I wanna tell you about the night when Watford hit the shot. Now, I’d been an Indiana University Hoosiers men’s basketball fan my entire life. I was born in February of Nineteen Eighty-Six, and that day we lost to our in-state rival, Purdue. My devotion was such from birth that I cried the entire night. That’s a fact.
A year later in Eighty-Seven, Keith Smart hit the shot against Syracuse and made Indiana the nation’s champion. My daddy jumped up and down and hollered and made such a ruckus it became my very first memory. I can still see his face getting bigger and smaller as he picked me up and threw me in the air like a watermelon.
In the car, dad and I’d listen to games on the radio with Don Fischer’s narration. Fisch’s voice had the richness of warm coffee and cream. He rejoiced when we did and he lamented when we did too. It was like he was sitting with us as we leaned into the radio to try and get a glimpse of the court in our minds.
God, we hated Kentucky. There was nothing in the world that dad and I despised as much as the bastards in blue. Those cheating, lying, no-good bullies made our lives Hell in the early parts of the season before we went on to play our conference foes. Every year dad would get grumpy the week of the game and use the English language’s choicer words with frequency. On the day of the game he was as tense as a cord of firewood. How the rest of the week went depended entirely on what happened during the forty minutes after tipoff.
Old Bobby Knight had led us to the promised land and champion’s glory three times during his tenure. People painted his portrait everywhere in restaurants or in bathroom stalls and wrote poems and songs about him. We called him “The General” when we were confrontational or just plain “Bobby” when the mood was mild. As my grandmother lay on her deathbed my dad sent a letter to Bobby with a photograph and a check for twenty-five dollars. He asked Coach for an autograph so gramma could have it before she passed, she’d loved the old Boss so much. Bobby signed the picture, tore the check in two, and sent both back along with a nasty note saying his favors couldn’t be bought. That was Coach Knight for you.
And then one day Bobby got in a lick of trouble and he was out of a job. Mike Davis took over and he did alright at first. We made it to the national title game but lost to Maryland. I remember during that run when we’d beaten Oklahoma I went to my first riot down on Kirkwood Avenue. It was all sorts of fun. There was yelling and screaming and a line of police with shields and tear gas. I remember a guy climbed up on a telephone wire above Dunn Street and started swinging around before he lost his grip. I heard a smack and then everyone got real quiet for a second before the noise started up again. Some blond girl got so excited she decided to show everyone what her tits looked like. That was the first time I saw a real set on the female figure.
But after a while it seemed like Mike couldn’t catch a break. It was amazing how Coach Davis seemed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at every opportunity. His players regressed and the program took on an attitude that seemed to concede defeat at the first sign of trouble. So they let him go and we got Kelvin Sampson to take over the program. Now he used to be the coach for Oklahoma, but he got in a little bit of trouble down there, something to do with phone calls. All I really remember is he came in with his baby blue button-up shirt and red tie and promised that he’d win another championship. And then he got in trouble, something to do with text messages, and he was out.
That’s when we took Marquette’s coach, Tom Crean. When they introduced him to the Hoosier faithful they asked him to tell everyone why he’d come to Bloomington. All he said was, “It’s Indiana.” Well that was all dad and I needed. It seemed as if a savior had arrived. Crean had a little boy’s smile, but eyes like a rabid badger. He looked qualified to be a conquering centurion, as if a gold filigree laurel wreath rested on his head.
But the players didn’t see it that way. Almost everyone from the previous year left, and Crean had to start from scratch. That first year with Tom, we had the worst season in the history of the program. We won only six games and lost twenty-five. But you couldn’t tell that to the Hoosier fanbase, we had one of the best attendance rates in the nation. The next year we did a little better. And then the next year we did just a little bit better. Along the way we picked up a couple of pieces like local boy Jordan Hulls, feisty Will Sheehey, speedster Verdell Jones III, athletic Victor Oladipo, and old man Christian Watford.
And then Crean got South Indiana native Cody Zeller to come with him to Bloomington. Now Zeller had two older brothers, but both of them left the good country to pursue basketball elsewhere. It felt a little bit like treason when they did, but we doffed our caps to see them off as they went. We understood that things weren’t what they once were at Indiana. But after years of disappointment, Crean suddenly oozed the confidence and fortitude needed to sway Cody to stay home. He was a seven foot tall beanpole with a lanky figure and a goofy smile, but he was one of the best players in Indiana high school history.
Dad and I went crazy. This was it. We had all the pieces. Hulls was a sharpshooter, Oladipo could slash like Michael Jordan, and Zeller would anchor the middle. We had a year, maybe two, to actually do something worthwhile. God, we were excited.
Now, back in Nineteen Seventy-Six, Bobby Knight led the Hoosiers to an undefeated season and the national title. We were very proud of that, and arrogantly proclaimed that there’d never be another men’s basketball team to match the feat. So on December Tenth of Two-Thousand Twelve when The University of Kentucky men’s basketball team came to Bloomington with an unblemished record, you can imagine how our hatred of the Wildcats multiplied. And not only were they undefeated, they were truly great. All five of their starters would play in the top professional league, and some of their reserves as well. Their starting center, Anthony Davis, would be the first overall pick for the NBA at the end of the year. And their coach, John Calipari, would be whispered in the same breath as John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, and the General himself as one of the greatest to pick up a clipboard.
In college basketball there are only a handful of blue-blood programs. My list ends at UCLA, Kansas, Louisville, UCONN, North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, and Indiana. There are a lot of great programs after them, but these are the ones that get special status in my book. It doesn’t matter how bad any of these programs are doing in one particular year. If one of them meets up with another one, you can put money on it being on national television. This night was no exception. Even though Indiana had been in tough straits for the past four years, ESPN was not going to let us and Kentucky meet without being there and sending in Dick Vitale, the greatest college basketball television personality in the history of the game.
I wasn’t in Bloomington when it happened. I wasn’t even in Indiana. I was going to school at a little college up in Chicago called the Moody Bible Institute. And it was finals season. I had enough papers coming up to fell the Morgan-Monroe State Forest. If I wanted to pass my classes, I’d have to spend all week in the computer lab writing my papers. That included the night of the IU-Kentucky match.
That morning I put on my IU sweater and did one-man chants in the hallways and cafeteria. I didn’t care that no one else in the school knew what I was doing or saying. I had to, in my own little way, rile myself up for the contest to come even though I wouldn’t see it. I kept putting work into my papers, hoping beyond hope that by gametime I’d be able to get away and watch my Hoosiers and their gladiatorial struggle against the most hated rivals.
And as the minutes passed I kept my nose in the books. And when tiptime approached a fine mist of sweat glistened my brow. And then the game started, but I resisted my heart’s cry for basketball. Duty to my GPA overwhelmed me, and I soldiered on.
But something fluttered in my breast. I kept misspelling words, Crean instead of cream, Zeller instead of zealous, Hulls instead of held. God, I wasn’t going to make it. I had to make a choice between my education and my state. And just like Robert E. Lee before me, I had to choose my state as awful as the cause was.
I livestreamed a feed in one corner of the computer screen as I typed. I worked furiously during timeouts and commercials. But when Indiana had the ball, I placed my fingers, filthy with grimy book smell, on my mouth to keep from shouting. In the first half, it was back and forth. Kentucky struck first, but Zeller and Watford led Indiana back. Hulls threw in a three-point dagger. Sheehy hustled against their attack. Jones interrupted their passing lanes and harried their offense. At the end of the period, Indiana led by a single point.
I couldn’t believe it. I half-expected the Kentuckians, well-coached and top-ranked, to wipe us clean from our own floor. The years of failure had dampened my optimism and made me a hopeful skeptic, but now something welled in my gut like the surge of a rollercoaster. Those boys in the crimson candystripe pants held on with the tenacity of a doberman. We were the hornets in the bonnet of a grizzly, and the bear was stumbling.
One of their best forwards failed to get a rebound the whole first half. Anthony Davis committed early fouls, limiting his time on the floor. And we hit nearly half our shots against them, a feat no team had yet managed against their defense. And even though we had a lot of turnovers, we held on. God, it was pretty in an ugly kind of way, like a newborn baby.
During halftime I scraped my patience to keep at the millstone of my studies. I read and I read, and I typed and I typed, but by the start of the second half, I found it hard to breath. Friends in the library couldn’t help but notice my stifled cries and sighs as they worked. They came over and chuckled when they saw that study was the last thing on my mind. And finally, when Oladipo slammed home a wicked basket against the Kentucky front line, I had to get to a real television.
I packed up my books and shuffled through the December night to the girls’ dorm. There was a television lounge there, it’d have to do. It was quiet, I was the only one watching the game. I muted the volume so as not to disturb the four couples snuggling together and begrudging the lack of privacy on campus. I paid them no mind. I sunk into a couch and watched my Hoosiers battle.
Indiana led by ten, and then a nightmare slowly crept up on my dream. We missed easy lay-ins and committed fouls. Kentucky inched closer. Watford kept us in it with his timely hits and big rebounds, but they stifled Zeller, forced Jones into bad shots, and harassed Hulls into costly turnovers.
The lead was cut to seven. Then five. Then three. Then one. Back went Kentucky with the ball, Oladipo stepped out to defend, a man in blue beat Victor to the ground, the ref held the whistle, and the Wildcat put it through the hoop for the lead. Two minutes remained, and a visible air of inevitability began to seep through Assembly Hall. Resignation, worn into my soul by the years of mediocrity, took over. I began to accept that we’d lose the game, but my loyalty and the dim optimism that only a true fan can keep in such times kept me glued to the television.
On the other end, the Hoosiers played hot-potato with the ball. No one wanted to be the one to miss the big shot. Zeller took a pass on the right block and turned, but he flipped the ball out to Hulls. Hulls pumped, but pulled it back down before he let fly. The ball went to Oladipo, but Davis blocked his shot. It bounced around the players’ feet, and as the men tussled to the floor, the referee awarded possession to Indiana on a Kentucky travel. Zeller inbounded the ball, and then found Watford.
Now Christian Watford was a good player in his own right, but he was a bit of an anomaly. In a game predicated on speed, he was the slowest man on the court. Everything about him, from the way he loped, to his shot, to his demeanor all seemed to hold the grace of a wizened grandfather figure. He played a young man’s game with the cleverness of a fox, though, and when he got the ball in this moment he spun around the defender and right to the rim for a basket. Indiana led by one.
But on the other end of the floor, it seemed like the Hoosiers all went to sleep for a moment. A Kentucky player went right around Hulls and nobody stepped to help. Kentucky retook the lead. Verdell Jones held the ball for an eternity, letting the clock wind down under thirty-five seconds. Eventually, he fed Watford at the elbow. The old man spun and shot, but it clanked off iron and Davis rebounded.
Now Indiana had to foul and pray. But, by miracle or chance, the boys in blue inexplicably put the ball in the hands of Anthony Davis, their worst free-throw shooter. Zeller got to him and fouled with nineteen seconds to go. Davis missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Indiana the ball back with a chance to go in front again!
Hulls advanced the ball past the midcourt line and Coach Crean called a timeout. I leaned on my knees and leered forward. My sweater now felt moist at the neck. My bangs stuck to the creases of my worry-wrinkles. God, this was too much. I clutched at my chest, feeling for my heart. Don’t quit on me, don’t quit on me until the end of this, damn you.
The ball went to Oladipo, he careened into the lane, he met three Kentucky defenders, spun and—
— He lost the ball…
As the ball bounced from his hands and into the arms of a Kentucky player I shut my eyes against the only outcome left. God, I didn’t want to watch… But I had to. I had to. I gathered my bag and donned my cap and got ready to head out the door. I now stood only a few feet from the television, awaiting the end, awaiting the inevitable made free throws and the missed halfcourt shot to come.
The Wildcat went to the line. The referee signaled two foul shots. The Kentuckian dribbled. He set himself. He wound up. He shot.
The door was open. Something glimmered in the back of my brain, but I suppressed it. For too long I’d known the bitter sting of hope unfulfilled. Coach Crean called a timeout. The players huddled together one last time. They went back to their positions for the next free throw. The Wildcat went to the line. The referee signaled one shot. The Kentuckian dribbled. He set himself. He wound up. He shot. He made it. Kentucky led by two now. There were five and a half seconds left in the game.
Watford picked up the ball, inbounded to Verdell Jones. Cody Zeller set a screen, and Jones broke free! The Wildcats bore down on Verdell, pooling their effort to stop the speeding madman from making a clean run. None of them noticed the elder Watford taking his time up the court and setting up in his favorite spot beyond the three point line.
Jones slashed like a wild horse toward a Kentucky defender but suddenly reared up and tossed the ball to a waiting Watford. Watford bounced. Let go of the ball. It sailed through the air. I bit my lip and ducked my head.
The shot went through the net like a pebble in a bowl of water.
I didn’t see Watford standing with one arm in the air as the team mobbed him. I didn’t see the Kentucky players mope off the floor like a pack of beaten dogs. I didn’t see the throng of Assembly Hall storming onto the floor like a wave of ants.
I was taken up with wild whooping. “NO WAY! NO WAY! NO WAY! NO WAY! NO WAY!” I shouted over and over again. I leapt from one end of the floor to the other. I twisted my knee. I sprained my wrist when I slapped a concrete column. It must have been a sight for all those couples cuddling down there, this one man in a bright red sweater making a ruckus in a place normally as quiet as a country cellar. I didn’t care. There were four empty couches in that lounge, and I flipped over three of them before I got lightheaded and had to fall down into the fourth.
A riot took place that night. Apparently, they choked Kirkwood until the morning light came. I sure wish I’d been there. Meanwhile, I went out into the plaza of the Moody Bible Institute and danced and sang “Indiana our Indiana” for everyone to hear. I was all alone, but yet not alone. A nation danced with me that night along the banks of the Wabash.
My dad called and we cussed and hollered until our voices got hoarse. That was the last time Kentucky would come to Bloomington. We’d play them again in the NCAA tournament and lose, but they were the best team in the nation so that didn’t affect me none. We had our moment against them, and that was all I needed.
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