Jordan Kwiecinski never expected his dreams to come true like this.
The Drake University men’s basketball player and Loyola Academy alumnus always wanted to play college basketball and compete in the NCAA Tournament. But when Drake players and coaches officially got word that they were dancing, it wasn’t exactly how Kwiecinski envisioned it.
Players sat six feet apart at Drake’s facility on March 14, all wearing masks when they saw their name show up on a big screen during the bracket-unveiling show. Everyone stood up and clapped, exchanged high fives and handshakes, and celebrated their sacrifices paying off with a trip to a tournament unlike any other.
It might not have been how Kwiecinski envisioned it — but it felt just as great.
“It was kind of surreal to see us get picked to the tournament, to know that we were going to play in the tournament,” Kwiecinski said. “That was the whole reason why I started playing basketball, it was a childhood dream.”
That Sunday night started a week players will remember for a lifetime.
Drake departed for Indianapolis on Monday morning, taking a chartered commercial plane to make sure players and coaches could be six feet apart. The team took three buses over to the hotel and immediately took COVID-19 tests to begin a day of quarantine in their rooms.
Players and coaches had to stay in their room until midday Tuesday when their negative results came in. Their food was delivered to their room and everyone had to find a way to pass the time.
Kwiecinski kept busy by showing friends and family life in the “bubble.”
While it was uneventful to wait around for tests to come in, it was nothing new for the Bulldogs, who had spent much of their season in a close bubble, not going anywhere other than the basketball facility, cafeteria and their dorms.
Once the negative tests came in, players could pick up identification cards that allowed them to walk around the hotel. Each team in the tournament had a hotel floor to itself, with an eating room and film room. The team practiced and used courts and a weight room set up at a nearby convention center.
When they weren’t practicing or meeting to go over game plans, it was much of the same from the regular season.
Players weren’t explicitly told to not go into each other’s rooms; they kept their distance and found ways to kill time. Kwiecinski brought his PlayStation and played it while he waited for the next item on his schedule.
“It was really similar to what we were doing, just a stricter, more serious version of it,” Kwiecinski said of the tournament restrictions. “It was boring for a little bit but it wasn’t taking away from the experience of playing in the tournament.”
All of the sacrifices were for moments like Drake’s first game against Wichita State.
The matchup was one of the tournament’s “First Four” games on March 18 and Drake traveled to West Lafayette, Ind., to play in Mackey Arena.
The two teams battled it out in a game that didn’t have fans in the stands, but Kwiecinski thought there didn’t need to be any with the energy coming from the Drake bench.
The Bulldogs trailed by one at the half and by nine midway through the second half before taking a lead and eventually winning the game 53-52 when the Shockers missed a shot at the end of the game.
Drake’s bench erupted in celebration. Videos from the team’s Twitter account showed players celebrating in the locker room, dousing each other with water.
They had waited for this for so long — and they weren’t going to let anything take away from the moment.
“It really was a dream come true,” Kwiecinski said. “I don’t think any amount of restrictions of the bubble could really take away from that, despite it being boring in the hotel and not us getting to experience the whole thing. I think we got to experience the most important part. That was probably one of the most emotional, crazy locker room experiences anyone on the team has ever had.”
The win made everyone on the team lock in more than they already had. They prepared to play the University of Southern California two days later and lost 72-56, ending their season.
Kwiecinski admitted it took some time to get over the loss and realize that their season was over, but he’s ready to continue the momentum he and his teammates built this season. The freshman played in eight games during the regular season and didn’t play in the conference or NCAA tournaments.
With a year under his belt and an offseason to work on his development, Kwiecinski can’t wait to grow at his dream school.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “It kind of feels like I picked the perfect place after this season, even with the restrictions and all the things we had to battle through with the injuries. I think the coaches and the guys on the team were built for it. I picked the best place in the world for me to develop as a player and somewhere where the coaches are genuinely interested in their players and care for their well-being.”
But Kwiecinski won’t forget his freshman season at Drake.
He’ll remember seeing the best in college basketball all in one place. He’ll remember coming down the hotel escalator and seeing Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo walk in.
Even moreso, he’ll remember his dreams coming true; maybe not exactly how he envisioned, but in a way that will last him a lifetime.
“When I remember things I’m not thinking about how boring it was being locked in the room,” he said. “I’m more thinking about the times we spent playing and the energy in the locker room before and after the game, the experience of it all.”
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Michal is an award-winning sports journalist based in Chicago. He most recently served as the sports editor of The Glenview Lantern and Northbrook Tower and is a graduate of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He also contributes to The Varsity podcast.