Saint Joseph’s University Magazine, Summer 2018

The Season That Saved My Life

After his first year at Saint Joseph’s, in July 2003, Matt Gifford lost his father to leukemia. He returned to campus that fall, searching for a return to normalcy as a Hawk basketball fan. In this excerpt from an article Gifford wrote for 247Sports, what he found in that perfect season was anything but expected.

Hawks fan at basketball game with 'The Hawk Will Never Die' banner.

By Matt Gifford ’06

In August of 2003, when I returned to campus with the weight of the world on my shoulders, knowing that I was leaving my mom and younger brother on their own, I was determined to find an outlet on campus. Something besides my classes. Something besides work study in the English department.

I was going to pour my heart and soul into the basketball team that year.

This team, led by Jameer Nelson, would give my life some normalcy and joy. Little did I know that what would happen that year on Hawk Hill was far from normal.

The Hawks played 11 home games that season. I attended every one. For two hours, my mind was free to focus on nothing but a basketball game. There were nights I’d go home and cry in my dorm room, wanting nothing more than calling home, getting my dad on the phone and explaining to him what I’d just seen Delonte West, or Jameer Nelson, or Pat Carroll do. But for those two hours, those two twenty-minute halves, I felt free. At a time in my life when I questioned just about everything I ever knew to be true, this game, this team, continued to bring a smile to my face.

My phone calls home shifted in their focus. My mom was following this team. Instead of talking about how she was doing, instead of talking about how I was doing, we talked about how the Hawks were doing.

St. Joe’s would lose its first game that season against Xavier in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. I listened to that game in the car with my mother as we drove to visit my dad’s sister. We spent that ride, not in silence, but discussing the Hawks’ prospects entering the NCAA Tournament and whether they’d still get a number one seed.

They would get that number one seed, much to the chagrin of Billy Packer. In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Hawks blew out 16-seed Liberty. While many national pundits predicted the Hawks would lose in the second round to Bob Knight and Texas Tech, that wasn’t to happen. Nelson and West combined for 39 points in a 70-65 win over the Red Raiders, putting the Hawks in the Sweet 16.

In the Elite Eight, the Hawks would fall to Oklahoma State, 64-62, on a John Lucas three with 6.9 seconds remaining. The magical season would come to a close. The loss was so painful that, after making it back to campus from Manayunk, I jumped in my Ford Taurus and drove that familiar route up Roosevelt Boulevard back home. When I opened the front door at home, my mom was sitting on the sofa, looking like she was expecting me, despite the fact that I never told her I was coming home. We didn’t need to say a word.

The title of this article is “The Season That Saved My Life.” That year, from November of 2003 to March of 2004, a basketball team led by “the little man from the little school” brought order, optimism and a distraction to my life. That was also the year that I fell in love with the sport of basketball. I realized how beautiful of a game it was. I realized that you didn’t have to be the biggest player to be the best, and Jameer Nelson exemplified that. I realized that you didn’t have to be the biggest school to be the best, as St. Joe’s was ranked the number one team in the country. I realized that unselfish basketball, team basketball, was a beautiful thing. And as I watched all of this happening, all of this unfolding, my heart still broke. It’s like when you fall in love, and you want to share that with the people that you care most about. I had a new love. It was basketball — Saint Joseph’s basketball. And the one person I wanted to share that with was no longer here.

Over the last 14 years, I have gone from being a student at St. Joe’s to now covering St. Joe’s. And still, now like then, it’s an outlet. No matter what else is going on in my life, going on in the world, for those 40 minutes, nothing else matters but the game. And for that, I am eternally thankful. And one day, hopefully a long time from now, I’ll get to sit down with my dad and talk about this love of mine.

 

The full version of Gifford’s essay “The Season That Saved My Life” can be viewed on 247sports.com/college/saint-josephs, which features his coverage of the Hawks as @HHHardwood. Gifford is also a full-time elementary school teacher.