I sat and watched Megan Gustafson walk off the court for the final time as an Iowa Hawkeye on Monday night following Iowa’s 85-53 loss to the #1 Baylor Bears. Seeing how emotional her and fellow seniors Hannah Stewart and Tania Davis were had me choked up all the way back in my room here in Iowa City.
But I wasn’t in tears because of the loss, I was tearing up because Iowa was losing someone who had become a hero figure to me.
It was probably all but 30 seconds, but I was quickly able to regain my composure. Not that long after, a thought had popped into my head. “Ya know? This doesn’t feel like the first time I’ve reacted like this”? My gut was right, I had felt this before, four years prior.
Growing up I didn’t follow Iowa basketball much until Fran McCaffery was hired back in 2010. The following year I began noticing this long, gangling kid that had already became a fan-favorite as a true freshman, earning the nickname “Ginger Power”. I soon found out his actual name was Aaron White.
I began seriously following Iowa basketball in 2013, Devyn Marble’s senior year and an Iowa team that had talent top to bottom. Marble was the most fun to watch but I still couldn’t take my eyes off what White was doing on a game-to-game basis: making hustle plays, transition buckets, alley-oop dunks. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Jump ahead to 2014 and the start of Aaron White’s senior season and I was in a completely different place than I had been a year earlier. My parents had just divorced and I was trying to adjust my new life, it was anything but easy. For all the new challenges I faced that late fall through the winter, it always seemed Iowa hoops was there for me.
It looked glum for Iowa by late December, getting blown out at home by Iowa State and an bad loss to UNI in the HyVee Classic and I believed that the basketball season was gonna be just another thing to go wrong for me. But that’s when it all turned.
By the end of February and into March, Iowa rode a six-game winning streak to the end of Big Ten play in what my be my favorite six-game stretch of any basketball season at any level. Iowa was out there having fun and White was dominating, on his way to a 1st team All-Big Ten season.
I had become such a big fan of that group of guys that I lied to my choir teacher during a Saturday rehearsal that I couldn’t stay because I had a doctor’s appointment. If only, I needed to watch Aaron White’s final game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and I wasn’t going to miss it for the world (Mrs. J, if you’re reading this, it was totally worth it).
Iowa ended up winning a game in the NCAA Tournament that season for the first time since 2001 before bowing out to Gonzaga in the second round. But by then, that group had already done so much for me. It was still emotional to watch Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni and Josh Oglesby walk off the court as Hawkeyes one last time.
Fast forward to the start of this past season, I had never, in my short time as a student journalist, had ever covered a player with the star-power of Megan Gustafson. It became real when I had a courtside seat to her 44-point performance in the Knapp Center against Drake, a school that has plenty of family history for me.
Covering games throughout her senior season, one thing that stood out to me about her more than anything else: She was just like anyone I had grown up with coming from a small town. She wasn’t from the inner-city, she wasn’t from some pompous suburb, she was small town and she showcased class and humility every game, like all superstars should.
The cherry on top of all of it was getting to watch her final games at Carver. Senior day, 1st round and 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament, and each time we got the same Megan we had always seen, dominant, emotional and humble.
So I guess a thank you is in order for these two.
Thank you, Aaron White, for being a bright spot for me in a tough time and giving me something to smile about.
Thank you, Megan Gustafson, for giving everyone in this great state someone to be proud of, and for being the most relatable superstar I have ever met.