As sports fans, I think we probably let single events define players and coaches more than we should. In this era where we want to evaluate things quickly and neatly, it's always easier (and oftentimes, lazier) to just let one play on a big stage define somebody. It's clear, it's concise, it's also often incorrect, but it allows us to move on.
A last-second field goal sailing wide left or sneaking just inside the upright is the difference between Hunter Lawrence getting death threats and Hunter Lawrence never having to pay for a meal on 6th Street ever again.
Just ask Scott Norwood.
Certainly, there are different flavors of these defining moments. There are the "routine task" defining moments whereby you simply need to execute your job and doing so (or not doing so) will forever alter your existence -- kicking a field goal inside 45 yards, knocking down free throws in the waning moments of a basketball game, getting three batters out in the ninth inning of a playoff game. You're either a hero or a goat. Do your job, you become an icon. Fail at your job, you enter the witness protection program. No worries, right?
Then there are the "upside only" defining moments where there is some sort of divine intervention, and a hand comes down from the sports heaven and turns a highly improbable outcome into reality, forever changing the destinies of everyone involved. There is no equal and opposite downside to these moments not occuring; in other words, if Doug Flutie's "Hail Mary" to Gerard Phelan falls to the Orange Bowl turf in 1984, Flutie is not viewed as some sort of loser who can never stroll around Quincy Market ever again. However, the fact that it was caught sewed up a Heisman Trophy for the BC quarterback and sealed a place in college football immortality.
If that pass is incomplete, is Flutie any less a quarterback than he was before the prayer was answered? Of course not. But the "Hail Mary" gave us what we as humans and sports fans crave -- simple clarity. It happened, therefore he's great, end of story.
We came within inches of having one of those moments on Monday night in the NCAA men's basketball championship game. Down 61-59 with the clock running out, Butler forward Gordon Hayward heaved a half-court shot that caught glass, then rim and bounced off to preserve the win and the title for the Duke Blue Devils; what would have been a miraculous, possible "greatest game of all time" 62-61 win was instead a heart-pounding, very watchable near miss with an ending we've seen three times before -- Coach Mike Krzyzewski and Duke cutting down the nets as champions.
This was clearly an "upside only" defining moment. The shot NOT going in doesn't change our favorable impression of Hayward; if anything, his overall performance in this tournament has elevated him into the public consciousness to where, if he decides to stay in school, he'll be a favorite for pre-season Player of the Year. The NBA probably also likes his game more now than they did three weeks ago, so he's got a decision to make.
But what if that shot at the end of regulation went in? This is the "upside only" defining moment that us "what if-sters" out there dream about...broad ramifications impacting both sides, changing legacies, defining careers, and touching off great sports-bar debates.
So I pose this question to you, the loyal "Game Time" reader...."What if Gordon hayward's shot goes in?"
Let's pretend that it did. What changes?
Let's start with the guy who launched the shot, Hayward. What this would mean to him career-wise we'll get to in a second. But let's just get the "place in history" part of this out of the way. If that shot goes in, it becomes the most famous shot in the history of the greatest annual sporting event in our country. Moreover, Gordon Hayward becomes THE legendary basketball figure in a state that views itself as the Fortress of Solitude to the sport of basketball; basically Gordon Hayward becomes Superman if he hits that shot. I mean...a small private school from Indianapolis, that plays their home games in the gym where Hoosiers was filmed, and a babyfaced kid from Brownsburg, Indiana hits a half court shot to knock off Duke...IN INDIANAPOLIS?!? I mean...you can't write anything cheesier than that. And yet, that's what we were inches away from on Monday night. Trust me, I went to college in Indiana during the Damon Bailey Era; Gordon Hayward would never have paid for a house, a car, a meal, or a topless shoeshine in Kokomo ever again if that shot goes in. Ever.
As for the career ramifications for Hayward, he's a guy whom NBA people certainly knew about before the tournament and whom other college coaches knew about as well, as he was a member of the U-19 National Team coached by Pitt's Jamie Dixon. However, we all know how much performance during March Madness can move the needle on an NBA prospect's profile; going all the way back to the likes of Villanova's Ed Pinckney becoming a top 10 pick in 1985, the list is long and the graveyard is full of NBA players overdrafted based on two weeks in March
It's safe to say, though, that NBA front offices won't all of a sudden become smart in 2010. If Hayward knocks down that shot, it does likely raise his profile to where he's drafted five to ten spots ahead of where he should be. If nothing else, depending on how Hayward does in workouts for NBA folks so that it wouldn't be viewed as a complete and total reach, it would have opened up the possibility of the Indiana Pacers at least having to ponder taking him if they are at the back end of the lottery, picking say around ten through twelve (which is right where they're hovering right now).
And if you think I'm crazy that it would get kicked around in Indiana's war room, just remember this:
1. We are discussing this under the auspices of Hayward having HIT the shot. Remember, he is now Superman, Ironman, and Damon Bailey all rolled into one.
2. Indiana is one of a handful of teams struggling MIGHTILY at the gate right now; as Bill Simmons mentions in this column they are one of eight teams in the "We Make Less Than $500,000 Per Game" club. Drafting the hometown kid who just hit the biggest shot in the history of the sport would sell a few tickets. (This is a striking parallel to what the Jacksonville Jaguars are debating internally right now with respect to drafting Tim Tebow, on many levels including both guys being a reach at, say, the tenth overall pick.)
3. Mike Dunleavy, Tyler Hansbrough, Troy Murphy, Josh McRoberts....yeah, the Indiana Pacers are not afraid to employ white forwards.
4. If you think I'm crazy about this "Hayward to the Pacers" theory, go watch the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called Winning Time about former Pacer great Reggie Miller and his rivalry with the Knicks. They devote about ten minutes of the documentary to the Pacers' drafting of Miller with the eleventh overall pick in 1987 and how badly Pacers fans wanted the team to use that pick on Indiana Hoosier (and at the time, NCAA champion) Steve Alford, who played high school ball down the road from Indy in New Castle. The footage (which includes Alford watching the Miller selection on television and looking like somebody shot his dog) is incredible, especially when we now know that Miller became a Hall of Famer, and Alford was coaching Manchester College within four years of being drafted in the SECOND round by the Mavericks. Nonetheless, I don't think Pacers fans have become any less rabid for their local legends since then, at least I would hope not. Especially for one that hit the biggest shot in the history of basketball (remember, we're still pretending here).
(Cool side bar -- When you go to YouTube to get the link to Hayward's near miss on Monday night, the second video to come up is his buzzer beater in his senior year in the 4-A State Championship Game in Indiana. As someone who lived in Indiana when it was all schools in the same tourney, I HATE seeing the words "4-A" in front of a state championship game in Indiana; bring back the "old" Indiana tourney, everyone in the same pool! That's how it was until the late `90's. But I digress...)
As we all know, Singler was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Props to him, he was terrible against Baylor here in Houston in the Regional Finals and managed to bounce back and played a great all-around floor game at both ends in the semifinals against West Virginia and the championship game against Butler. But let's just get this out of the way right now -- if Gordon Hayward's half-court shot goes in Kyle Singler is obviously not getting any M.O.P. hardware. The trophy would have gone to Hayward.
Now, does this shot going in make Singler any less of a player? Of course not. As two separate statements go -- "Kyle Singler is a good basketball player" and "Gordon Hayward's half-court prayer went in" -- one has no direct effect on the other. However, with no 61-59 win for Duke, that means no individual hardware for Singler, no championship fragrance on his NBA prospect report card, and no admittance into the conversation of all-time Duke legends.
Those first two consequences -- no individual hardware and the "champion" label on his NBA prospect evaluation -- are somewhat linked. Going into the tournament, no one was talking about Kyle Singler as a candidate to leave school early after this season, or at least if he did that it would be a good decision. (I suppose theoretically everyone is a candidate to leave school early.) NBAdraft.net had Singler going into the tournament as a late first-round pick....in 2011.
Now there is at least chatter about Singler having a tough decision to make -- stay in school for his senior year or come out now while the Singler Championship Express is in full force. Go back and look at the list of M.O.P.'s of the NCAA tournament and it's dotted with guys who were drafted well ahead of where they should have been on the strength of good NCAA tournaments (Corey Brewer, Sean May, Juan Dixon, Matteen Cleaves all in the last ten years; Shane Battier and Emeka Okafor were probably over-drafted as former M.O.P.'s as well but they were going that high regardless of their teams' tourney outcomes those seasons.)
My point is that now may be the highest that the stock will ever be for Singler as an NBA prospect. He'll never be as close to being a first-round lock as he is right now. (Somewhere Josh McRoberts, a former Dukie whose NBA stock dropped every year he stayed in Durham, is screaming for Singler to come out. Either that or he's crying. One or the other.)
The flip side to that is that if Singler does stay, with Nolan Smith and the Plumlees returning and the introduction of freshman phenom Kyrie Irving to the mix, Duke will be the odds-on favorite to repeat as champion next season. This would give Singler a chance to etch his name into a pretty exclusive club of multi-time champions at Duke. In a school that prides itself and sells itself to recruits on tradition, this has to mean something to Singler, especially if he is not considered a lottery pick, which I don't think he is.
But again, the premise for this post was "What changes if Hayward's shot goes in?" I think it's safe to say that Kyle Singler's "coming out party" in this tournament is significantly muted.
End-of-game strategies in basketball are fascinating and, at times, quite polarizing. Those who espouse certain views about fouling when up by three points or intentionally missing free throws when you're ahead by less than one possession with only a few seconds left oftentimes defend their stance on these issues more vociferously than they would their views on abortion or the war in Iraq.
That said, here I go -- I didn't like Coach K's strategy of having Brian Zoubek intentionally miss the second free throw at the end of the game on Monday when the Blue Devils were up 61-59 with 3.6 seconds left. It worked, I understand his side of it, but I think it leaves too much to chance. For one, if you make it, your worst case scenario is that you're up 62-59 and a desperation three from the other team sends you to overtime. That's worst case. Moreover, intentionally missing up two points still leaves the chance that a ticky-tack foul for over the back or a reach-in sends Butler to the line to tie the game (granted, the odds of Duke getting whistled for anything there are minimal).
But more than that, the argument in favor of missing is that Butler doesn't get to run a set play off of an inbounds pass. I've never agreed with this line of thinking especially on possessions that have to go all 94 feet in just a few seconds. The defense also gets a chance to set itself on these plays and really just has to either knock down a long pass or keep a ball handler trying to dribble the length of the court in front of them. If you can't do these things, you don't deserve to win. Duke intentionally missed the free throw and then backed everyone away (except for Singler who got drilled by a Matt Howard screen) and Hayward still got off a the shot that bounced off.
Back to the "what if"...if that shot goes in, then Coach K goes from being shown on all of the graphics now tied with Adolph Rupp with four titles to being second-guessed for end-of-game strategy by morons on the radio like me for the next two weeks. It's funny, of everyone involved on the Duke side of things, for all the blood and guts the players spilled on the court that night, no one's legacy had a bigger potential "what if" swing than Coach K. Shot goes in, he's an idiot. Shot stays out, he made the right call. Of everyone involved, this was almost a "downside only" defining moment for him, although with three other titles and a top five recruiting class coming in, my guess is the Cameron Crazies would have looked past it.
GREATEST GAME EVER?
So now we've established the various changes in legacies if Hayward's shot goes in -- he becomes a demigod in Indiana and author of the greatest storybook ending ever, Kyle Singler remains a marginal NBA prospect and just another in a long line of decent Duke players, and Coach K actually gets questioned about end-of-game strategy and has one less title. Pretty heavy stuff.
Now, what would Hayward's shot going in have done for the measurement of this game in the annals of college basketball history (or even sports history)? First, for those of you saying that it was already the "greatest finals game ever played", I disagree. To me, NC State in 1983 and Villanova in 1985 set the bar for finals games by pulling off the upset. To me, Cinderella has to live happily ever after to pass either one of those two games.
Given my choice of the Wolfpack or the Wildcats having played in the "greatest finals game" ever, I'm going to go with Villanova. We can break that one down in more detail some other day (or if some of you want to make the argument that 1983 was better, I'm all ears), but I have always contended that the NC State win was more significant to the evolution of March Madness, but that the Villanova final was a better overall game (both were HUGE upsets).
So the question becomes does Hayward's shot going in vault the 2010 title game past Villanova-Georgetown (or for some of you, NC State-Houston)?
Let's "Tale of the Tape" this thing:
1985: There was no bigger star on the college basketball landscape from 1981-1985 than Patrick Ewing. This was Ewing's final game, and his supporting cast included sophomore phenom Reggie Williams and a point guard named Michael Jackson (at a time when the real Michael Jackson was still relatively normal). Made for lots of great Thriller jokes, just trust me. Villanova, for an 8-seed, had it's own pretty compelling set of characters led by Eddie Pinckney and Dwayne McClain, and while 'Nova's point guard (Gary McLain) didn't share a name with a demented pop star, he did snort coke the day of the semifinals against Memphis State, so there's that.
2010: Let's face it, the average sports fan knew no one on Butler before the tournament, and they probably only knew Jon Scheyer because of the random pictures of him on the internet with contorted facial expressions. There is not a single NBA lottery pick and possibly no first-rounders playing in this game if teams decide to pass on Hayward or Singler.
ADVANTAGE: HUGE for the 1985 game.
1985: John Thompson for Georgetown, Rollie Massimino for Villanova. The larger than life African-American coach against the feisty, pudgy little Italian coach. Two of the best in the business at the time.
2010: Mike Krzyzewski for Duke, Brad Stevens for Butler. The biggest name you could put on the coaching marquee versus a coach who my son literally thought was a kid who snuck on the court to cut down the nets after the regional finals.
1985: Lexington, KY -- a mecca of college basketball and an actual college arena
2010: Indianapolis, IN -- a college crazy hoops state, a home game for the underdog, but a freaking football stadium
1985: Georgetown, a team that was comprised of entirely African-American players coached by an African-American coach on a campus and in a conference full of largely private, affluent, white schools. Let's just say there were times it got ugly on road trips for the Hoyas, and let's also say that while their casting as the villain had plenty to do with simply how dominant they were, and the racial part of the vitriol spewed toward them was certainly inexcusable, Thompson had a way of using that villain role to drive his team AND the part where forward Michael Graham liked to shove or swing at anything that moved during the 1983-84 season didn't help.
2010: Duke, largely because according to Dick Vitale, as a society, we hate people who are successful. Whatever. I just hate hearing every five seconds from Vitale about how great they are. I agree, they are great. Now shut the hell up. Also, they have a string of diminutive, leg-humping, unathletic point guards that goes back to Bobby Hurley and goes all the way up to Greg Paulus with Quin Snyder, Chris Collins and WOJO in between. Successful? Yes. Hate-able? Oh hell yes.
1985: Villanova, senior-laden, pretty good Big East team. Lots of likable guys and a fat coach. Always helps.
2010: Butler, small conference team from central Indiana with a coach who still gets carded.
Sheer improbablity of an upset
1985: Villanova had the advantage of the whole "well, the hardest thing to do is beat someone a third time" in a season (which I think is a crock and would love to see the actual stats on this). That said, this Georgetown team was thought to be unbeatable.
2010: Butler had won 25 games in a row coming into Monday night and had the best player on the floor in a game being played five minutes from their campus.
1985: This game took place the year before the shot clock was imposed (thankfully for Villanova), and as a result the Wildcats only took ten shots in the second half. They made nine of them. They shot 79 percent for the game, which will simply never, ever, ever be done again. Harold Jensen (who?) came off the bench to go five for five from the field, all on jump shots. It was quite simply, one of those nights where you knew you were watching something you'd never forget.
2010: Other than Hayward's shot going in at the end (remember, we're still pretending), there wouldn't have been anything in that game that I would call "transcendent." I mean, the defense was really good and physical from both teams, especially in the last ten minutes. But other than the drama of the game being close throughout, there was nothing that made me think throughout the game "Damn, this is an amazing game," until the last three minutes where you realized that Butler still had a shot.
1985: Game ended with a memorable visual of Dwayne McClain cradling the ball on his knees, but it was a pretty conventional college basketball game finish with some back and forth free-throw shooting. No buzzer beaters or particularly memorable late-game heroics.
2010: (Still pretending...) The greatest shot in the history of college basketball at the buzzer to beat Duke.
ADVANTAGE: HUGE for 2010.
VERDICT: The buzzer beater from Hayward essentially would have cancelled out the incredible name value of the players involved in the game (led by Ewing). Outside of that, the score is three advantages for 1985, two for 2010, and one standoff ("Villain" category). It's still, for me, 1985 as the best finals ever, but it's close.
So in the end, all that was at stake on that last shot was the NBA careers of Gordon Hayward and Kyle Singler, the sanity of Pacers fans, Coach K's legacy, an amazing barroom argument on "greatest game" ever, the rep of all mid-major teams and the last three hours of my life typing this blog post.
Truly a game of inches, people.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.