Friend who passed away becomes “Sixth Man” during UConn’s run to the national championship

By: Matt Ouimette

watch Friend who passed away becomes Sixth Man during UConns run to the national championship
Nate’s watch.

This is the watch my close friend gave me a week before he found the burden of life too difficult to carry at the age of 23. A fellow lifelong Storrs resident and Husky fan, our best memories come from national championship runs ’99 to the present. From childhood we idolized the same jersey with the same friends; only the names on the back have changed.

As graduates, with work schedules creating scattered availability, UConn games were the one constant. Almost every game that I did not attend in person this season, I watched with Nate. The last time I went to his house we watched UConn beat Rutgers in late January. The last time I saw Nate we watched Louisville embarrass UConn in the final regular season game, and a month ago last night I received the shocking news during halftime of the Memphis game. My 2014 UConn experience was intertwined with Nate, and now, the aftermath of his passing was to be    intertwined with the remainder of the season.

I hadn’t yet worn the watch when UConn was announced as the No. 7 seed in the East Region. Overcome with sadness, I struggled with the idea of not being able to share the NCAA    Tournament with Nate, whom I had watched games with all year.

Then suddenly, it occurred to me- he can share this.

I decided to travel to every game and bring him with me on my wrist.

There was just one possible combination in the entire tournament field that would draw two sites in driving distance. The probability of that happening was about 8%. The first two sites- Buffalo and Manhattan- were both within driving distance.

The stars were aligning.

I attended the St Joe’s game with two friends and the sixth man. It worked. We won. The next day we drove seven hours home to attend his funeral service in Mansfield. That night, gathered with 40 friends -some reunited after as long as six years- we watched UConn beat Villanova on a night dedicated to celebrating Nate’s memory. Needless to say, it was a fitting end to a great night.

nate edited Friend who passed away becomes Sixth Man during UConns run to the national championship
Nate (left, in blue) with Ryan and a young Tyler Olander alongside former Husky great Kevin Freeman.

On to Madison Square Garden, a building that hadn’t hosted a NCAA Tournament game in 53 years. And this happens to be the year. And the No. 7 seed, UCONN, has advanced.

Stars continue to align, I thought.

Tickets to the East Regional soared to unprecedented highs and out of my price range, but I was able to get Tyler Olander’s last two tickets.

Stars aligning again.

Everything that needed to go right was going right. We took on the Big 12 champion Iowa State Cyclones in the Sweet 16. We won. Then, the Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans came calling in the Elite Eight. We won again. Many say the crowd was the sixth man that weekend at the Garden. In my opinion, the real sixth man wasn’t even in the building.

Riding this wave of faith, I bought a round trip ticket to Dallas with no game tickets. I couldn’t rationally justify my decision, I just knew it was the right one. Faith. I knew I had help from above. I knew I had the sixth man on my side. On Saturday night I was in AT&T Stadium, the largest single-day crowd in college basketball history filing in from the bottom up. There was no way I could finagle myself into better seats, right?

While sitting in section 400, I noticed an opening three rows behind the UConn bench next to family friends. I began my descent. Ten minutes later I had snuck past three levels of Final Four security into a seat that got me on the front page of the Dallas Morning News- without so much as a single question. It was as if someone had turned their heads as I approached each level. We won.

On Sunday, I heard that a good friend flew in for the championship game. He happened to have an extra ticket. It was not discussed, it was not planned, it just happened.

celebrating nate Friend who passed away becomes Sixth Man during UConns run to the national championship
Friends gathered to watch the UConn-Villanova game after Nate’s service.

Hours later, I found myself back at AT&T Stadium sitting behind NBA star Andre Drummond in a row that included former Husky greats Charlie Villanueva and Jerome Dyson. As Kentucky surged in the second half, I took peace in knowing we had the sixth man on our side. I knew we would win. And we did. National Champions.

On the floor after the game I was adopted by Coach Ollie’s family and ushered into the locker room where I was able to congratulate KO in a room with Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton. Security, reluctant to let me pass at first, finally let me through as if they were instructed to from above.

The stars were most certainly aligned.

After a month of searching for answers, UConn was the only definitive answer I had.

As I mentioned earlier, the last time I saw Nate, we watched UConn’s blowout loss to Louisville. Following the loss, coach Ollie was asked why his team was not playing together this late in the season:

“We’ve been playing good basketball so we have faith in ourselves,” Ollie said to reporters. “We’re at the bottom right now. This is the worst we could ever play. But guess what? As bad as we played, we can turn it around. So I’m not giving up on the season. I’m just talking about right at this moment, we didn’t play together. This season is not over yet, but I told them if we play like this we have two games and then they can go to spring break.”

The author was pictured on the front page of the Dallas Morning News at the Final Four.
The author was pictured on the front page of the Dallas Morning News at the Final Four.

UConn was at the bottom. In a final tune-up before postseason play, the Huskies were held to their lowest scoring output of the season. What’s worse? No one was passing. No one played together. There was no camaraderie. Individual agendas over the good of the team. Coach Ollie insisted that he wasn’t done with the season. His team didn’t play together that one game, but they still had time. Or, they could fall apart. Give up and go home.

Two choices, one much easier than the other. They had the faith, they just needed to play together.

Recently, I revisited the quote in a search for the significance of our last encounter. Reading through the lines from a basketball perspective, it made sense- but from a life perspective- it gave me chills. My friends and I were at rock bottom. Shock barely numbed the sadness of failing one of your closest friends when they needed you most. Distractions lasted momentarily as my mind fixated on what I could have done differently, things I could have said or ways you could have shown I was there.

The longest periods of relief came from reminiscing with close friends and sharing common experiences, such as this championship run. Put simply, it was being together with those who mattered most that helped me get through. It is through these experiences you start to realize that you have not failed. It hurts every night to have missed this chance but there will be many more chances I will not miss.

Failure is a refusal to learn from tragedy and to miss an opportunity to make a difference in the future. Failure is becoming so engrossed in mourning that you forget to carry on the legacy of a great young man. Failure is neglecting to spend as much time as possible with those who matter most. Failure is not paying it forward.

The watch at the Final Four.
The watch at the Final Four.

The aftermath of Nate’s passing only heightened the sense of camaraderie within the Storrs community. When you see how quickly a life can be lost, it gives you a greater appreciation for not only what you have, but what you had.

Through this experience I have been able to reconnect with friends I had lost touch with for years. We toasted to Nate with a former high school classmate in Buffalo. We did the same before the Villanova game with a collection of old high school friends so odd that I couldn’t have put them together better myself.

A former classmate in Dallas graciously opened up his apartment to anyone making the trip. My friend Tyler gave his last ticket to our friend in Austin, allowing him to partake in the experience. Middle school friends from Florida flew in. Others journeyed from Boston, Houston and Minneapolis. It’s awful that it takes tragedies such as these to bring to light what is most important in life, but the real tragedy is not taking advantage of the sacrifice made.

At least you know we made it count and will continue to do so. 2014 has been a dream season defined by faith and togetherness. I had the faith, we just needed to do it together. Well Nate, we won the national championship and we won it together.

As a tribute to Nate and his love for animals, I have decided to donate the proceeds of my faith -aka March Madness winnings- to the Mansfield Animal Shelter. Together with another friend who reaped the benefits of faith, we have a combined $240 in winnings.

To anyone else who won money on faith, loyalty or who just appreciates the cause, donations can be made to: Mansfield Animal Shelter, c/o 4 South Eagleville Rd. Storrs, CT 06268.

Thank you in advance.

Oh–and I have just finished writing this in the midst of a lunar eclipse.

The stars have officially aligned.

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