A basketball game lasts 40 minutes. A season lasts 30-some-odd games. And a college athlete’s career lasts no more than four years of eligibility. Sports are fun but at the same time, fleeting. At some point, every game, season, and career comes to an end and so too does the platform that sports provide.
That’s why Sunday night was special.
Indiana coach Tom Crean took advantage of his platform that he has as the head coach of a blue-blood college basketball program. His reach and impact are boundless with mediums such as Twitter and YouTube, and after Indiana defeated Minnesota, he tested the boundaries of how many people he can reach through a 12-minute postgame press conference.
How he uses his time in front of the media and cameras is up to him. The media can ask questions of their choosing, but he can take his opening statement and answer in whatever direction he wants.
Sure, there were lots of on-court topics of discussion after Indiana made a school-record of 18 3-pointers in a victory that allowed the Hoosiers to eclipse their win total from last season, but none of that mattered.
Crean called an audible on Sunday.
His press conference became “their” press conference when he invited diehard Indiana fan and Bloomington resident Brian Jones, 38, who’s confined to a wheelchair, to join him in Assembly Hall’s media room.
“All of you are going to have to bear with us,” Crean said as he walked right past his usual seat in front of an Indiana University backdrop. “I’ve been waiting for this. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Jones’s sister pushed his wheelchair to the side of the room, between an IU Bill of Rights poster and a blackboard. Crean asked for a microphone and stood alongside Jones, with an arm tucked behind the fan’s MLB pillowcase that was propping his head up.
“How are you doing? Doing OK?” Crean, with his back to the media, asked Jones as he comforted the fan, putting both hands on Jones’ shoulders. “We’re gonna be on TV together. If you wanna answer a question, you just nudge me.”
Jones was wearing a grey Indiana hoodie and the school’s iconic candy-striped pants, a staple for any Hoosier fan, but the oxygen mask strapped around his head was a much less coveted accessory.
Jones suffers from ALS.
Crean then turned to the media.
“This is Brian Jones, alright, make sure you all get it,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for a few weeks for him to get here.”
And so began his unconventional, but powerful, press conference.
“Get his good side here,” Crean said told the media members filming the press conference.
He paused, looking down at Jones for several seconds. And again, he told Jones how glad he was to have him at Assembly Hall and just how proud he is of him.
Crean met Jones in a hospice a few weeks ago and visited with him and his family. He learned about Jones before the visit and knew he was an “absolute diehard Indiana fan.”
After meeting Jones, Crean might as well have become a diehard Brian Jones fan.
As Crean walked out of the hospice, he said he felt as inspired from meeting Jones as Jones was happy to see him.
“Probably 10 times more I was inspired walking out of there,” he said.
Crean’s visit with Jones at the hospice touched the coach enough that he wanted to return the favor. And Jones had no idea what Crean had up his sleeve.
When Jones was healthy enough and physically able to make the trip to Assembly Hall, he would take part in a postgame press conference, Crean told himself.
Well, Jones was able to do so on Sunday, getting to watch a Hoosier victory firsthand and then taking part in the press conference, just as promised.
After the game, he posed for a picture with James Blackmon Jr., Troy Williams, and Robert Johnson before getting a box score of the game autographed by the trio.
Crean wanted to involve Jones in the press conference as much as possible but the latter struggled to speak.
“I will have to speak a little more for you,” Crean said. “Did you enjoy the night?”
Jones’ mouth moved with determination and his eyebrows flexed, but he didn’t make a sound.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Crean said.
Before diving into X’s and O’s, Crean leaned down and hugged Jones, with the help of Jones’ sister. With all eyes on them, the two — fan and coach — embraced.
Crean then fielded questions about his team’s rebounding against Minnesota, Williams’ 3-point shooting, and the school record his team had just set, but his answers were sandwiched between a pair of gestures that were immeasurably more significant.
He closed the press conference by drawing attention back to Jones.
“It’s a rare, rare person that can make you feel better about you when you’re there trying to make them feel better,” Crean said. “That’s what this guy’s got. That’s why we’re doing this.”
“This is a model of perseverance right here.”
And, equally, it was a model of how sports are bigger than wins and losses, 3-point shooting records, and impressive rebounding performances. Sports are about people — their trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows — and using the platforms available to make a difference in people’s lives.
“I appreciate you guys putting him up here where people can see,” Crean said to the media. “Thank you.”
No, Tom Crean, thank you.