It was one of those remarkable performances Shurna spoiled the fans with so many times. But the building wasn't packed once again. There were hardly 3,000 people in attendance.
Each game I covered, as hope began building for another promising season, I saw the same faces. Those were the diehards, the loyal fans who have been coming for years. They've invested their emotions, their pride, and for some, their good health, into rooting for Northwestern each game.
Over time, I got to know some of them personally. The fanatical kid holding a giant sign in the student section's front row was Seth Bernstein. The friendly man who greeted me before tipoff each game was Dr. Jerry Nustra, a season-ticket holder of 30 years. The guy pacing around the arena was Northwestern president Morty Schapiro.
When the Big Ten slate opened up, those previously-vacant seats were filled with fans in orange, red, green, and gold. As hope grew through each game, there was an increase in purple. These are the people Northwestern is targeting with its local marketing blitz; the Chicago sports fan looking for a team to embrace.
And how could you not fall in love with the Wildcats? They're the perennial underdog battling the Big Ten's giants. The billboards plastered throughout Chicago have slowly drawn fans.
However, hope would fade in 2011. John Shurna and Drew Crawford battled injuries and the Wildcats were never the same. The following fall, at the start of the season, those familiar faces had returned, filled with hope for the next the year. It appeared to be destiny when Northwestern upset No. 6 Michigan State. The students, who filled their entire section of bleachers, flooded onto the court for a dramatic celebration.
That was the pinnacle of Northwestern's season. A trek up the program's highest mountain ended just shy of the top. It was another heartbreaker for those diehards—the most painful one yet.
I walked into Welsh-Ryan for the final time on Thursday night. There was little hope to be had for this Northwestern team, a decimated group which was mired in a dreadful slump. Yet those same loyalists were in their familiar seats.
A gusty effort by the overmatched Wildcats fell just short—a 63-53 loss to Ohio State. The game slipped away in the final four minutes, where the Buckeyes pulled away on a 15-4 run. Gradually, the purple filed out of the building.
When the final horn sounded and the Wildcats walked off the court, few fans remained. As the marching band played Northwestern's alma mater, 12 students remained in the bleachers, proudly swaying to their song. They'll be back for the following game and the next season.
This is the scene to which I leave Welsh-Ryan Arena, and it couldn't be more perfect.
Thanks for everything, Northwestern. Never change.