Most kids spend their first years on this planet engulfed by the emotions of one of two fervent states: birthday season and holiday season -- that beautiful stretch that begins with a bucket full of candy in October and ends with a stockpile of new belongings in December. If the two happened to overlap, whatever, it just doubled the intensity, which was more than enough to carry any 7-year-old through the offseason.
Things were a little bit different in the Rutherford household.
The youngest of three boys (and the older brother to a Barbies-over-sports little sister) looked forward to Christmas as much as all of his friends, but he also harbored an extreme fascination, almost an obsession, with the NCAA Tournament that trumped any observance of turning another year older. During the opening months of every calendar year, the tournament grabbed him and shielded him from most every other happening in his life. He created countdowns to Selection Sunday on poster board, he drew out the brackets for conference tournaments that his classmates had never heard of, and he constantly broke down the chances that his favorite team -- the group of individuals who made the thing so enticing in the first place -- could be the last squad standing when all the madness was over.
Time changes the appeal of holidays. What had been a celebration of wonder and suspense quickly becomes a couple of days off work and an excuse to drink beer on a Tuesday night.
Perhaps the NCAA Tournament's greatest appeal to people of a certain age is its status as a constant. March Madness, and the months immediately preceding it, speak to us now for mostly the same reasons they did when we first fell in love with the sport, with the event, with our team. The unpredictability, the excitement, the seemingly unlimited outcomes, the possibility of your team triumphing, the shared moments with friends and family members cut from the same cloth; time doesn't touch those things, and that's comforting.
All this is, of course, a precursor to the thing none of us want to talk about on a day like this.
The last 12 months have tested our passion, our pride and our obsession in ways we'd never even thought about before. The best time of the year in the city of Louisville never arrived in 2016, and even though missing the NCAA Tournament is one of the few sports situations that's so dreadful that it's nearly impossible to distinguish any varying degrees of misery, last winter felt 10 times more cruel and confusing than it ever did in years where the Cardinals were relegated to the NIT.
At some point over the course of the last year, we've all wanted to duck. We've all made the metamorphosis from longing for more Cardinal coverage on television to cringing every time we glance at the television and get a glimpse of red and white. The same inability to shake that awful haze of depression that typically reserves itself for real world troubles like heartbreak and lost loved ones has brought about the type of self-loathing that ordinarily only peaks its head up after especially traumatizing Louisville losses in late March or early April.
You are a grown man. The fact that you've allowed something so silly to make you feel this way is just sad. You've got to stop doing this.
The haze has still yet to be completely lifted, and the fact that friends and family (and Card Chronicle users) have all relayed their similar symptoms has done little to help. Apparently, misery's inherent affinity for company can only extend so far.
Time doesn't heal all wounds, but it does afford us the opportunity to understand why we got gashed in the first place.
Bad news pertaining to the University of Louisville basketball program affects me more than sports should affect any person because I allow it to ... and I'm glad. Until I see a sufficient reason to change, I will continue to leave myself open to the possibility of something I have zero control over making me feel like a 14-year-old whose first shot at love just got shoved back into their chest.
The life of the person who gives half of themselves to something and then believes they've achieved a total victory at the end is always less fulfilling. There's always a greater reward for the kid who shows up to the mandatory practice, for the little girl who raises hell when she senses that her older brother is trying to let her win, for the teenage boy who makes the grand play of affection for the girl who makes him feel the most.
I'm not saying that swinging big is the only way to be rewarded -- sometimes choking up with 2 strikes is what gives your team the best chance to win -- I'm just saying that giving yourself wholly and honestly to something is the lone path to a result that is your own personal perfect.
I love the Louisville Cardinals, college basketball and the NCAA Tournament more than I love most things. I don't know why, I don't know when it started or how it has persisted for so long, but I can tell you that I don't question it anymore.
When the final buzzer sounded inside the Georgia Dome on April 8, 2013, it felt like the compensation for years of feelings that were never fully requited, the ultimate reward for all those hours spent watching games on the couch with my dad, or with my friends at their houses, or inside Freedom Hall or the Yum Center. It was my perfect moment, and I'd gladly suffer through 1,000 soul-crushing overtime Elite 8 losses or 50 more self-imposted postseason bans to get back there again.
The beautiful journey and the quest for that place begins anew in a matter of hours.
There will be highs that make us forget all of our real world troubles, and lows that amplify them. Eventually, there will be an end. As with any other season, the likelihood that this end will leave us dejected for at least a short while is far greater than the likelihood that it will be perfect.
Still, we not only accept this seemingly lopsided deal, we embrace it. Before the wheels of 2016-17 officially begin to spin, I think it's important, this year maybe more than any other, to remind ourselves why.
Because it's in our blood
Have you ever thought about what the winter would be like without basketball? How different things would be if we couldn't text our friends or talk with our co-workers about how Quentin Snider played the night before or the way Deng Adel is progressing?
In late January, hearing Jay Bilas call a Louisville/Syracuse game on a weeknight is your reward for shoveling ice off your front windshield at 7 a.m. instead of curling up next to the space heater until noon. The first hint of warmer weather in late February doesn't prompt images of blossoming flowers or the end of the winter semester, it gets us giddy over the thought of conference tournaments and Selection Sunday.
I don't think any of us could possibly explain how we got to this place. At some point, it just became ... what we do. The "in our blood" rationale is always going to be the simplest and therefore best one we have.
Because it's humbled us
Whether the late '80s through the early 2000s was a letdown period for you or the genesis of your fandom, Louisville basketball has made you more appreciative. We're not especially far removed from a time when the Final Four was an unworkable daydream for a hoard of Cardinal fans approaching their 20s, because they'd never experienced one.
Still, we've all been here the whole time.
Those moments in Atlanta three and-a-half years ago were all earned. As a result of having to go the long road, I think Louisville fans have, by and large, reached a point where they are elated when the Cards win big games and disappointed when they lose them. I find this combination far more preferable than its counterpart of relief and anger.
Because of the shared experience
My favorite thing about Card Chronicle is how it's brought together so many people who have so many comparable feelings regarding something they care a great deal about. So many of us have the same memories and thoughts about former players, opponents, games, and all the other Cardinal minutiae that we once believed only us and those we were close to held dear.
None of this would be nearly as much fun if we didn't have others who were equally insane to share it with. Having those people who we desperately need to hug, text, call, tweet or email after a big win is what allows the euphoria of victory to linger long after the players have walked off the floor.
Between now and whenever this season comes to a close, we're all going to lose ourselves a little bit, but we'll be lost together. I think that's wonderful.
Because Louisville basketball, like the tournament, is a constant
We are all prone to convincing ourselves that we're working towards this imaginary period where everything's going to calm down, everything's going to be settled, and everything's going to (finally) stay the same. For 99.9 percent of the world, this time is never going to come. Some changes we can't foresee, others we can, but we don't respect their gravity. We are all constantly losing people we love, pets we love, things we love, and periods of time we love.
In this regard, Louisville basketball never lets us down.
Good season or bad, the Cards are going to take the court for the first time in November, and they're going to keep playing until sometime close to the beginning of spring. That alone might not be enough to get us through whatever may be ailing us at a particular point in time, but it's always going to help.
Because this is one of things that makes us the happiest
The personalities of the kids, the in-season memes, the unlikely triumphs, the unexpected rivalries, the highlight videos, the morning after conversations, the bracket projections and the debates over how this is ultimately going to play out; it's all just a great deal of fun.
In our relatively brief existence as a species, there has never been a person whose death bed has been made less comfortable by all the time they devoted to that one thing that made them so happy. There has never existed a person who, when facing their final moments, has wished they'd committed less of themselves to something they cared deeply about.
Even with everything that has happened in the past 13 months, and even with the things that still may happen at some unidentifiable point in the future, the next five months are going to be wonderful.
The best time of the year in the city of Louisville will be back after a one-year hiatus. I can't wait to experience it with you guys.