Just 1.1 percent of the 351 Div. I college basketball programs advance all the way to the Final Four, at which 75 percent of those schools finish the experience on a sad note.
Nobody can feel the difference between one side of that microscopic line that separates euphoria from torment, one shining moment from a hovering dark one, more deeply and freshly than those associated with the North Carolina basketball program.
Marcus Paige created one of the greatest photographs in NCAA Tournament history, contorting his body into a ball in mid-air to escape a defender’s reach and hitting from that unconventional form a game-tying three-pointer that erased a deficit that less than five minutes earlier had reached 10 points. Many North Carolina fans turned their seat cushions into frisbees, celebrating the moment. In about the amount of time the average human spends between blinks, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins took a pass from Ryan Arcidiacono and turned it into an immortal poster. Jenkins called for the ball, and Arcidiacono heard him, creating an echo that will never die.
But what about the near winners? Shouldn’t time heal the wounds and turn them into pride? North Carolina came closer than 349 other schools, came as close any runner-up had ever come. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in competitive sports. The details of losses linger longer than those born in victories.
Brad Frederick, son of late Kansas University athletic director Dr. Bob Frederick, is director of basketball operations for North Carolina. He is the one on the bench who sits closest to the scorer’s table, next to Hubert Davis, who is next to C.B. McGrath, who is next to Roy Williams.
“I definitely didn’t sleep on Monday night, didn’t sleep a lick. Then I would say every night since then I’ve gotten a little more sleep,” Frederick said of the 10 nights that followed that sleepless night. “It’s something you live with. For me, 17 years in coaching, and it was my first one. It makes you realize how hard it is to get there. You wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to get back. Hopefully, we will. It’s certainly been tough.”
Frederick estimated he has gone to about 25 Final Fours, the first at Kemper Arena in 1988, when Danny and the Miracles defeated Oklahoma in the title game that was tied, 50-50, at the half. He went again in 1991, when Kansas lost to Duke in the national-title game. His father’s position on the tournament committee gave him the connection he needed to land a job as Final Four ball boy in 1992, 1993 and 1994. He was a reserve on North Carolina’s 1997 and ’98 Final Four teams. Div. 1 coaches have face-value access to Final Four tickets, and he took advantage of that several times.
“Most coaches go to the Final Four almost every year,” Frederick said. “As you get older, seasons get longer, losses hurt more, you decided, ‘I don’t really want to be there.’ There were a couple of those for me.”
Bob Frederick’s choice of Williams as a successor to Larry Brown at Kansas sent shock waves throughout college basketball, given that Williams was considered Dean Smith’s No. 3 assistant coach at the time. That stroke of genius resulted in Williams coaching Kansas to four Final Fours and North Carolina to four as well, two ending in national championships.
“Obviously, he’s struggling with it,” Frederick said of how Williams is taking the loss to Villanova. “As he’s told us, the loss was similar to the Syracuse game (Williams’ last as coach at Kansas in the 2003 national-title game in New Orleans), losing by three points. But in the Syracuse game, coming back the whole way, but never tied it at the end like we did. It’s just amazing to me the run he’s had, eight Final Fours, five national-championship games. He’s struggling with it. You are so close and want it so badly for the players.”
Frederick, who called Villanova “a tough team, a great team,” is in his third season back at North Carolina after working 14 seasons under Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt. He joined the North Carolina team as a sophomore, played one season under Smith and two under Bill Guthridge.
Frederick knows what it feels like to win it all. He was a starter on Lawrence High’s 1995 state-championship team. He was so close to reviving similar emotions from his seat on the bench, wearing a suit and tie.
“I’ve seen several still shots of Marcus’ shot that tied it,” Frederick said. “I have an amazed look on my face. I can’t believe that shot went in. I feel bad for Marcus. One of the best shots in tournament history, and it won’t be as fondly remembered because Kris Jenkins makes a shot 4.7 seconds later.”
The dramatic finish filled the eyes of Ben Frederick, 7, oldest of Brad and Jocelyn’s three children, with tears. KU graduate student and bartender at The Sandbar, Chris Frederick, youngest of Brad’s three brothers and Ben’s uncles, quickly tried to soften the blow with empathetic words.
“I did the same thing when I was your age,” Chris told his nephew, referencing KU’s Final Four losses in 1991 and 1993. “We lost, and I was crying. Better get used to it. When you have a life in sports, losses happen, as do wins.”
It’s a shame the losses have such sinister staying power.