It's the easiest thing, when you pay close attention to sports, to be cynical about them, and then Fran Dunphy delivers a genuine moment of grace on Friday and makes it so hard.
The Temple Owls had just lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 72-70, to Iowa in overtime at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The winning basket, the play that ended Temple's season, had come on a tip-in at the buzzer. It was the kind of loss that leaves a coach feeling as if a pile of frozen gravel has settled at the pit of his stomach. Ten minutes later, Dunphy sat atop a dais for his postgame news conference, and someone handed 11-year-old Max Bonnstetter - a reporter for Sports Illustrated for Kids - a microphone.
"Coach," Max said, "it was a heartbreaking loss, but your upperclassmen stepped up. How do you feel about them?"
If you don't pay close attention to sports, you might have missed this moment. You might have missed Dunphy's answer to Max's question. You shouldn't. This is what Dunphy said, in full:
"I feel great about them - Max is your name? - just like I feel great about you, Max, because you're a pretty cool guy and the fact that you would ask that question the way you asked it. I love these guys. That's the problem. You love them like crazy, and now, the seniors are gone, and we won't see much of them after this. They'll work, some of them, at trying to be professional basketball players. Some of them will be professional in some other way. And so it hurts, to be honest with you. That's part of the problem of this situation. The abruptness of the ending is frightening, to be honest with you. But thank you for the question, Max."
The video of Dunphy's remarks spread across the Web over the subsequent three days, bouncing from Facebook accounts to Twitter posts to emails - for a few reasons, I suspect. The first is the depth of Dunphy's answer. He was insightful and substantive, particularly when he described how his relationship with his senior players changes once the season ends, the wistfulness he evoked. We won't see much of them after this. People don't think much about that dynamic when they're filling out their brackets for their office pools. Dunphy has been a head coach, first at Penn and then at Temple, for 27 years. He thinks about it every March. It's a complex emotion, and he did not simplify or soften it. He did not condescend to Max. He did not treat him like an 11-year-old.
"I have respect for the profession and [that they're] trying to do their job," Dunphy said Monday in an interview. "So I didn't think any differently of Max, who's 11, than I did of someone who's 39. It's the same. But then there's another part of you that says, 'How about this young kid, who came out with a really good question that was really well-stated and was very respectful in the way he asked it?' There was no other way for me to handle it."
That's not entirely true. There are other ways he could have handled it. We've seen them. We see them all the time: Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy, screaming, "I'm a man! I'm 40!" at a reporter, as if he believed that throwing a tantrum was the surest sign of someone's manhood. Cam Newton, always sunny and smiling during the Carolina Panthers' march to Super Bowl 50 - when it was oh-so easy to be sunny and smiling - then sullen and petulant after that loss to the Denver Broncos. Bobby Knight, being Bobby Knight, win or lose.
Dunphy had as much excuse for such behavior as any of them. This was the 16th time one of his teams has reached the NCAA tournament . . . and the 13th time he has lost in the first round. Adam Woodbury, the Iowa center who scored the decisive basket, got away with a push-off foul on the play; the referees missed it. Now he was sitting there minutes later, and the camera lights were so bright in his eyes that he could barely see the reporters in front of him, and this little voice, like a bird's tweet, began asking him a question.
"We've been lucky enough to be there many times, so you know there's going to be something asked that you need to respond to, and you need to respond to it with some sort of dignity," he said. "You can't lose your mind. No one's going to respect that.
"I just think there are certain levels of frustration that people get to. My frustration about the game Friday was that we didn't make a better play the dozens of times we could have in the second half to make that last shot meaningless. But what overrode any of those feelings was the finality of the season, the finality of these four college careers coming to an end. . . . That overrides taking things personally from a reporter who's trying to get a story or a story line or an opinion from me. I'll answer it to the best of my ability, but I don't take it personally.
"I'm going to give you me. It's all I've got."
There's a catchphrase you hear a lot in sports coverage: They said all the right things. Often, it's nothing more than a cover for the clichés that athletes and coaches spit out by rote, but it does get to the heart of a debate that, in this age of instantaneous information and opinion, has never been more relevant: What do we want from the people who play games for a living? Is there value in what they say, and if so, what? Do we want them to say all the right things, or do we want them to be authentic?
Fran Dunphy showed that, every once in a while, we don't have to make the choice.