With 13 minutes and 41 seconds left in the national championship game, Butler's star center Andrew Smith received a pass in the post. He felt the upper body of UConn's Alex Oriakhi push against him, as it had all night. He spun to his left, faked a shot, and pivoted back to his right. Like a scorned hawk, he rose in the air, releasing a soft hook that traced an uncertain parabola to the basket...
The whole thing started the possession before. With Butler down 29-26, Brad Stevens exhorted his team to get just one defensive stop. He could feel the momentum slipping away. It was a sick sensation he knew from his childhood, when friends called him 'Too Bad Brad' because of his penchant for losing close games. Though years of therapy and a successful coaching career helped to dull the memory of childhood abuse, it still came back to him in tense moments. It was why he openly wept during last season's national title game against Duke, and why he slapped Shelvin Mack in the face when he thought the guard was mocking him with a sneer.
That's just part of the Brad Stevens mystery. Now, with his team trailing, he put all his hopes and fears, the full sum of the human he'd become, into his plaintive cries. "ONE STOP!" he shouted. "WE NEED SOLAMENTE UNO STOPO!" (When he was nervous or excited or angry, Stevens sometimes slipped into his native Spanish.)
Shelvin Mack remembered that slap. He still felt the sting when he woke up shaking in the middle of the night, having survived another nightmare featuring the face of Jon Scheyer and, strangely enough, the actor Anthony Hopkins from the movie "A Bridge Too Far." In some ways, this defensive possession felt like his destiny. He knew, by an instinct too remote to name, that the ball would end up in his hands.
Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb passed the ball back and forth. Charles Okwandu watched them from the post, remembering a joke he'd heard earlier that day about the Battle of Stalingrad. He smiled, and that smile kept him from seeing the ball that was traveling in his direction until the very last moment. Okwandu had been a soccer star in his native Ghana, and there his nickname, 'No-Hands Okie,' had been a compliment. Here in America, it was an insult. Living up to his name, Okwandu fumbled the ball.
Shelvin Mack saw his opportunity. No-Hands Okie was due for a dropped pass, so he bolted across the court, shouting the name of Okwandu's sister in an attempt to distract him. One way or another, the ball came loose for just a moment. Mack grabbed it from Okwandu's hands and cradled it against his chest. Another destiny fulfilled.
And now Matt Howard demanded the ball. He received the pass, a brief thought of Vietnam flashing through his mind, and conveyed it to Ronald Nored. The Bulldogs sprinted up the floor, choosing after four steps not to fast break. Their set offense, deadly efficient, was initiated. Howard set 6 picks and rolled off each, while the guards and big men exchanged passes for 25 seconds without finding a good shot.
That's when destiny came calling anew. The ball found its way to Nored. Suddenly, a flash of white appeared in the paint before him. Andrew Smith was posting up. Nored had seen this before. In 1997, while playing 3rd grade basketball, he found his team trailing the Sylvester Elementary FunCats by a score of 12-11 with ten seconds left. Just like now, he'd had the ball. Just like now, a big man had posted up underneath. But instead of passing it to him, Nored had turned around and punted the ball out of bounds. Why? Who knew? It was third grade. Shit happened.
He thought about punting it again. But the last time he'd done that in practice, Brad Stevens had called him a 'nancy' and encouraged the entire team to prank call his cell phone until very late at night. So, in a flash of inspiration, he threw a two-handed overhead pass.
Smith received it in the block. His team held its breath. The crowd held its breath. Brad Stevens grabbed his ears, waggled them, and hopped around, a nervous habit he'd picked up at an Easter pageant in high school. Everybody knew it: this was the shot. If Smith could put it in, Butler would only be down 1 with 13 minutes to play. UConn's momentum would be stopped. They would immediately deflate and give up. Jim Calhoun would tackle the referee and shout city insults at him, like 'I'm the most savage cat on the block, daddy-o!' For all intents and purposes, the game would be over. Butler would win a national title.
It all came down to one shot. Smith felt the body of UConn's Alex Oriakhi push against him, as it had all night. He spun to his left, faked a shot, and pivoted back to his right. Like a scorned hawk, he rose in the air, releasing a soft hook that traced an uncertain parabola to the basket...
Where it really started, really, was in 1976 in a small Missouri town called Altenburg. That's where Andrew Smith was born. His father was a Japanese blacksmith named Ngato, and his mother was a ferocious Romanian tailor with no first name. Growing up, Smith had the finest pistols and pants.
But nothing could prepare him for the time, in '76, when he witnessed his first act of bullying. Smith wasn't much of an alpha male. Already tall and gawky for his age, he enjoyed playing piano and inventing new, similar-sounding names for existing birds (he called a 'robin' a 'bobrin'). But on that day in '76, 10-year-old Smith was taken aback. Out there, on the basketball court, three older boys were picking on someone younger. They had him on the ground, refusing to let him up and kicking him in the midsection.
Young Andrew was horrified. Although Ngato had taught him never to hit anybody for fear of reprisal, Andrew couldn't let this act of injustice stand. Seeing a basketball by the side of the court, he knew his time had come. He scooped up the ball, raced to the pack of bullies, and hurled it in their direction. But because he'd never touched a basketball before, or thrown anything larger than a thimble in his life, he didn't realize his own strength. The ball sailed well over the bullies' heads, and went through the basket at the far end of the court.
Smith digested the accidental glory of a made basket. He found it intoxicating. In some ways, he would spend the rest of his life trying to re-create the feeling of that first basket. The sudden rush; the vibrant thrill of a long-awaited destiny coursing through his body. He would eventually become like an addict, doing things he'd regret just for the chance to shoot another basket, and watch it go through another net. Things that he would eventually realize he never had to do, since it was possible to play basketball for free, and that shady characters wearing leather pants had tricked him.
But that was all in the future. Now, he just held the basketball and stared at the hoop. Behind him, the bullies were cruelly beating the younger boy, but Smith could not have cared less. He'd found his future, and it was orange.
The first time he met Brad Stevens, Smith was playing pinball at the local pinball joint, "Pinball." Stevens waltzed in with his million dollar smile, trying to forget that he'd just lost $45,000 investing in soy beans.
'What are you drinking?' he asked Smith.
'Soy milk,' said the tall youth.
Stevens grabbed him by the lapels and shoved him onto the pinball machine. 'Are you screwing with me, gringo?' he yelled.
But Smith wasn't. Soy milk was his favorite drink, and when the explanation was cleared up, he and Stevens shared a laugh. The two had an immediate bond, and later that day they smashed the window of an abandoned house for fun.
"I guess I'll go to Butler," Smith said.
"What?" asked Stevens.
"Isn't this a recruiting visit?"
"I didn't even know you played basketball," Stevens said.
"Then why are you in Altenburg, Missouri?"
Stevens stared ahead, his eyes gazing at the distance. Tears appeared at the corners of his eyes. "I've had a rough year, dad," he said.
"I know you have, Chassie," Smith replied.
At that moment, the two realized they'd just acted out an emotional scene from the movie "The Royal Tenenbaums." They nodded at each other meaningfully, and a partnership was born.
Smith's thoughts were scattered. It's not that he didn't know the importance of the moment, or how crucial his shot would be. It was just that he'd forgotten to bring his basketball sneakers. All game long, he'd been wearing his church shoes, brown wingtips made by Jos. A. Bank. Now, his legs hurt, and he had cramps in each individual toe, which he never knew was possible.
Still, all his energy was focused on the shot. He felt the body of UConn's Alex Oriakhi push against him, as it had all night. He spun to his left, faked a shot, and pivoted back to his right. Like a scorned hawk, he rose in the air, releasing a soft hook that traced an uncertain parabola to the basket...
Mathematicians would later decide that if Smith had shot the ball with a velocity just 3mph less, it would have gone in the hoop. Similarly, if Smith was just six inches farther away from the basket, he would have made it. If he was 15 inches closer, it would have banked in. If the basketball was a tennis ball but the size of a basketball but with the same weight as a regulation tennis ball, it would have banked in. If the basketball was a bowling ball, and Smith was 3 feet taller, it would have swished. If the basketball was a carrier pigeon and the hoop was a middle-aged woman with a leather holster thing on her forearm and the court itself was a giant field with patches of garbage strewn about, a hipster from Brooklyn would have taken a sepia-toned photograph of the scene and sold it to his reluctant but supportive father for $200 at a "gallery opening" in a basement where the curtains have rust-colored stains that anyone over 35 worries might be blood. If Andrew Smith was a robot and the ball was the planet earth and the basket was heaven, and specific gravity was adjusted to be just slightly lower, House Majority leader John Boehner would currently be lounging in a giant tanning bed while Ayn Rand whispered sweet nothings in his ear and a humbled FDR brought him large cups of nectar on a golden tray.
But those are the idle thoughts of academics. Truth doesn't exist in a hypothetical. It exists in a construct we've named and agreed upon, and yet cannot control, called time...
Andrew Smith's shot came down on the back of the rim and bounded off like a rabbit surprised by the gentle nip of a mirthful snake. It evaded the covetous net, and Oriaki came up with the rebound. On the sideline, Brad Stevens took off his left shoe and threw it at a spectator. Jim Calhoun gave a great belly laugh and hugged a disapproving Russian woman who happened to be standing nearby. Shelvin Mack stood with his hands on his head, refusing to play defense, muttering an Anthony Hopkins quote like somebody resigned to his destiny. Kemba Walker started the fast break, pulled up for three, and hit the shot. Butler lost by 12. Back in Indiana, the April Riots that would destroy the state began.
All because of one beautiful, fated shot. Butler didn't win a national championship, and Andrew Smith won't return to Altenburg as a hero. But that shot, that timeless, meaningful, evocative shot, represents everything we are and are not as humans, and the stuff in between as well.
At a minimum, it will be discussed for the next 400 years. This was the championship that almost was, wasn't it?
But wasn't, though you wish it was.
Again and again and again.
REWIND. FAST FORWARD.