Last week, we asked you to submit a short essay about a college basketball moment that altered your life's course. To some, that meant a real shift, and to others it was a play that closed a circle and instilled something deep in the heart. We received 26 entries, and they were all great, but we had to narrow them down to five. And here they are, five proud conference representatives. One from the CAA about loyalty, and one from the Southern Conference about convergence. Another from the Missouri Valley about the inspiration of a favorite player's heroic but seemingly unneccessary act. One from the Atlantic Sun about family, and finally, one from the Horizon League about fate. Entries have been lightly edited for structure, tone, flow and TMM Style, but not for content.
Please make sure and vote for your favorite at the end. It's a closed-envelope poll, but authors are free to lobby on the Bally Club board and social media. We'll announce the winner next Wednesday, who will receive the Team Ballz of their choice. Good luck to all.
The basketball moment that changed my life happened in March of 2003. I had recently been accepted (and decided to attend) the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I grew up just north of Durham in the shadow of Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and N.C. State. These three schools dominated the local TV and newspaper narratives; that is the way it always has been and always will be.
My earliest basketball memory is watching the Duke play in the 1990, 1991, and 1992 national championship games. The first game I remember attending in person was a Duke-Clemson matchup in the early 1990s. I had family members with season tickets at UNC-Chapel Hill, and spent a game or two per season sitting the nosebleeds of the Dean Dome. There, I watched the Dean Smith-coached Tar Heels beat up on faraway teams I had never heard of.
In high school, the only basketball discussion to be had was whether the Blue Devils were superior to the Tar Heels, or vice versa. N.C. State had fallen out of the discussion by that point, a decade removed from the Jim Valvano years. Once football season ended, no one discussed the Wolfpack in North Carolina. It was all about the Tar Heels and Blue Devils (and every once in a while, Wake Forest).
It was around this time when another team from the coast of North Carolina started making regular appearances at the NCAA Tournament. The squad was led by a guy with a funny sounding name -- Blizzard -- which is probably half the reason why anyone paid attention to them. It was easier to remember what NC-WIL meant on the TV scoreboard if there was a marketable star to push the narrative. A certain Curry would be the more famous quasi-descendant of Blizzard a few years later, in a nearly forgotten college town a couple of hours from the Triangle of basketball consciousness in North Carolina. In the heart of ACC country, teams with great histories like Davidson only serve as a blip on the local sports radar once they have a marketable star player.
Growing up in North Carolina, you were forced to pick a side between good and evil (Duke and UNC). My pick was Duke, and I intensely followed every move that team made, especially through middle school and high school. I attended Coach K basketball camp and did everything a self-respecting North Carolina boy was expected to do -- all in order to defend the honor of the team he had arbitrarily chosen from a young age. It's pretty easy to be a Duke fan, or a fan of any other basketball powerhouse, for that matter. Years of "anguish and rebuilding" usually result in NCAA Round of 32 appearances.
In March of my senior year in high school, my first real reckoning with another world that remained hidden right under my nose. I had watched UNC Wilmington defeat Southern California the previous year, and the Seahawks advanced to the Round of 32 out of a No. 13 seed. This time, UNCW received a No. 11 seed after another Colonial Athletic Association double championship. Their reward was a date against the No. 6 and defending National Champion Maryland Terrapins.
As a Duke fan, I already had distaste for the Terrapins and Gary Williams. So I was hungry to watch my future college team pull another upset. It seemed to be in the cards: freshman John Goldsberry set the NCAA tournament record for most consecutive three pointers made (8-for-8), even while star player Blizzard struggled to contribute against constant double teams.
In the final seconds, lanky "project" center Aaron Coombs came to the free throw line with UNCW trailing by a point. After making both -- as if he were a 90% FT shooter! -- UNCW had a one point lead. Maryland got the ball back for one final desperation push up court. Under tight defense, Drew Nicholas hit a fade-away three pointer while falling out of bounds. As the buzzer sounded the ball moved through the net, I collapsed on the floor of my room in disbelief.
The team I root for doesn't go out in the first round, I thought. I had been spoiled by a basketball dynasty, one I never had any real connection to. Duke (and UNC for that matter) basically ran their teams like corporations. Filling in gaps left by graduation and early NBA millionaire exits was a commonplace occurrence. This UNCW team had been a slow accumulation of moving parts with under-recruited and under-sized players.
On the TV screen, UNCW's first year head coach Brad Brownell (now in the ACC himself coaching the Clemson Tigers) collapsed to the floor, like me. He was on the court, looking towards the rafters in disbelief.
This was the first time I had a true connection to a team playing the NCAA tournamentm and it ended in the most heartbreaking fashion possible. If there was a way to destroy the basketball innocence of a teenager, that was the way to do it. Looking back now over seven years later, that is the moment that changed how I looked at basketball.
For some reason, I felt like the game wouldn't betray me like that. Now it does on a regular basis. UNCW faced a similar loss, nowhere near as devastating, in the 2006 first round. To this day, that was the first and last Seahawk appearance since the heartbreak of 2003. But I was lucky enough to follow that great 2006 team in my junior year of college. Plenty of Colonial conference-mates never got to experience that thrill of watching "their" team make it to the NCAA.
The struggle to make it there can end in a flash of disappointment. That 2003 moment against Maryland gave me a greater appreciation for what it takes to even reach the NCAA tournament -- much less win a game. That is why Butler 2010, Davidson 2008, and George Mason 2006 meant so much to me. I know the heartbreak of the flipside of those coins.
March 30, 2008.
I remember many things. Waiting for a table at Cheli's Chili Bar in the wooden window seat with the bullet holes catching the cold air, a patch of sunlight grazing the floor. Linking arms with Sarah and Devon, traipsing up the street with Ford Field looming, singing so loudly that people stared. Sitting in the massive football stadium, empty two hours before tip except for our hyped up pocket of red. The signs, posterboard and sharpied letters and construction paper and glue, held high above our heads, waving with abandon. Examining the $8 game program, in which only two pages of about fifty-six mattered, fresh crisp paper with red collars and beaming faces. The murmurs, giggles, shouts, pride and purpose. Growing.
Sometimes I feel like I can reach through time and touch it, as if we are all still bundled into one body and one voice, an infinite time out, 16.8 on the frozen clock, we will never leave, the yells the possibility buoying us up and up and this is what life should be WHAT LIFE SHOULD BE is this unknown yet known, this joy that overpowers apprehension, this certainty of pounding hearts and the sweet ache of throats. It has to be there, that moment, overtaking the starry unending universe, because in sudden silences it still pulses through my bones. Roaring voices all around me, hands slamming the plastic stadium seats, creating sound that I know I will never hear again, because it wasn't simply a noise, it was a noise holding words and people and history behind it - messy history, lives crashing into each other, and bigger, bigger, bigger than me you she he, no, we believe in us. So many quick splits of time, passing through decades and generations and stories, created this one. There was a power in those moments that I never tried to understand, but just let it sweep me up, clear proof that nothing else in the world was important except for the life we share and how this expressed that.
I remember many things. I remember the in-bounds play. I remember the bellowing. I remember Jason standing with the ball in his hands. And then I forget for a moment, the world blurs, and when the haze clears my heart isn't the same.
I remember after. Wanting to stand there forever and wanting to get the hell out. Yelling gratitude and appreciation with a rock in my stomach and a broken rewind button in my brain. Too stunned to pick up the phone when it buzzed with my parents' sympathy. Aching faces, limp slouches, cold stinging air. Getting on the bus, turning on my iPod, longing to be alone so I could start bawling (cheer up sleepy Jean, oh what can it mean...). Stopping at a weigh station in Kentucky at 3 in the morning, bleary-eyed in the fluorescent spotlights, two hundred people using two bathrooms. Getting off the bus and going straight to psych, sweaty and starving and stuck in yesterday.
At the time, I would have probably said that it changed my life because of how close we were, how unfair it seemed, how much it hurt.
I've learned different, so many months and win/loss records and years and NBA drafts later. It's funny how I don't seem to get sick of writing about it. I can write about Neil Diamond wearing a Davidson t-shirt as he sang to us on a video screen. I can write about an e-mail from Will that said "A Davidson alum and newspaper writer is in town this week conducting interviews for a book that he's going to write about Davidson basketball and this season. Would you be interested in being interviewed?" (YES, absolutely, I wrote back.) I can write about my claustrophobic sophomore summer, staying in one place, and how typing thousands of words about a sports season kept me moving, fresh. I can write about listening to radio broadcasts at 2 AM in England and then coming home to the smells of polished wood, popcorn, sneakers, and the sounds of brass through glass. Home. I can write about expectation and bright lights and rising and falling. I can write about tears that had roots in other moments but still have something to do with that night on a bus when I could only shed one. I can write about countless friends that I've been given, some because of that day, others because of the days since. I can write about continuing relationships through texts, e-mails, and phone calls, keeping up with scores, conference records, pep band songs, and the Golden State Warriors (uh, what?), jokes that started behind a basket and post-game conversations that started in a bar, and still matter. Life. I can write about... writing, learning my voice through this game, and sharing it in so many unexpected ways. I can write about reunions. I can write about the heartbreak of turning my tassel and leaving my friends, coupled with the full circle realization that this does not stop being important; this history will grow and I will be within it still.
I think that the twenty-year-old girl, struggling to fall asleep on the brokenhearted bus as it twisted back down south 600 miles with Hitch buzzing on TV, would be pleased and grateful for the journey.
Heartbreak had already befallen the Redbirds earlier that March.
In coach Tim Jankovich's inaugural year, the Redbirds had finished the season with an overall record of 24-9 and an RPI of 34, but an ugly loss to Drake in the championship of the MVC Tournament left the Birds nowhere to be found once the committee selected the 34 at-large bids a few Sundays before. This is a fate that befalls many of the schools who find themselves below the Red Line.
But after a ten year absence from the Big Dance, Redbird fans were once again beaten down by the optimistic hope that they had all clung to, even as the last two schools were read off by Greg Gumbel. NIT bound, the Redbirds were selected as a No. 2 seed in the conciliatory tournament. Not bad for a team that had only won 59 games in the previous five seasons... but certainly a hollow victory of the highest order for the faithful.
After narrowly escaping with a 61-57 win over the Utah State Aggies, the Birds were guaranteed one more home game on newly-minted Doug Collins Court, with the hope of advancing to play at Ohio State in the following days. The Dayton Flyers and the Illinois State Redbirds battled back and forth for the entirety of the first half, but a ten-minute dry spell from the field left the Redbirds and their season all but finished, as most ten-minute droughts in March tend to do.
Down 55-48 with the shot clock turned off, Boo Richardson clanked the Redbirds' final shot off the rim. Dayton's Chris Wright gathered up the rebound with nothing to do but dribble out the remainder of the clock. The all-too-sparse crowd at Redbird Arena let out a final exhale. Nothing remained but the inevitable sound of the final horn, a sound that during the month of March, brings an all too cold and mechanical end to the hopes and dreams invested into the team that finds itself on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Boo Richardson was the senior point guard for the Birds, and while he was not the tallest (he stood at only 5-foot-8), or most prolific athlete on the floor, he seemed to channel a supernatural enthusiasm when he donned a basketball uniform. Redbird fans felt nothing but appreciation for this juco transfer that made so many hustle plays for our team in such a short period, someone we had barely gotten a chance to understand. "Oh Boo, we hardly knew ye," was the phrase on the tip of many Redbird fans' tongues as the March afternoon gave way to evening.
As Boo's career with the Redbirds ticked away its final seconds, Boo made a lunge for the ball and picked it away from Dayton's ball handler. Boo took a single dribble, and then the horn sounded. The unavoidable weight of "the end" fell over the stands quickly. Dayton's band lit up in a joyous rendition of their fight song.
I'm not even sure if the steal was recoded on the official scoresheet, but its effects were felt throughout the arena. Weak but meaningful applause broke out among the remaining faithful, and Boo walked off the court for his final walk in Red and White.
As I watched the final rounds of the NIT and NCAA Tournaments in the next few weeks, I found my mind going back to Boo's steal over and over again. I told my friends and family about it, but they didn't seem particularly fascinated by the play. Perhaps it was their reaction to the pain of defeat. Perhaps my dreams and aspirations for that Redbird team had driven me to the point of obsession. But in my estimation, that simple poke-away steal represented everything right about the competitive spirit of Our Game. Even more important to me, it captured the competitive spirit of my Illinois State Redbirds. Losers let their opponents dribble out the clock, but winners make a play. Even if all the odds in the world are stacked against them.
It didn't end with an awe-inspiring run to the Final Four, or a chance meeting on the road with a Bradley fan I would spend the rest of my life with. But the impact Boo Richardson had on my life is profound enough. Ever since "The Steal," which ranks up there with "The Shot" in the eyes of this proud Illinoisan, a Boo Richardson card sits squarely in the front of my wallet, next to a Visa card and a school ID from an institution well below the Black Line. Every day, I can feel in that card all of the anguish of defeat and all of the determination to win I felt that day, and if there's anything that gets you going in the morning more than Our Game, I'd like to know about it! Am I just another person inspired by the heroism they found in a beautiful game? You bet! But that shared experience has the ability to drive any one of us, or all of us, to greatness.
Thank you, Boo Richardson.
The most remarkable basketball-related Moment in my life was noteworthy only in how mundane it was.
The play itself was as nondescript as it gets. Jacob Arnett dribbles to the right wing and passes to a curling Josh Slater at the top of the arc. Slater fires, draining a 3-pointer with four seconds to go before halftime and cutting Mercer's lead over Lipscomb to 36-32. The shot accounted for three of Slater's twelve points that night, the assist one of Arnett's three.
And yes, I had to go back and look at the stat sheet on the Lipscomb website a few minutes ago to get all the details right.
For Erica, that extra step would not have been necessary. She just knows.
If you saw the game on #pixelvision, you might have seen Erica. She is the little girl in the yellow sweatshirt and purple pants about 15 rows up from the Mercer bench. You might not have noticed her much, though, because for the first twenty minutes of the game she sat almost perfectly still.
That's right. She's seven years old, and she Did. Not. Move.
Typically, that kind of rapt attention is reserved for Star Wars and Fetch with Ruff Ruffman. And, apparently, Lipscomb basketball. Otherwise, she is your typical, active, loud little girl. She likes to run around, play with her sister, tell stories, and when she's not reading books generally make as much noise as she can for as long as she can.
It wasn't until later that I realized how big an impact that shot had on that little girl. You see, I was in Allen Arena to watch Lipscomb win a championship. Jacksonville had lost earlier that day, meaning Lipscomb would win the A-Sun regular-season title with a win. And at halftime, Lipscomb was down 4 to a Mercer squad missing its all-everything big man. If James Florence woke up in the second half, or if Adnan Hodzic didn't, the Bisons were in trouble.
I was worried about the outcome. Erica was enjoying The Moment.
But one random Thursday morning in late March, I walked into the kitchen and overheard Erica talking to her twin sister Katie around the breakfast table. "And then Jacob Arnett looked up and saw Josh Slater coming around and he passed it and Josh Slater shot it and it went in and Mercer was only ahead by 4!"
Since it was morning, I have no idea what the context of that sentence was. I did remember the game, since it was one of the two we got to attend last year. I remembered that Adnan went off in the second half (upon further review, 21 and 11 after Slater's shot). I remembered Lipscomb cutting down the nets after the game. I also remembered the conference tournament loss to Kennesaw State and the not getting invited to the NIT and the fact that Lipscomb only wins 27% of the time when both teams lead in the last 4 minutes.
But for a second there, in our kitchen, Erica and I had a Moment.
The fact that the Moment revolved around a basketball team that had ultimately disappointed me didn't matter. Because our Moment wasn't about me being a fan, but a Dad. Our Moment was a memory my little girl could carry with her a month later, and I was there when it happened, enjoying it right alongside her. Our Moment may look to outsiders like just another shot in just another game, but that's okay. What's important is not what makes up the Moment, but the fact that it is Ours.
The big life lesson? What my children need from me is not a storehouse of objects, a privileged position in the world, or a lifetime of ease, comfort, and safety. It's a Moment. Then another. Then another one after that.
And if basketball can help make that happen, then so much the better.
It all started with a tipped pass.
Of course, it started well before that. However, the amazing two and a half week journey, from a place we'd been twice before to the place we could not have imagined, indeed did begin with a tipped pass.
Murray State outplayed Butler that March afternoon. They shot better, they defended better, they dominated on the boards, and a freshman named Isaiah Canaan was lethal from three-point range. Yet, because of some timely big plays by Ronald Nored down the stretch, Butler clung to a two-point lead with just seconds remaining. If Canaan could get free and connect on his fifth straight three-pointer, this story could not have been told. But instead there was some chaos on that last possession, Canaan got trapped, and was forced to attempt a desperation pass on a ball reversal. Gordon Hayward tipped that pass, the ball rolled into the backcourt, and the adventure was underway.
Each of the next four games, and the events surrounding them, left me with thousands of memories, and each could well warrant its own essay. Because I had done some fairly extensive volunteer work on behalf of Butler University, I was able to be in Indianapolis for the Final Four weekend, I was able to go to the games, and I was able to stay in the team hotel. I watched my team in a public shootaround that was attended my about five times the number of people who attended a typical Horizon League home game.
I helped staff a booth in the team hotel, providing passersby with information about the university and handing out Butler swag - one such passerby was Kyle Whelliston, and he subsequently documented me as one of the "friendly people" he met there. I attended a pep rally on Monument Circle, in which Butler fans (some who'd been fans since birth, others who'd been fans since breakfast that morning) stretched well over a city block to cheer on the team.
But mostly, I remember a long weekend walking around our town, wearing our team's garb, exchanging glances with others who were similarly dressed that conveyed the unspoken sentiment of "yeah, I can't believe this is happening either!" These were experiences which, in an ideal world, would be shared at least once by all of our mid-major brethren. However, because of the nature of our game, it is quite possible that nothing like that confluence of time and events will ever happen again. We were the fortunate ones.
It always ends in a loss. We're often reminded of this fact, and we know it to be true. Yet, at that particular time, with that particular team, in that particular place, we allowed ourselves to believe that it would not be so. This ability to occasionally suspend reality is our blessing, and it is our curse. After a baseline fade-away jumper that was a hair too long, and a halfcourt heave that was eight pixels askew, it did indeed end in a loss.
The consensus memory from the 2010 NCAA tournament will be of that slightly misguided halfcourt heave, but my memories always will be of that two and a half week period of which I could not have dared to dream. The day after it ended, I went back to Hinkle Fieldhouse for a somber pep rally. Those of us who went did so because we didn't know where else to go, and we didn't know what else to do. We applauded our heroes, shed the last of our tears, and returned to our respective realities.