Tilly: A Letter to Fran McCaffery

BY ZACH TILLY | JANUARY 21, 2014 5:00 AM

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I promised myself I wouldn’t write you (I couldn’t be that needy, could I?) but I’ve watched you hit the big time, and I guess I’ve got something I need to say.

I want to love you, I really do. I want to love your boys, too — Devyn with his doe eyes, Aaron, Mike, Melly. But something is holding me back.

It’s hard admitting I’m emotionally unavailable, but I’ve been burned too many times to commit to anything long-term right now. You have to understand.

Sure, I remember what it was like before I’d been hurt. I was there when you were going through that dark time, before you were a household name. Before the chair throwing, before the red-faced fits of rage. Remember the night against Campbell? Hopelessly under-talented, outgunned in a lifeless gym … but you still had that glimmer in your eye. God, I would have followed you to the end of the earth in those days.

Last year I felt myself falling hard for you. There had been moments here and there before, but it felt like maybe we’d turned a corner. You racked up some easy wins in the nonconference. But then the heartbreak.

Indiana by 4 and Michigan State by 3 at home. Overtime losses at Purdue and Wisconsin. Three points at Minnesota. By then I was stunned, we all were, but the schedule was favorable down the stretch.

“There’s still an outside shot,” they said. And I believed them. Because I wanted to believe them. To believe in you.

You know what happened next. It was a sunny afternoon, a Saturday, when I heard what happened in Nebraska. Right then I said, “No more of THIS.” I couldn’t take it; I was living with my emotional health tied to a team as unpredictable as the arrhythmic heartbeat you’d given me. That’s no way to exist.

But there was still the Big Ten Tournament.

“There’s still an outside shot,” they said. And again, like a moth to a flame, I fluttered back into your orbit, Fran. I did.

This time I was in my basement, wrapped in a blanket, when Michigan State strong-armed its way to a 3-point win. I didn’t speak for five days.

The NIT run felt like you reaching out, but I wasn’t ready then.

In a lot of ways I blame myself for expecting too much from you. I was just a kid, and in my eyes, you were the man who had it all figured out — I realize how naïve that was. But how could I have known then that behind those rimless lenses and steely eyes wasn’t an unfathomable, unconquerable basketball genius but the imperfect humanity of a scrappy, quick-tempered Philadelphia kid doing his best to build something bigger than himself.

I held you up as a god, but you were just a man. As fragile as the rest of us.

So here we are. You’re up in Ann Arbor by now, but at much greater metaphorical heights. You’ve got that number 10 by your name — it’s heady stuff. I’d be lying if I said the ride hasn’t been exhilarating.

But I still can’t bring myself to love you with my whole heart. There’s a voice in the back of my mind telling me that this is as good as it gets. That this moment is the high-water mark. That like so many hopes before, this could be lost in a moment.

I so hope I’m wrong, that you and your boys really have changed. That I can trust you completely.

I want to love you, Fran. I just need to know that I won’t be hurt again.

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