MUNCIE, Ind. — The banners inside Worthen Arena rekindle fond memories of Ball State basketball.
They are reminders of seven regular season Mid-American Conference championships, seven league tourney crowns and seven NCAA Tournament bids earned during a 19-year stretch starting in 1981. They spur debate about whether the greatest moment in program history was the Sweet Sixteen run in 1990 or the improbable journey to the 2001 Maui Invitational championship game after upsetting No. 4 Kansas and No. 3 UCLA on back-to-back nights before falling short against top-ranked Duke.
Since then, the once budding mid-major program has been mired mostly in mediocrity. Or worse. The rafters prove it.
This season was supposed to be different.
Players talked openly about a third straight 20-win season, pursuing their first league title in 18 seasons, celebrating their first NCAA tourney win since 1990 and, yes, even adding a banner or two to the dusty collection.
They had hoped to pursue those goals with 6-foot-9 forward Zach Hollywood of Bourbonnais, Illinois, along for the ride. Instead, they are playing for his memory. Well-liked by his coaches and teammates, the 19-year-old Hollywood was found dead in his apartment on Aug. 22 after committing suicide.
Everything changed for the Cardinals that day — and now, a terrible start to the season has given way to an inspired winning streak that carries so much more with it.
James Whitford has dealt with his share of adversity in two decades as a coach. It’s part of the job.
Coping with a player’s suicide was a first and Whitford needed answers.
He wanted to know why Hollywood, the kid whose obituary said he loved Superman ice cream, would take his own life and whether he could have done something, anything to prevent the tragedy — questions that were dominating the locker room. Whitford and his team both needed help.
“Objectively, what I would say to myself is that, ‘I know we have a very competent staff. I know we have a staff that works very hard. And I know every single one of us would have walked barefoot to Alaska to save him,’” Whitford said, his voice breaking ever so slightly. “Our souls, our hearts and our intent, I know, were all in the right place. But that doesn’t stop you from asking what you could have noticed or what could you have missed or what could you have done differently.”
One of his first calls went to first-year Indiana coach Archie Miller, who worked with Whitford when the two were on the staff at Arizona.
Miller had dealt with his own tragedy in the summer of 2016 when Dayton center Steve McElvene died from a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Now, Miller was on the other side — offering condolences and advice, explaining to Whitford it had taken six months before his team was back to normal.
Basketball was the least of Whitford’s concerns.
Workouts stopped, and Whitford also needed to help support Trey Moses, a 6-foot-9 forward from Louisville who found his best friend’s body. Moses hasn’t answered questions about it since that awful August day.
“I’ve struggled with depression for over 7 years. I regret not allowing anyone to know until now,” Moses wrote in series of Twitter posts last February, encouraging some to seek help and others to understand.
About a week after Hollywood’s death, Whitford informed the Cardinals the gym would soon be open for voluntary workouts. It didn’t take long for basketball to become a part of the healing process.
“I told the players and our normal practice squad that in time we would open the gym up if they wanted to get a workout in,” Whitford said. “Certainly, nobody was required but if they wanted to get a workout in for their mental health, we’d be happy to work them out. I think every guy on the team, barring maybe two, wanted to get a workout in. and I remember how good it felt for me to work them out.”
Whitford expected his team to be behind when the season started in November and it was. The Cardinals opened 1-4 and hopes for a breakout season seemed to be teetering on the brink.
Instead of questioning themselves, complaining or making excuses, the Cardinals dug in and turned things around.
Injured players started getting healthy, the Cardinals got in sync and, after crisscrossing the country in November, Ball State hasn’t traveled outside Indiana since Nov. 22.
It made a difference.
Playing with a patch bearing Hollywood’s initials just above their hearts, the Cardinals beat Indiana State, Oakland and IUPUI before a visit to Notre Dame. There, with Hollywood’s family in the crowd, Tayler Persons made a 3-pointer from the corner with 1.7 seconds left to give Ball State an 80-77 victory and its first top-10 win since that UCLA game in Maui all those years ago.
The upset created excitement in Muncie that hadn’t existed in years.
Inside the locker room, it confirmed what the players already believed.
“I think it gave us that spark, it showed we could play with anybody,” forward Tahjai Teague said.
Four nights later, Persons delivered again, making another 3 in the closing seconds to beat Valparaiso , 71-70. And now things are really humming. Ball State (7-4) has won six straight, including Tuesday’s win over North Florida, a game in which Moses had 15 points and 13 rebounds in his new jersey number, 24, Hollywood’s old number.
“He’s hanging in there, he’s doing well when you consider what he’s been through,” Whitford said, referring to Moses.
With non-conference games left against Jackson State and Florida A&M, it looks like the Cardinals will be taking momentum into the conference slate, which begins Jan. 2 at home against Eastern Michigan.
“I didn’t know it was going to be Notre Dame, but I knew something good was going to happen,” senior forward Sean Sellers said.
Even with the promise of the season restored for the Cardinals, they continue to cope with questions and emotions college players rarely do.
Counseling services continue to be offered. Athletic department officials, following counselors’ advice, do not make players available to discuss Hollywood’s death.
But they haven’t forgotten, and they never will.
“It’s a new normal. It’s part of our lives. That’s the way I choose to deal with it,” Whitford said. “I don’t think it’s productive to pretend it didn’t happen. We lost someone that we cared about deeply. I don’t want to run from those things. I don’t think you grieve healthily by ignoring it.”