"We've been blessed by a great player and a great team. I just can't force myself to be unhappy." ISU coach Bill Hodges
In the end Larry Bird had once again returned to his silence. He dressed in an adjoining room to the locker room, separated from his teammates, with assistant coach Mel Daniels, who cuts an imposing figure at 6-9, by his side.
No reporter dared venture in, lest someone might do mean things to him with his pencil. Instead, they stood on the outside looking in. As one reporter said, "He's the boy in a plastic bubble."
Bird, who had made a deal to talk during the week if his teammates were given equal time sort of like the Supreme Court ruling now kept his distance from all outsiders and refused to attend the same press conference he had in victory.
In all fairness, Bird was bitterly disappointed. For the Sycamores to win, Bird had to have the same kind of game he did against DePaul 16 of 19 shooting from the floor and 35 points. But he could hit just seven of 21 attempts on this night.
"It wasn't just his last game," said Hodges. "It was his career."
Once dressed, he was ushered out the door to the privacy of a training room, leaving his teammates to deal with reporters.
The Sycamores had no experience to deal with defeat. They hardly knew how to act. They hadn't lost a game this whole season. And Hodges had never lost a game as a head coach.
To go all year unbeaten and then lose in the championship must have seemed like a great injustice. At first they had set out just to win their conference. But as the year had progressed they were tantalized by the idea of a national championship although the polls refused to recognize them as the nation's best team, despite having the nation's best record. But in a matter of about two hours it was all over, and they were ill-equipped to deal with it.
Bird and Carl Nicks buried their faces in their hands as tears welled up in their eyes. Alex Gilbert kneeled in front of them, saying, "Get your heads up, we don't want people to think we're not winners."
Gilbert refused to surrender his dream of a national championship. When he received his runners-up watch, he defiantly raised his index finger, signifying No. 1. As defeat had grown near, Gilbert stood courtside with his four fouls and punched at the air in frustration, screaming and pleading with his teammates to pull it out.
Four times this season the Sycamores had turned defeat into victory in the closing seconds with just the right breaks, but there was none of that on this night.
"If we had been able to get close," said Hodges, "we would've won this one, too."
After accepting their trophy, the Sycamores left the courts before the Spartans could receive theirs. Once in the locker room, Hodges told his team, "We should be thankful that God blessed us with such a great year."
The presence of reporters in the locker room seemed an intrusion on the Sycamores' privacy, although they continued their muffled and predictable talk of next year, bad breaks, referees and the Spartans. Their trophy sat on the floor next to an empty carton of lowfat milk.
"We didn't get any breaks," said Gilbert. "I don't know if it was really like that. It just seems like it. I still feel like we're the best team."
"We made believers out of a nation," said Leroy Staley. "This loss can't take away from our season now. I'm not ashamed. I can look anyone in the face."
"We came so far," said Nicks. "We set our goals and accomplished them."
Though he lacked the experience, Hodges handled defeat with the same grace he did in victory.
"It's no different than winning, if you did your best," he said. "Put yourself in my position. The guys just played their hearts out all year and were playing for a national championship. Now how can I be disappointed in that?"
His eyes swollen and red, Bird and his entourage emerged from the training room at 10:15 p.m., walked up a long tunnel and stepped out into the night.
His teammates were still talking of how there's always next year. But in truth, their franchise was walking out of their locker room for the last time. Of course, the Sycamores convinced the nation with that sort of talk all year.