This story is tangentially related to sports, but it admittedly is more about life than college basketball.
Our bulldogs (two English and one French) are an integral part of our family, and our English boy, Winston (pictured above), is as big a basketball (and, naturally, Tar Heels) fan that you could possibly find in the canine world.
He loves to "play basketball," literally passing the ball with his head and "dribbling" with his paws. He is actually quite an accurate passer, though I have to admit he does a bit more traveling than would normally be allowed in the Dean Dome (if you're a Duke fan, insert your Tyler Hansbrough joke here).
The basketball joins him everywhere he goes, and it almost seemed to be a security blanket of some sort during my 2005 deployment to Iraq.
My wife and I have joked all year how much of a Hansbrough fan he actually is. He seems to pay a little bit of extra attention when he sees his hero on television, and he'll bark as we cheer on the Heels.
Yes, we humanize our pets a great deal, and I realize that it's rather unlikely that Winston actually knows who Hansbrough is. Still, I can't help but notice the parallels between the boost that both pets and sports give to our lives in their own respective ways. Both have become integral to my daily travails and journeys.
In sports, there are wins and losses, but with pets, the loss is a permanent one. There is no rematch. There is no chance for redemption in a later tournament.
Two weeks ago, we came within just hours of losing Hansbrough's furriest fan in Chapel Hill. A day after my return from a conference in Chicago, Winston began vomiting and the course of his illness rapidly worsened.
Misdiagnosed with pancreatitis by the first vet who treated him, he was rushed to the emergency room in the early morning hours of the Friday before UNC faced Villanova.
It turned out that Winston actually had an intestinal blockage, the result of a swallowed piece of a Nylabone toy. His life was about to head to overtime.
The amazing surgeons and doctors (including Dr. Grafinger) at Triangle Veterinary Emergency Clinic went into immediate action, performing the emergency enterotomy and saving Winston's life.
He recovered well from the surgery and actually was allowed home that Saturday. He was in good spirits (although still refusing food; he hadn't eaten in nearly a week) and actually sat up to watch Hansbrough and Co. dismantle the Wildcats, heading to the championship game.
Needless to say, I was watching Winston far more closely than I was watching North Carolina.
By Monday morning, Winston had taken a turn for the worse. He was suddenly in severe pain and, as you can see from the picture in the story, he was refusing even one of his favorite foods, Cheez-Its (the vet said he needed to eat anything we could convince him of eating).
A wound infection and severe cellulitis had set in and it appeared that Winston was headed for a second surgery, one from which he would not have nearly as good a chance of surviving.
The surgeon was forced to discuss the worst of possibilities, but Winston wouldn't have given up on UNC, even if they were down by 20 with 10 minutes to go, and we weren't going to give up on him.
As recent days have gone by, "our child" has continued to recover and the brightness in his eyes is slowly returning. He's not turning down Cheez-Its, peanut butter, or any other kind of food at this point. That's more like the Winston we know.
Sports brings much into my life and UNC's title run has been thrilling to me, but I would trade that thrill for Winston's health without a second thought.
I am incredibly grateful for the prayers, thoughts, and financial support offered by my friends here at Bleacher Report and elsewhere. The kindness and generosity of both friends and strangers alike has been both overwhelming and eye-opening to me.
I would never have known the people in this community without sport, and for yet another time in my life, the lessons of sport and the lessons of life have crossed.
We like to think that Winston was cheered by UNC's victory over Michigan State, and he's told us in his own special way that he fully intends to be around to watch Marcus Ginyard, Tyler Zeller, Ed Davis, and friends make another run at the Final Four in 2010-11.
He'll be cheering for his hero Hansbrough, too, no matter where he ends up.
They are both "fighters," in the truest sense of the word.
Thank you to Winston's heroes and angels here on Bleacher Report. If he had a voice, he'd thank you as well.
(NOTE: You can see lots more pictures of our bullies and get updates on Winston's condition at Winston's Web site).