The One That Got Away

They say every champion boxer has one great fight left in his bones. They say every writer has one great story to tell. If both of these things are true, and I would wager they are, then one more thing would seem to be true as well: Every basketball player has a game that got away.

Every player has a game he could have won. They should have won. Every player has had victory in his hands, pure and sweet and perfect, only to have it vanish at the last moment. It is the cruelest kind of loss, a failure that returns to haunt. The pain can be so great that some figure out how to turn it into motivation. It fuels them. Shapes them. It becomes a part of them, an uneasy abscess that remains tender to the touch.

You don’t ever forget the one that got away. You stare at those hands, opening and squeezing them shut in the darkness, trying to figure out how victory could have slipped through the fingers you thought you could trust. In the darkness there aren’t any answers, and eventually you fall asleep. You move on. You grow.

But you don’t ever forget.

*** *** ***

Sometimes I think about playing the game again. I’ve seen those shows on television where they track down fat guys and have them replay a game that happened 20 years ago. I’m sure Ben Martin and Justin Petersen are out there somewhere.

It happened during my senior year of high school. In 1999, the Saint Louis Metro Christian Athletic Association (SLMCAA) held their conference tournament at a school called Tower Grove in the downtown area of the city. In our classification, the conferences functioned somewhat independently of the state tournament, which operated more like an invitational. The conference tournament was looked at as the more important of the two.

In the SLMCAA there were eight teams. Half of the schools were from the suburbs, spread out across the outlying areas of St. Louis and beyond. The other half were metro teams from the city. Christian High, my school, was one of the suburban teams. We were a small private school that finished in the middle of the conference race. The regular season champion that year was somewhat inexplicable; it was not a powerhouse, but a tiny rural school, far from the metro area. The Christian Outreach Lions blitzed through the regular season without losing a single conference game. They were a church school, the kind of quaint operation where a group of kindergartners could remain in the same classes together for 12 years and graduate as brothers and sisters.

The first time I laid eyes on the Outreach team was during the Christian High homecoming. Our school was in its first year in the conference and had somehow been saddled with playing Outreach on our own homecoming celebration. When that swarthy bunch of hicks burst out of the locker room for their warmups I thought it was a hoax. It had to be — these were grown men, every one of them in their 30s, at least. They had full beards. And muscles. (We had precious little of either.)

Christian Outreach featured a compact point guard named Ben Martin who could get anywhere on the floor that he wanted to. In the middle they had a 6-4 center, Justin Petersen, who looked like he moonlit as a lumberjack. Around this hairy behemoth they spaced the floor with shooters. The best of these was a wing named A.J. Schachner, who averaged over three triples a game. Their offense was a display in surgical precision: every player moved perfectly, cutting and stopping and cutting until they had the shot they wanted, which was usually a wide-open look. On top of all this, they had one of those coaches from the ’90s, the kind with the slicked-back hair who worked hard to emulate Rick Pitino one hissy fit at a time.

The Lions felt no compunction to be nice to us during our homecoming. The glitter and poster board signs that covered our gym did not appear to have any effect against them. We were beaten by approximately 700 points.

It’s not that we had a bad team. We had enough talent to compete with the teams on our schedule. For whatever reason, though, it just never clicked. We opened the season with a long losing streak and spent the rest of the year scrambling to make it back to .500.

My job was to stand in the middle and block shots and try to avoid situations where I might have to dribble or make a basketball-related decision. As long as I watched out for those two things, I was excellent. Earlier in the year I had dunked in a game, which was a big deal because Christian High had never had anyone dunk in a game before.

My best friend Andy was the team’s power forward. He also played point guard from time to time. (It was complicated.) Andy liked to stand on the perimeter and chuck three-pointers, which fell through at such a clip that the coaches stopped trying to shoo him in toward the basket.

Andy and I were joined on the front line by Jesse, who played small forward. Jesse was the only person on our team who was cool in any way. He played hockey in the offseason and had even allegedly drank beer before. Jesse’s primary talent, aside from being cool, was that he wasn’t afraid to get into a fight on the court. Every team needs a Jesse.

Late in the season we played Christian Outreach at their place. Not only were we the sacrificial lamb for their senior night, but we were forced to make the trip without Mike, our shooting guard and leading scorer. Mike was nursing an injury and had stayed home to work on his rehab. On paper it looked like a bad night, another blowout. However, something strange happened. Relieved of expectations, we loosened up and played quite well. We hung around for four quarters, only falling out of striking distance in the final few minutes.

*** *** ***

We entered the conference tournament as the No. 5 seed. On the first day of the tournament we sat in the stands and watched the 1-8 matchup, what little of it there was. Christian Outreach choked the life out of the hapless eighth-seeded team, barely breaking a sweat in the process. The top-seeded Lions looked just about perfect. They were a modern-day Hickory High, except they had four or five Jimmy Chitwoods.

Later that night we played the No. 4 seed. It was a close contest that went down to the wire, but we were able to squeak through and into the semifinals. Our reward was a game the following night against the No. 1 seed. Outreach had not been truly tested all year, and certainly no one expected us to trouble them. That was okay, though. That was how upsets were born.

*** *** ***

If you’ve ever watched an underdog team gather itself and punch a bully right in the mouth, that was how the semifinal game began. After a season of uneven play, our team somehow fused together at precisely the right moment. Mike was playing out of his mind, penetrating and bullying his way to the hoop. Andy, playing point forward, towered over Ben Martin and smothered the Christian Outreach point guard, disrupting the timing of their offense. As a team, Outreach was sluggish. Most of the loose balls were being won by the teal and black jerseys while the Lions stood and watched.

The crowd looked on intently, growing louder as the game wore on and Christian Outreach still trailed. Halftime came and went, and we resumed the third quarter with the same intensity. The Outreach coach was coming unglued. His team trailed by four, then six, then eight points in a game they were expected to win easily.

Halfway through the fourth quarter the sleeping giant finally stirred. Great teams have a sort of internal alarm that jolts them awake when a loss is almost imminent. The Lions roused themselves and put together a defensive stand, holding us scoreless for an important stretch. Bit by bit, the champs clawed back.

With about two minutes left the game was at a tipping point. The pendulum of momentum had deserted us and swung with all its force to Outreach. The lead that we had nursed the entire game was gone. The stands were full of fans from every school in the conference, all of whom were captivated by the unfolding drama. Could the upstarts finish what they had started, or would they collapse?

On the game’s seminal possession we brought the ball down the floor against a pressing defense. I remember flashing to the high post as we attempted to run one of our sets. The Christian Outreach players were bouncing now, energized by the excitement of their late rally. One of my teammates, hounded by the defensive pressure, flipped a lob pass in my general direction.

The next few seconds played out like a dream, slow and inside a soundless vacuum. The Outreach player who was guarding me slithered around my skinny frame and made a play for the errant pass, which hung in the air like an apple waiting to be picked. However, my defender mistimed his leap and the ball settled into my hands. On instinct I wheeled around, ready to shoot.

When I faced up, though, the lane opened up before me like an expanse of promise. There was no one between me and the basket. I took a dribble and lurched forward, carrying the ball into the paint.

At the last instant another Outreach defender made a halfhearted attempt to slide in and contest the shot. The fight-or-flight switch in my brain got thrown, and instead of pulling up to shoot a short jumper I planted and drove myself into the air to dunk it.

To this day I don’t know what went wrong. I cleared the last Outreach player and brought the ball over the rim with both hands. Instead of falling through, the ball nicked the back iron with just enough force to pop it out of the cylinder. In that moment of absent-minded horror, I held onto the rim with one hand and reached out with the other, in some sort of impulse reaction to try to tip the ball back in.

Before my feet hit the hardwood the referee’s whistles were going off like air raid sirens. Technical foul for hanging on the rim. It also counted as my fifth personal. As Christian Outreach lined up for the free throws I knew they would sink, the buzzer bleated out my departure notice to the entire gymnasium.

I pulled my jersey out of my shorts and began the long walk back to the bench. Past the snickering players from opposing teams watching in the stands. Past the Christian Outreach bench and their preening coach. Past my teammates, whose shoulders were already sagging under the weight of the passing moment.

My gaffe effectively broke the spirit of our team. I don’t think we scored another point the rest of the way. My teammates conceded a few baskets, then had to resort to fouling to stop the clock. Outreach hit all their free throws and ballooned the final margin out to 15, forever skewing the appearance of the game.

That night I sat in my bed, staring at my hands, unable to sleep. If Jesse would have offered me some of that beer, I probably would have drunk it all.

*** *** ***

I’m alone in the city gym of my small Alabama town. The courts are empty, as most of the people down here play baseball during the summer. I don’t mind the stifling heat too much, as it makes my joints hurt a bit less. When you get old, it’s about the little things.

I don’t get to play with my friends much anymore. Jesse is in Colorado, while Andy and Mike still live up in St. Louis. It’s just me today. No Christian Outreach players coming through the double doors looking to grant a rematch. No teammates to get my back. Just me.

Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. In the end it’s always about you, about how you respond to your failures. I step over to the high post and toss the ball in the air to myself. When it lands in my hands I spin around and drive into the lane one more time.

One more time I jump, and one more time I reach up to put away that elusive dunk. I don’t know if it will go down this time, but I’ve got a good feeling.

What’s the one game that got away from you?

Follow Matthew on Twitter at @ongreenmountain.

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