‘The Shot’: Five years later

Drake BulldogsIn life, there are moments of sheer, exuberant ecstasy, when it seems as is the entire universe is bowing down solely to you. Conversely, there also are moments of devastating, gut-wrenching disappointment. Rarely does one get to (or, perhaps, have to) experience both of these extremes in a matter of minutes.

But five years ago today, I did. And I have refused to allow myself to re-live that moment (intentionally, at least) since. Today it is time to put all of that to bed and finally make peace with something I will be reminded of each March until the end of my time on this planet.

Historically, my alma mater is known much more for its academics than athletics, save for the annual track meet. Our “One Shining Moment” was falling just shy of upsetting an undefeated and Lew Alcindor-led, John Wooden-coached UCLA squad in the 1969 national semifinals. It was the closest the Bruins came to losing that season, and the Drake squad and, after Drake dismantled North Carolina in the third-place game, the UCLA students chanted (respectfully) toward the Drake section: “You’re No. 2! You’re No. 2!” To which to the Drake fans allegedly replied, “We’re No. 1 1/2! We’re No. 1 1/2!”

And that was about it, at least until 2007-08. The Drake program had been restored to respectability by Dr. Tom Davis, who had retired the previous spring. His son, Keno, took over a team whose expectations were sky-high for a Drake squad, but no one could have guessed what would unfold next: a 21-game winning streak, a win over No. 8-ranked Butler on national television, putting on a shooting clinic against Illinois State in the MVC Tournament championship game on CBS; a former walk-on being named the league’s top player; and a No. 5 seed to the NCAA Tournament. Drake had arrived!

The Bulldogs were sent to Tampa, Fla. to match up against No. 12 seed Western Kentucky. I was not able to travel to Florida for the game, but luckily was able to get out of work early enough to get home, pick up the wife and head to a local establishment to watch the game with her and my youngest brother. I should have known that the day would not end well when I had to drive back to Janesville from Delavan in a mini-blizzard, going 50+ mph in 4-wheel drive over what seemed like moguls or speed bumps at that speed.

I arrived home safely, however, and we headed to meet my brother. When we got the restaurant, the TV on which the game would be played had some discoloration/screen damage (this was in HDTV’s relatively early days). No worries, it was still viewable … until the game started and the snow intensified, causing the satellite signal to crap out. We sat there for a few minutes, waiting for the signal to return, before ultimately realizing that we probably should just head home (to our non-HDTV) in time for the second half.

I honestly don’t recall many details of the game. I know Drake was favored to win big, but WKU had future NBA player Courtney Lee and could not be counted out. Drake was down by double-digits with about 10 minutes remaining and things didn’t look good. But they battled back and the score was tied at the end of regulation. No problem, I thought, we had the momentum and were certain to prevail in overtime. The extra period began and, as the minutes ticked away, it started to look like Drake could look forward to another game in Florida.

The score was 99-98 with just a few seconds remaining. Then this happened:

(A longer version, containing the game’s final minutes, is located here.)

The room fell silent. I don’t think anyone said anything for a good 2-3 minutes. I think I curled into the fetal position on the floor. The dream was dead.

I have not watched that shot since — until today. There have been a few times when the game was replayed on CBS College Sports, but I never could bring myself to watch. There also have been times when the highlight has been splashed on SportsCenter or within a montage of other similar NCAA tourney clips. Each time I saw it coming I did my best to avert my eyes.

This shot lives in a deep, dark place in my mind that I dare not visit often. I honestly had not thought about it being five years until yesterday, when a Deadspin post on this year’s tourney teams featured the above video as part of the summary of WKU, who has returned to the tournament a few times since 2008. What’s crazy is that, after the hoopla had calmed regarding Ben Brust’s buzzer-beater over Michigan earlier this year (a shot I witnessed in person), that I began to think about this shot, how the two are similar and the emotions they both stirred.

Drake, however, has not and now will be on its second head coach since 2008, after Keno Davis bolted to Providence (only to be fired a few years later. He’s at Central Michigan now.) It’s time to exorcise the demons, both within my mind and within the program. Here’s to a fresh start … and hoping that Drake’s next tourney appearance is both not far off and more successful than its last.