Champions - despite a heart-rending loss - both on and off the court.

Sports at its highest level transcends athletic performance. It magnifies those characteristics that reflect the highest ideals of humanity.This year's University of Utah basketball team has represented sports at that highest level. The Utah players and their coaches - by their actions as well as their words - have shown that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

The overall results on the basketball court this season were phenomenal. A 30-4 record. Five straight victories in the NCAA Tournament, including stunning wins over defending national champion Arizona and No. 1-ranked North Carolina to become one of only two teams to reach the national title game. But even more remarkable is how those results were achieved.

Utah does not have a roster laden with former high school All-Americans. It does have a couple of academic All-Americans but not the kind of athletes that are associated with such slogans such as "doctors of dunk" or "Phi Slamma Jamma."

Because they are a team devoid of superstars, they have to rely on one another to elevate the overall team performance. And that is their ultimate strength - a total commitment to the team over self.

That was clearly evident in Monday night's championship game against perennial power Kentucky. Even though the Utes lost, 78-69, they played like champions. And they acted like champions afterward. Just as they had won their five previous NCAA tournament games with class and dignity, they lost with just as much class and dignity. No complaints about the officiating. Regrets? Yes. Particularly about how they couldn't make baskets in the final five minutes after leading for most of the game. But no excuses. And plenty of compliments for the victorious Kentucky Wildcats.

Former Princeton great and former Sen. Bill Bradley (who still holds the Final Four single game scoring record with 58 points) described the Utes when he noted on a Monday night TV commentary that "unselfishness is what gets you to the championship game." Each player, Bradley noted, is part of a five-point star, each working together and displaying traits such as courage, discipline and resilience.

Could there be a better leader for these young men than Rick Majerus, a coach who is more concerned with his players' welfare off the court than he is on it? He is an outstanding teacher as well as an outstanding coach. Majerus is driven to succeed at his profession, but he keeps it in context with his surroundings, realizing most of his players will not go on to play in the NBA. He wants them to get an education and be productive members of society in their respective fields.

He was disappointed Monday night with the loss but not with his players. "I'm very proud of my team. They're a great group of kids. Their effort was sensational."

It truly was, coach, as was yours. Thanks for giving this state not only a team to proud of but a group of young men to be proud of. A group of champions.