Austin’s First Miracle

Austin RiversThe thing with objectivity, in sports journalism as in life, is that it’s a myth made to sustain something that’s already dead, and was never truly alive. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. Lying to you or lying to themselves, but lying either way. Everything is subjective, including your reaction to this opinion. Welcome to being human — the water’s fine.

And, for the record, so is Duke basketball.

Apologies, but I’m hell-bent on telling you how I felt about an hour before Wednesday night’s Duke-North Carolina game, an 85-84 Duke win, which ended with one of the most incredible comebacks in the rivalry’s long history, and transformed a 19-year-old kid into a legend.

As a reporter, I’m not quite wet behind the ears, but it’s still a novelty to be up close and personal with the players and coaches. Seeing people on television, as you know, sets them apart from the dude across the street who drinks beer in his doorway and lacks the courtesy to wear a shirt. TV is different, better, heightened. So when you’re plunked down in front of the big timers, face to face, having an honest-to-god conversation, your thoughts diverge. On one hand, you focus and try to behave like a person who has interacted with other humans before. You ask your questions, awkwardly perhaps, and you listen to the response. On the other hand, in a corner of your mind, you think: Holy shit, you’re talking to Coach K. THE Coach K. Speak quickly before someone realizes that there’s been a mistake and sends you back where you belong, which is probably your parents’ house in the year 2030.

Here’s a true story, straight from the embarrassment archives. The first time I ever spoke to a real athlete was on February 12, 1994, when Kentucky lost to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. My dad brought me into the locker rooms before the game, and I saw a group of Kentucky players walking toward me. In awe, I looked at the tallest one.

“Are you Jamal Mashburn?” I asked.

They laughed and walked away without answering. Jamal Mashburn had graduated in 1993 and was playing for the Dallas Mavericks.

The reason I tell that story is because since the original folly, I don’t think my questions have gotten any better. But I like it anyway, the stuttering ritual of speaking to real figures, be they sporting, political, or otherwise.

But Duke is different. Aside from last year’s ACC tournament, when I sat in the back row during a few stock interviews, I’d never covered the Blue Devils up close. So when I found myself courtside an hour before tip-off, clutching my media pass and watching them warm up, things got a wee bit emotional. I have loved this team forever, man. I am not a fanatic. I don’t hate North Carolina, or any other school, and I’m not the kind of person who thinks that certain kind of people cheer for certain teams. (A thousand Duke and North Carolina fans reading this just disagreed out loud — they know about each other, the criminal behavior that characterizes the enemy. Carolina fans in particular understand that I am a rich but nerdy I-banker from New Jersey who lost his virginity at age 20, is arrogant, and doesn’t respect the South. Lucky guess on age 20, a-holes.) But love them I do.

And yes, there they were. The feelings you try to squelch, because you hate to be pigeonholed as a “Duke guy,” are nevertheless so damn ingrained that, hey, best of luck to you. Best of luck not having feelings, robot reporter man. Especially on Duke-Carolina night in the Dean Dome; the most intense, awful night of the year. The night when the depression of losing far outweighs the relief of a win. The night that makes fans from both sides agree that no, we never want our teams to play in the NCAA tournament. Never, never, never.

As the Carolina students screamed and booed — the visiting team always warms up in front of them — I watched all the Dukies.

There was Miles Plumlee, the oldest of the Plumlee brothers, with his sharp, flinty face and a hint of bitterness and anger. There was Mason, a junior, who used to seem goofy and innocent, but who gained an edge sometime in the early part of this season. And Seth Curry, who endured the chants of “Stephen’s better!” with his blank, preternatural calm. And Quinn Cook, the freshman point guard, with his “fuck you” stares at the student body. And Ryan Kelly, with his long, drawn, unreadable face, shooting from the corner. And Tyler Thornton, who lives to be a gnat, his eyes glinting at the prospect of spoiling something great for the home fans.

Last, Austin Rivers. While the students chanted “Callie Strickland” (Rivers’ older sister, Callie, dates injured Carolina guard Dexter Strickland), he maintained a rigid mask of intensity. The machismo oozed out of him as he fired shot after shot without a smile. Nobody knew it, of course, but he was about to have the most incredible game of his life.

After a few minutes, Mason Plumlee plopped down on the bench. His arms stretched across four of the padded chairs. His brother Marshall, a freshman, leaned in as they spoke. Then Rivers and Curry came and sat next to them. The quartet watched their teammates shoot, and I watched them from a few feet away. They don’t know me, but I know them. And while I realize that I deserve to be endlessly mocked for what I’m about to write, I’ll write it anyway: I loved them all. The myth of objectivity has no power over our shared history.

“What else does unfettered access get you?” you might be wondering, out there in your civilian world, absent from the rarefied circles of power. Well, amigos, here’s what you see when you wander around.

  • You meet North Carolina center John Henson’s younger sister, Amber, who plays basketball for Duke. You ask her who she’s rooting for tonight. “Carolina,” she says. “I’ve got to.” You also see his dad, who yells out, “Johnny!” as his son runs by on the court.
  • You watch Dick Vitale come out to greet the Carolina student section. Folks in Carolina (and everywhere else) sometimes call him “Dukie V” for his constant praise of Coach K’s program, but the kids love him, and he loves the kids. He tries on wigs, poses for pictures, and doles out hugs. And this is before the cameras are there to catch him.
  • You see the students cheer wildly on cue whenever a camera turns on, and you remember something Coach K once said, about how the “Cameron Crazies” phenomenon only started because of television. The fans were passionate before that, but the crazy costumes and the fanfare required a visual medium. It’s a celebration of self as much as a celebration of the team.
  • You wonder why Duke players count by twos during their stretches.
  • You watch Harrison Barnes walk into the locker room, a hint of nerves visible in his upright posture, and you think: Maybe he won’t have the fastest start tonight.
  • You watch injured guard Leslie McDonald dance to “Jump Around” before the tip-off. And when I say dance, I mean grooving on the court, approaching the referee with a sly, hilarious jig that sends the students into rapture.

And then it’s game time.

Ahhhhhh, that game. The first half was an exhibit of beautiful, flowing basketball. It was the best half of basketball played this year, or close to it. Rivers came out with a bang, hitting a 3 on the first possession and then sinking two free throws in the face of the “Callie Strickland” chant. My eyes wandered down to where Doc Rivers sat with his daughter. They kept their composure nicely; real pros.

Then he scored five more points, and Dawkins hit a 3, and Curry hit a 3, and Kelly hit a 3. And then another from Curry, and another from Dawkins. With five minutes left in the half, Duke led 35-29.

It was thrilling, but also terrifying. Thrilling because nobody, including me, expected Duke to win this road game after dropping a heartless sort of affair at home against Miami last weekend. Terrifying because, despite the excellent shooting, Carolina clearly had our number. Tyler Zeller and Henson, two of the best big men in the country, were attacking the offensive boards like men possessed. Together, the Tar Heels would grab 10 before the half was over, leading to second-chance points galore. And Duke? Duke had four offensive boards, resulting in a paltry four points.

Where was Mason Plumlee to prevent all this? Where had he gone, after his stellar start to the season? The Plumlees are well known for teasing you with glimpses of talent, then letting you down in the end. But Mason’s performance this season had the glow of permanence. Which, considering his regression against Miami and UNC, might make it the biggest tease of all. The first half was a defensive disaster for Mason, and his brother Miles, and Ryan Kelly, who were hopeless against the Carolina giants.

So the lead was nice, but it never felt like a real lead. It was a mirage lead, an old-school fata morgana. North Carolina was biding its time, content knowing its offense came from a renewable source, and Duke was relying on a temporary hot streak that will always, always disappear on the road.

There are some players who an entire fan base grudgingly admires. From the Duke perspective, it’s hard not to enjoy the play of Henson and Kendall Marshall. Their skills and personalities are infectious, and they carry within them the joy that attracted us to basketball in the first place. It’s easy to separate the men from the uniform.

And then there are the villains, the cretins you hate beyond reason. The ones who repulse you, who produce that glow of anger that leads to thrown remotes and words you wish you could take back the minute they leave your mouth.

I have it on good authority, from my many sources, that Carolina fans hate Kelly. I can’t speak from experience, but they tell me it’s his look, his habit of flopping to take charges, and the annoying way he’ll hit a big 3 even though you look at him and think: This guy can’t possibly be any good.

From the Duke side, the most reviled man is Zeller. Again, the flops play a part, as do the cheap little moves, like when he recoiled as though he’d been shot by a spectator’s BB gun while trying to draw a foul on Rivers, who was 10 feet away. Or how, behind the ball on a fast break, away from the referee’s gaze, he put a forearm into the small of Curry’s back and sent him stumbling forward.

But mostly, it’s because he’s a genius. Unlike the Plumlees, with whom he shares a strong goof factor, he has that uncanny sense of where he is and how to score. You can see the same quality in his brother Cody at Indiana; they’ve mastered the art of putting ball in basket, no matter how odd or ungainly their form. Even the flops, and the little agitations, are examples of his intelligence. He’s one of those guys who was born to play basketball, and he knows every nook and cranny of the game.

I will admit that the Zeller hate was in full force. He scored 19 points in the first half. He was the bane of the Blue Devil existence. He was the reminder that our lead was a crass fake.

Finally, Duke cooled off. It didn’t even last the half. UNC finished on an 8-1 run, and when Reggie Bullock hit a layup with two seconds left, the crowd finally erupted, an explosion they’d been waiting for all night.

It got worse. Barnes, who had been absent in the first half, shook off the nerves and a bad ankle to score 11 points in the first six minutes of the second. When he was done, the Dean Dome had hit a fever pitch, and the Carolina swagger was back. The smoke and mirrors Duke had used to stay apace had dissipated and cracked. The lone strategy of bombing 3s and praying for luck had been exposed. The lead was 12, 63-51, and the other shoe was dropping hard.

A dark mood engulfed me. I started to make the error of grouping, which means that I looked around at the sea of powder blue and cursed them all in my head. The idiotic notions that create an extremist seeped in, and I had to remember the faces of all my Carolina friends to rid myself of the nascent zealotry. After the game, I would read tweets from those same people proclaiming their hatred for Duke. What a life.

It was over, well and truly. Carolina was the better team — maybe even a national championship team. This was the start. The Plumlees had given us no damn chance by disappearing, and now it was time for the future champs to put us away. I stopped standing up on every possession to see over the fans, choosing instead to sulk in my seat and watch the action on the big screen in the rafters. I may have sent some despairing text messages. Then I stopped pitying myself, and started admiring Rivers. I watched the scoreboard, and hoped he’d hit 30 points. Whatever else, he was proving himself the best player on the floor.

But Duke pestered and annoyed its fans by continuing to offer small glimmers of hope. Coach K would scream at the ref, Mason would grab a board, and they’d get back to within eight. Then it would be double digits again. Then nine. Then double digits. Hope was creeping back, which was stupid; stupid because it was impossible. Stupid because it makes you a sucker.

With five minutes left, Marshall drew Plumlee in on a drive and dished to James McAdoo, who slammed it home. Enough with hope. The Carolina crowd knew they’d won. I knew they’d won. Coach K sat and shook his head, looking for all the world like he knew they’d won. The clock wound down. With 2:09 left, UNC led 82-72. So I ask you, what the hell happened? What did any of us do to deserve a miracle?

It can all be documented. It’s all there, on paper, in a logical sequence. It’s a matter of public record. First, Thornton shot a 3, which was the only kind of shot he’d taken all game. Five of them, in fact, and every one a miss. Not the sixth. 82-75. Then Mason Plumlee stole an entry pass and maybe double-dribbled. He found Thornton, who found Curry, who probably traveled before hitting an absolute bomb in front of his coach. 82-78. Sensing something slipping away, the Heel faithful grew loud, urging on their team to score that one critical basket, the nail in the coffin of this stubborn terminal patient.

But Kelly, the loathsome Kelly, hated by Powder Blue Nation, took one of his prototypical charges on Barnes. Then he missed a 3, got his own board, and hit a baseline jumper. 82-80, and the crowd wasn’t urging any more. It was panicking. Zeller calmed the Carolina fans when he drew a cheap foul on Mason Plumlee and hit one of two.

But that’s when it happened — the weirdest damn thing we’ll see all year. Kelly shot another bomb, this time from the right side, and was probably fouled. The ball sailed off course, not even bound for the rim, when Zeller jumped up and slapped it with the top of his hand. It deflected toward the basket, went off the glass and in. After some discussion, the refs called this Hand of God a 2-pointer. 83-82, Carolina. Thornton fouled Zeller, who missed his second, and Rivers took the ball, his team trailing by two, with no timeouts and 13 seconds on the clock.

What came next was nothing fancy. Mason set a screen on Bullock, and Rivers found himself mano a mano with Zeller. The two best players in the game faced each other, and Rivers waited for the clock to wind down. The crowd began to roar, sensing the end. With five seconds left, he dribbled forward, gave his patented jab step, and leaned back to fire. His shot easily cleared Zeller’s arms, and when it fell through the net …

Well, to hell with silent. An entire arena went dead.

And what about the author? How did he feel and act at the moment of this miracle?

Some lessons are not forgotten. I got myself in a bit of hot water for letting emotions trickle to the surface the last time I saw Duke play live. Some folks told me I would never work in sports writing because of the words I wrote in that blog post. Instead, it’s the only reason I was plucked from the world of amateur, unpaid writing. But I did learn the value of keeping a straight face, so when delirium hit, and the chemicals inside my body began forming tidal waves and crashing into each other, I just stared at the court and let the heat engulf my head. I didn’t smile. I did say, “Oh my God.” Three times, quietly. And in my imagination, I was in the pile on the court, hugging Rivers and screaming to the wonderful gods.

But in real life, I hit the reporting trail, digging up some nuggets you might have missed from the aftermath:

  • As Rivers was mobbed by his teammates, forming a pile on the other end of the floor, Quinn Cook escaped from the bodies and strode over to the student section. He yanked his jersey forward by the shoulder straps, shoving it toward the students.
  • Outside the Duke locker room, you could hear wild cheers coming from inside. Chris Collins, an assistant, yelled out, “That’s what he does!” Coach K stood by the door talking with Jeff Capel, his former player and assistant. “That was one for the ages,” he said, in disbelief. Later, he told Capel — and I’m just reporting the conversation, so don’t shoot the messenger — that the Carolina players wanted to run into the locker room without shaking hands (who can blame them, really?) and that Rasheed Wallace, of all people, was instrumental in forcing them to come back.
  • When Rivers came to the locker room from his ESPN interview, where he said that the disrespect shown to Duke “really pissed us off,” he and Capel embraced in the hallway. “Let’s go!” yelled Capel. When he entered the locker room, loud cheers erupted, and Kelly was the first one in line to douse him with a water bottle.
  • In the interview outside the locker room, surrounded by media, Rivers was surprisingly calm. He said he was supposed to drive, but when he saw Zeller on him after the pick, he thought, Oh my gosh, I’ve got Zeller on me. Rivers knew he could get him on his heels and create the space for a 3.
  • Someone asked Capel to compare his famous buzzer-beater, which forced overtime in 1995 in a game Duke eventually lost. “It’s a lot better than my shot,” he said. “They won.” Later, on Twitter, Jay Williams would allow for the possibility that the comeback even exceeded his Miracle Minute at Maryland in 2001.
  • Coach K summed up the game as well as anyone possibly could. “They’re really good,” he said. “They can knock you out. We didn’t get knocked out. And as a result, we hung in there and we won the last round. I’m not sure we won the whole fight, but the last round we did. And we won the game.”
  • Remember that part about hating Zeller? Sadly, the worst thing for hate is to actually meet a person, and to see him sitting back in his chair in the interview room, whispering, nearly crying, as he answers the last questions before a PR person can rescue him from the horde. “There’s nothing to take away from tonight,” he said. And, on whether he would have edged closer to Rivers if he had to do it over: “Yeah. I didn’t want to foul him, but you can’t give up a 3 when you’re up two.”
  • When almost everyone had left the locker room, Austin walked out past a black curtain to meet his father and sister. Doc told him he had to go, but was glad to see him. “I’m proud of you,” he said as they hugged. “Keep doing it.”

After trailing Rivers to the bus, I thought about what the hell I could possibly write that would be objective and detached. And almost as soon as that thought came, so did another: Screw it. Because earlier I’d seen the back of a T-shirt, worn by a Carolina fan who kept gesturing angrily at Coach K during timeouts, with a message so laughable that it should have been banned.

It said: “Carolina Basketball: It Doesn’t Matter Who We Play.”

Oh, but it does, brother. It matters so much that you had to buy that shirt.

Filed Under: College Basketball, North Carolina, Shane Ryan