NIU takes first, albeit shaky, steps toward normalcy
DEKALB, Ill. -- The moment of silence was followed by a moment of hesitation.
After paying tribute to the victims of the Feb. 14 shootings at Cole Hall, Northern Illinois basketball players remained in a circle around center court, their arms linked with those of their opponents, the Western Michigan Broncos. The public-address announcer twice thanked the crowd, signaling the end of the silent tribute, but neither team budged.
"That was a weird feeling," Northern Illinois guard Darion Anderson said. "That's something that we're definitely not used to."
Several seconds passed before a staffer tapped two players on the shoulder, motioning for them to take their positions for the national anthem.
"We didn't know whether to clap or what," Huskies guard Jarvis Nichols said.
No one knew exactly how to act Tuesday night at the Convocation Center. Everyone inside the 9,100-seat arena was a beginner at this.
But 12 days after the campus shooting that killed six people, including the gunman, Northern Illinois took a shaky step toward the normalcy it hopes to one day achieve.
Western Michigan won the game 56-49 thanks to an 18-5 run in the final five minutes, but all that seemed trivial.
"I've never been through anything like this, and I hope I never do," Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins said. "I couldn't even yell at the referees the way I wanted to. It was just very bizarre and something that you hope you never, ever, ever have to deal with again."
Hawkins sensed a competitive fire was absent from the opening tip. NIU, which missed five days of practice following the shootings, didn't score a basket for the first 5:06.
Western Michigan mustered only 17 first-half points -- its lowest total for a half this season -- and didn't seem in sync until the closing stretch. The teams combined for as many turnovers (39) as field goals.
"The basketball part really was secondary," Broncos center Joe Reitz said. "Sports can be therapeutic. Something like this can really heal a community, a university, bring a lot of people together."
The healing process continued Tuesday.
For the first time since Feb. 13, the NIU fight song was played at an athletic event. Included in the song was the line "Forward, Together Forward" -- once sung after touchdowns or buzzer-beating baskets, it is now a mantra for the NIU community.
It's displayed everywhere around town on placards and signs, and on the roof of the Convocation Center.
"I say it stronger now, just let it go," NIU student Matthew Staffa said. "I yell it as loud as I can."
Wearing a red wig and a black headband, Staffa stood in the front of NIU's student section, Red Riot. Led by sophomore Justin Kuryliw, the group displayed signs and pictures in tribute to the shooting victims.
In the opening minutes, the students held up a large banner that read "Huskies for Hokies," showing their solidarity with Virginia Tech, which suffered through its own campus shooting last April.
"Stuff like that is tremendous," said Reitz, who noticed the sign right away.
The rescheduled game drew only 2,032 and the student section was barely half full, but it didn't diminish a growing spirit at a so-called commuter school located about 60 miles west of Chicago.
"There's usually only like five of us that show up," Steffa said.
"The last thing that people are thinking about is sports," said Kuryliw, a DeKalb native. "Usually we do flyers and handouts for certain games, but we didn't for this game. And people still came out."
Despite the double takes on the court, there were signs of sporting normalcy: trivia questions during timeouts, an attempted wave by fans with 7:55 left, announcements about Soulja Boy's upcoming concert at the Convocation Center.
Red Riot printed its standard newsletter, "Riot Act," listing fun facts on NIU's opponent (how else would we know that Western Michigan's David Kool has never eaten sushi?).
"It should have served as some therapy for all of us," Huskies head coach Ricardo Patton said. "Before the tip, it was certainly a strange atmosphere. I don't know if fans or players knew whether to celebrate or not celebrate. But all in all, the atmosphere was how it should have been."
Mid-American Conference commissioner Rick Chryst attended NIU's memorial service Sunday at the Convocation Center and stayed for Tuesday's game.
"You have a need to connect with people," Chryst said. "[Sports] starts moving people back into what we used to call normal."
Whether DeKalb will ever know normal again remains to be seen. Reminders of the tragedy filled the town.
An NIU ribbon along with the five victims' names and a picture of a broken heart adorned the window of the NAPA Auto Parts on Lincoln Highway.
Outside Immanuel Lutheran Church, a sign read: "God is grieving with us." Nearby, six wooden crosses draped in blue and purple ribbons lined the front of the Lutheran Campus Ministry.
There were also tributes around Cole Hall, the nondescript building in the center of campus where former NIU graduate student Stephen Kazmierczak killed five people before turning the gun on himself. Police tape was taken down Monday, as students returned to classes.
Red roses stuck out of the snow in front of the lecture hall Tuesday afternoon, while a bouquet of flowers was wedged in the locked back door along with a large ribbon displaying pictures of the five victims.
Two men snapped pictures -- one wearing an NIU hat, the other a Virginia Tech hat -- while passersby couldn't help but glance at the now-infamous building.
"This is still about the families, it's not about our team," Patton said. "My heart goes out to the parents who have their quiet moments and have to think about the loved ones that they lost.
"That's what's most important.
"If we can teach our young people to appreciate the time we have together, then we've learned a valuable lesson."
The players won't soon forget Tuesday's game.
The visiting Broncos, as they have for every game since the tragedy, wore black bands with red NIU letters on the lapels of their jerseys. Huskies players also wore ribbons above their hearts.
"We tried to compete hard for the university, try to give them some type of relief to get their mind off other things," Anderson said. "We're trying to help this university come back together."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football and college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.