- George Bernard Shaw
CULLOWHEE, N.C. - Everyone makes mistakes. We inherently know this. We're incessantly having it drilled into our heads, even more so if you happen to be an athlete.
However, it's not so much our errors, but the timing of them that reside on a scale that does not seem entirely just.
Chris Webber is a five-time NBA All-Star with 17,182 career points that led Michigan to back-to-back NCAA championship games in his only two years there. But what were you thinking when I mentioned Webber's name? That whole time-out incident in the 1993 NCAA title game
probably took a total of five seconds, only a fraction of a second to definitely turn toward the official and make a T sign with his hands.
Was it his fault? Absolutely. Was it malicious in any way, shape, or form? Of course not. He messed up. Like we all do. He just did it at perhaps the worst possible moment for posterity. It still might bother him to this day. I hope not. A mistake helped drive former California Angels pitcher Donnie Moore to suicide
, which is obviously more than sad.
Webber might have gotten off lucky compared to some. How many people get away with minor mistakes they make every day, while another may be punished severely for it? Maybe you swerved an inch off the road, slipped on an icy hill, walked into traffic without looking. Or you just did something flat out rash and lived to tell about it.
Most of us have at one time or another, and for the grace of whatever higher power (and there were enough radio stations
driving around the South to tell me who that is) is guiding us, nothing happens to us.
"Wow, that was lucky."
I really didn't know what happened to me at first.
I left Connecticut Christmas night, stayed over in Pennsylvania, and planned to see a few battlefields, including Gettysburg and Antietam before going to Western Kentucky for the game the following night.
But my tiny rental Nissan Versa
ran into blizzard-like conditions in Gettysburg, shortening the trip there and ruling out Antietam entirely, which was directly in the path of the snow.
No, I needed to get south fast, where the snow was reportedly turning to rain. With the snow falling, traffic was slowed to about 20 miles per hour and the median collected a couple of cars that tried to defy the deteriorating conditions. I got a good look at the outside of Mount St. Mary's while moving at a snail's pace, one of seemingly dozens of Our Game schools I would pass in my travels.
Eventually, I made it to Virginia. My hotel reservations were in Charleston, West Virginia, so I had a ways to go. I knew part of the trip was over mountains. I knew the elevation would make it colder. I didn't know that the precipitation would continue. I also didn't suspect there would be dense fog to complement it.
The most harrowing point was probably seeing this
with the snow covering the road in complete blackness, straight downhill for four miles.
Finally, at 11 p.m., the Versa arrived in a rainy Charleston in one piece.
The next day, the weather was brighter and I set off for Bowling Green, Kentucky at a somewhat leisurely pace, stopping in Morehead to check out the campus
where I was scheduled to return in a couple of days. But I would never make it back.
Driving through Lexington, I decided to stop for lunch, and because it was blocks away, I checked out Rupp Arena. Bleah. Not even on campus.
In an attempt to extricate myself from Lexington, I made a wrong turn, then saw a sign for the University of Kentucky campus, which was the next left. I saw the sign, looked quickly, then started to move to the left lane.
For a brief moment, I thought I hit a curb of some kind. I pulled to the side of the road, and by the time I could open the car door an older woman was screaming at me, "What the heck were you doing? Do you know what you did? You're going to pay for this."
As it turned out, in the process of changing lanes there was a car there that I didn't really see. Well, scratch the really part. Her passenger side front bumper went straight into my driver's side door.
Another woman who had seen the accident finally relieved some of the pressure on me, and she could tell by looking at my face that I wasn't a lunatic or reckless or lacking empathy.
I was just pissed. At myself.
Thankfully, the woman was physically fine, although she demanded a rental car.
After apologizing, thanking the bystander for pulling over, and giving the cop my information, I just sat on the curb and stared into space.
What would this do to my insurance? How the hell was I going to pay for the rental car's damages? How was I going to get home? How could I be so stupid?
I ran it back in my mind a thousand times. I swear I looked over my shoulder and my mind told me it was all clear. Why didn't I see her in the rear-view mirror? How did I get lost? Why was I in downtown Lexington in the first place? Why was I on this stupid trip when I could be home watching TV or getting some work done? Why does God hate me?
I didn't ask the woman I hit the last one, even though she was a teacher at a Christian school. I actually didn't even mean it, I was ashamed that I asked it, even if it was only internal. It's almost a defense mechanism to snap me back into reality. No one was seriously hurt. Material can be replaced.
An hour after the accident happened, the police work wrapped up. I tried to open the driver's side door, but it wasn't budging, so I crawled in through the passenger's side. I drove for a couple of blocks. Seemed OK. No windows or headlights were broken, even though the left side of the car was caved in. The air bag didn't go off.
Fuck it. I would drive the Nissan Versa approximately 2,000 miles in the next five days. And crawl out the passenger's side every time I had to get out or in. But it survived. And I survived.
Western Carolina University is about as remote as they come in Division I, nestled between the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains 50 miles west of Asheville. Although it's a FCS school (Division I-AA), football still dominates the athletic landscape, but the Catamounts were only a few seconds from the NCAA Tournament last season, finally succumbing to heavily favored Davidson in double overtime in the Southern Conference finals
. It's biggest claim to basketball fame was the first collegiate superhoop in 1980 (it was experimental at the time) and Kevin Martin, currently playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder after starring in Sacramento.
I was surprised at the size of the Ramsey Center, which seats 8,000 for basketball. Opened in 1986, it showed its age, and I obviously wasn't going to get the full feel of the place on New Year's Eve against Liberty. The Catamounts were 2-0 in conference play but just 4-8 overall, while all of Liberty's three wins came against non-Division I competition.
Not exactly a classic. But as I said about Tennessee State-Eastern Illinois, all teams (or at least as many as possible) deserve our attention, not just the most successful ones.
Anyway, I got a great seat and listened to Lil Wayne's "No Worries" play in warm-ups, wondering what the Liberty fans and players thought of the lyrics. I swear I saw a couple of them humming along with the words. Discreetly, of course.
Western Carolina had an early lead, but a late surge by Liberty - including an omgdunx by Tavares Speaks that anyone at any level would have been proud of - gave them a 29-22 lead at the half.
The Catamounts were both sluggish and understaffed. The poor young woman in charge of promotions was by herself for the early portion of the game, having to juggle being DJ while wrapping T-shirts for tossing them after superhoops as well as getting the scooters ready for the next time out. When WCU hit back-to-back #superhoops, she missed the second one, and like Pavlov's dogs, the few fans in attendance were baffled and upset. No T-shirt? Still, she was doing a damn good job of multitasking until someone finally came to assist.
Western Carolina kept fighting back, but the Flames - belying their record - stayed tough, Tomasz Gielo (an easy target for the WCU hecklers) and Devon Marshall (basically playing on one leg because of a leg injury) hit superhoops late in the shot clock and Liberty led 58-51 with 3:20 left. But the Catamounts would score the next six points to get within one, and two Trey Sumler free throws would give them the lead. Sumler, who had kept the Catamounts in the game midway through the second half, hit a tough jumper and was fouled with 10.5 seconds left to put WCU up 62-58 and seemingly end it.
Liberty's John Caleb Sanders drove the length of the floor and got a yeoldesuperhoop of his own (scored and was fouled), and it was 62-61 with 5.4 seconds left.
One of the things lacking in the Ramsey Center is a modern scoreboard. The ancient one that hangs above the court not only lacks individual scoring, but how many time outs each team has.
The Catamounts had trouble getting the ball in, with the ball eventually coming to Sumler when whistles blew.
Time out, Western Carolina.
There was a brief pause as though coach Larry Hunter and his staff tried to hoodwink everyone into thinking nothing was amiss.
But Liberty knew. And the official scorer almost sheepishly confirmed that the Catamounts were out of time outs.
"Number 5 called it, Coach," the referee explained. "It was pretty obvious."
Number 5 is Sumler.
Speaks coolly stepped up and drilled both technical free throws, and under old regulations, Liberty would also get the ball, but under new rules, Western Carolina would get one more shot. Sumler drove the length of the floor and got a decent look, but it came off the front of the rim and out.
Sumler, who had 24 points, four assists, and three steals, was inconsolable. As per tradition, the WCU players made a lap of the crowd to thank the fans, but Sumler didn't join them, quickly removing his jersey and slowly walking down the tunnel to the locker room, ignoring the support staff trying to raise his spirits.
He had made a mistake. There was now nothing he could do to get it back.
Western Carolina was the last stop on my Christmas tour, so I had plenty of time to think about Sumler as I made my way back through the mountains (Sam's Gap - elevation 3,760 feet). You can never truly know how he was feeling, but I could obviously empathize. Like Webber, the time of his transgression could be measured in fractions of a second.
Unlike Webber, it was a meaningless non-conference game that you probably would have never heard of unless I happened to stumble upon it on the last game of my vacation. Word doesn't exactly travel too quickly from Cullowhee, North Carolina.
Hopefully Sumler can recover a little more quickly than I did from my mistake. I was shaken for most of the rest of the trip, driving slower than I normally would, afraid of every turn or lane change I had to make. And that's the problem with mistakes. They linger. They create doubts, they shake beliefs and security you had only moments before.
The rental car goes back tomorrow. I've received four or five calls from insurance people peppering me with questions of why I was in Kentucky and exactly what happened. I'm guessing the situation will not end well for my already somewhat tenuous financial situation.
But it could have been a lot worse, though. A lot worse.
Even if it was, the only thing I can do is try not to let it happen again.
I picked up something in a sports psychology class that I use with my players who struggle after mistakes (and many great players do). "Flush it," I'll yell, meaning flush the mistake down the toilet and forget about it.
I've heard a different one at various college basketball games over the last couple of seasons.
After a turnover when a player stares into space or is visibly angry with himself, I hear, "Next Play! Next Play!," telling the culprit in question to move on, there's nothing he can do about what just happened, no matter how many times he replays it in his mind and wonders how he could have done something so senseless.
As I sit back in my house getting ready for a brand new calendar year, I realize things can be replaced and money isn't everything. I can't change what's happened, I can only control what's in front of me.