Sympathy for Pitt?

Contributing Columnist
Posted Mar 21, 2011


"I take the blame.... I take the blame for this loss. I made a dumb play. I apologize to my teammates and the fans."

Those were the quiet words of Pitt's Nasir Robinson, a junior forward from Chester, Pa., as he sat in the locker room after Pitt's loss on Saturday night. He committed the foul with 0.8 seconds left on the clock that enabled Butler to escape with a 71-70 victory over Pitt to advance to the Sweet 16.

After the game, Robinson was reported to be disconsolate, barely able to speak to the gathered members of the press. "I wasn't thinking at all,” he said. “I was trying to make a play. It was a dumb play. I wasn't thinking at all. I blame myself. I've been playing this game long enough to know not to make a dumb play like that."

As a lifelong WVU fan and a WVU alumnus, I have a healthy dislike for Pitt in a rivalry sort of way. I'm apt to feel a cold shiver when I'm in Pittsburgh and see Pitt's Cathedral of Learning, known in my family as “The Dark Tower.” Pitt fans probably have similar feelings when in Morgantown, or crossing the West Virginia state line. Pitt is our biggest rival, and no other school even comes close. But I don't actually hate Pitt or its coaches or athletes or students or alumni. Maybe that comes from growing up as a fan of the Pirates and Steelers and, in adulthood, the Penguins. One of my good friends is a Pitt alumnus. And I'll even root for Pitt occasionally, particularly if they play Penn State or VPI. I don't always wish Pitt ill. But on Saturday night I was rooting for Butler.

That said, I still feel bad for Nasir Robinson. That young man will carry that momentary lapse with him for the rest of his life. He may relive it mentally, emotionally, again and again.

And the thing he should remember is this: He was trying to make a play to help his team win a game.

I hope he can put the failure behind him.

It's easy for WVU fans to feel gleeful about Pitt getting knocked out of the NCAA tournament the same day that we lost to Kentucky. Misery does love company. We can feel a little better knowing that Pitt failed to live up to expectations even more than we did. If anything, I think WVU exceeded expectations this season. Pitt surely didn't.

But Pitt fans seem to be in total meltdown mode. (I hesitate to use that phrase for something so superficial when nuclear plants in Japan have been on the brink of a potential real meltdown, but no other phrase fits quite as well.)

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook doesn't blame the coach or the referees, he blames the Pitt players. “Shame on the Panthers,” he wrote. Well, shame on him. Those Pitt kids played their hearts out and gave the best they had. They don't deserve to be criticized for it.

Unlike Cook, many Pitt fans seem to have turned on coach Jamie Dixon, who has always impressed me as one of the many good guys in college coaching. He seems to be a top-notch recruiter and bench coach who has repeatedly run into tough luck in the NCAA tourney.

(If you want to criticize someone's coaching methods, consider former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, just hired by Texas Tech. In the Fairmont Times West Virginian, writer Bob Hertzel relayed a Saturday report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, indicating that Gillispie told UK center Josh Harrellson “to sit in a toilet stall in the locker room at halftime two seasons ago during a game at Vanderbilt,” and then had him return home after the game riding “in an equipment truck,” rather than with the rest of the team in their more comfortable mode of transportation.)

Jamie Dixon has been a very successful coach at Pitt by every measure except Final Four appearances. Winning percentage? -- check. Big East championships? -- check. Success against WVU? -- unfortunately, check.

And he seems to be a class act. For example, he has been very generous in his comments regarding WVU students and fans even when he's been the target of vulgar chants and his bench has been the target of various tangible missiles.

I doubt that the Pitt administration would be foolish enough to fire Dixon over his lack of success in the NCAA tourney. Frankly, as a WVU fan, I'd be thrilled if Dixon would take his coaching talent elsewhere. But I expect that Jamie Dixon will stay at Pitt for years to come, and continue to have his share of success in the Big East and against WVU.

There's no doubt that Dixon feels bad about Pitt's loss, and the particularly painful circumstances of its closing moments. But as much as Pitt's loss may hurt Coach Dixon, hurt the Pitt seniors, or hurt their fans, the person I think about most is Nasir Robinson.

The kid was trying to make a play to help his team win.

I also feel sorry for Pitt senior Gilbert Brown, who missed that second free throw, and who emotionally tried to place the blame on his own shoulders after the game. That's his final play in his Pitt career -- missing a free throw that almost certainly would have sent his team to the Sweet 16. How would you like to have that to carry with you?

Pitt's defeat was surprising, even stunning. But it's what happens in sports.

The game's outcome, the high expectations for Pitt in the tournament, and then reading about the players' reactions made me think about another game, and different players. I thought of how Pat White and Pat McAfee must have felt after the game-that-should-not-be-mentioned on that cool December night in Morgantown when we were heavily favored to beat our rival on our home field and then go on to the national championship game. And failed. I still obsess over that game, and I wasn't one of the players on the field.

I think about Major Harris, in position to bring us that elusive national title. And I think again, “If only Major hadn't gotten hurt....” And that was more than 30 years ago.

I also think about great WVU basketball players whom I've loved to watch compete, kids who played their hearts out for West Virginia, and who sometimes failed. I think about some of my favorite players, like Joe Mazzulla and Da'Sean Butler and Mike Gansey. And I could name players back into the late 1960s.

They each had their shining moments in the spotlight. And some had moments of deep disappointment, despite giving their all.

I felt bad on Saturday afternoon for our WVU seniors, walking off the court for the last time wearing the Gold and Blue. They hung their heads. I wanted to shake their hands.

And Saturday night, after delighting for a little while in Pitt's loss to Butler, I began to feel sadness for Nasir Robinson. It must have been hard for him, being asked about it in the locker room. It must have been tough for him to feel he'd let his teammates down. It was the biggest moment in his college career to date. He made a mistake. It was his foul. It was correctly called by the ref. And the camera seemed solely on him.

But here's the thing: One play does not win or lose a game. One player does not win or lose a game.

If Gilbert Brown had made the second free throw, or if he'd missed the first one, too.... If the ref hadn't blown his whistle, or had hesitated just eight-tenths of a second.... If, if, if....

There are doubtless a hundred things or more that could have made the difference in that game, little unnoticed turning points that could have made that free throw and that whistle irrelevant.

But the microscope, fairly or unfairly, falls on the player who tried and failed.

It makes no difference if it's a WVU player or a Pitt player who's involved in the moment, I've reached that age or level of maturity when I can feel sorry for the kid.

I don't know either Nasir Robinson or Gilbert Brown. I don't know if they are good guys to be around. I don't know anything about them, except that they can play ball at a very high level. But I watched them try their best and fall short. I hope they can put it behind them and remember better days.

As a WVU fan, it's okay to root against Pitt, and to take some pleasure in their loss. But as a human being, if you have any heart at all, you ought to feel some empathy for Nasir Robinson and Gilbert Brown.

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