Hoop Dreams P.22

Grief

The under dogs were the feel good story of the tournament. Prior to the game, the state governor had called to tell them how proud he was of them. Social networking sites like Facebook and twitter were deluged with stories about them. Everywhere you turned, someone was talking about the unlikely team that was turning heads at the tourney.

Even coming to the arena to play their Elite 8 match-up was tough because fans had blocked the entrance just to catch a glimpse at America’s new favorite darling.

The media who had once loved taking shots at Keenan didn’t want to be the last ones on the wave. They propelled his story to new heights. The story of the boy who had it all, lost it all and then rose again in the most surprising fashion.

Experience had taught Keenan how to navigate choppy waters. The same way folks were praising him could easily turn the opposite the next day. All he could do was be himself and play his game. Hopefully his teammates wouldn’t fall victim to their new found fame. That was only fleeting, the championship on the other hand could never be taken from them.

Sadly, they never got a chance to play for the championship. Neither did they make it to the final four. Their Cinderella story was cut short ironically before midnight of that very day.

No one who watched that game could question their effort. They laid it on the line, but sometimes the chips just don’t fall the way you want them to. Some say the toil of the previous game took its toll on the team. Others say they had simply run their course; in this day and time, the chances of a small school team competing with the more talented big schools was a Herculean task.

As great as Keenan had been in the tourney, he was finally going up against teams with multiple NBA level talent. He not only had to excel but he also had to raise the play of his teammates which as the team would find out, not even he could sustain that type of play.

It all started to unravel with 5 minutes left in the first quarter. The opposing team had missed a shot and Keenan was going for a rebound, unfortunately for him, so was the power forward from the other team. They collided and in that moment, Keenan felt a sharp pain on his right hand. He looked down only to see his index figure bent in an awkward way. The pain was unbearable, quickly excusing himself from the game during the next dead ball situation. He was escorted to the locker room by a personal trainer to see what could be done. Many in the arena, especially the pundits thought he would not be coming back. It was a tough break, coming at a very crucial point for the team. Up until that point, both teams had played competitively; Keenan’s team was only trailing by 2, but after he stepped out of the game due to his broken finger, things spiraled out of control.

With no one to create offense, the team struggled to put up points. The opposing team had no such problem, their players were up to the task and they capitalized on it. By half time, they had increased the lead to 12 points. Keenan was a ball of nerves sitting in that locker room, he was dying to get back in the game but the personal trainer tried to convince him to sit it out. After much arguing, they agreed he could go back in the second half if his fingers were taped up. He’d still feel pain, but it was all they could do presently to get him out there.

He knew what the naysayers would say if he didn’t return. It would only solidify the injury prone tag they had tried to pin on him. No way was he going to give them the satisfaction. More importantly he wasn’t going to let his story end like this. He’d gone through way too much to let a broken finger sideline him.

As the team trooped back into the locker room at half time, looking dejected, he walked to the front of the room and addressed them.

"Guys I’ma keep this short…my finger might be broken but my will isn’t. We are only down 12, we still got this. Sup with all the long faces? Y’all act like this is over. Let’s go out there and win this."

His resolve seemed to have done the trick. The kids started to believe in themselves again, knowing their best player was going to be on court again.

Keenan kept to his word, scoring five quick points to start the second half, cutting down the deficit to 7 points. His energy was infectious, quickly spreading to other members of the team. They guarded like their lives were on the line, made sure every shot was challenged, frustrated the heck out of their opponents and looked like a completely different outfit from the one that ended the half. They played so well that they not only erased the deficit but took the lead with four minutes to go. The Cinderella team was at it again, playing beyond their potential, keeping up with a team that was way more talented than they were.

Alas sometimes talent beats effort and no matter how hard the less talented team plays, there are certain hurdles that can’t be overcome. The opposing team also had another gear in them and with the game dwindling down, sensing their chances decreasing with each second passing, they turned things up a notch. Blocked shots, steals, rebounds…you name it, they had it. It was almost as if every break in the last three minutes automatically went the opposing teams’ way.

Keenan tried to rally his teammates to stay the course. Yelling at them to match the intensity of their opponents, but it was not good enough. The tide had turned and it was firmly on the other side. Despite being down 7 with less than a minute to go, Keenan refused to give up. Hitting a quick three and immediately fouling on the in-bounds play. It was now a numbers game…desperately hoping the basketball gods would send some blessings their way. Sadly it was not the case and despite his efforts, the opposing team maintained its lead to the end.

The finality of the loss finally sunk in as the buzzer signaling the end of the game went off. Keenan sunk to the ground, head buried in his hands. It was an inexplicable feeling that gripped him. He had invested so much in this run…and now it was all gone. There would be no next seasons since he was a senior. This was it and he had failed. He could feel his coach right next to him, speaking softly, trying to console him, but those words were not registering with him. He was trapped in his own grief.

Hoop Dreams P.21

hands

The odds were stacked against them from the get go. If at all they were going to succeed in their quest for the championship, they would do so by clawing and scratching their way to the top.

Being a lesser known university playing in a weak conference, they were awarded a low seed and would have to play better favored seeds to get to the final four.

"Seeds are for analysts, the coach said in the locker room right before the start. "These so called analysts don’t understand what we have here in this room…it’s our duty to prove to them we are worth more than just numbers."

The players listened with rapt attention, soaking in every word he said.

"Lots of people bet against us today…let’s make sure they lose some money."

The players all yelled excitedly at the thought of upsetting their doubters.

"Team on three," he called out as they all gathered together, clasping their hands together in unison.

"TEAM!!!"

And so started their foray in to the tourney, a tournament many had doubted their chances. Overlooking the fact that a low seed could make any sort of meaningful impact in the tourney. What they all failed to realize was how prepared Keenan was for what lay ahead.

A motivated Keenan was a dangerous player and their first round opponent was about to learn this lesson the hard way.

He went off for 29 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks in that game. He was maniacal in the way he attacked the opposition. Scoring with ease and setting up his teammates whenever the defense piled on him. By the time the final whistle was blown, they had won by 14 points. It was a salvo directed at the pundits and analysts who thought the outcome would be the opposite. Instead of celebrating after their win, Keenan and his teammates walked briskly off the court. They knew what was at stake and there was still much work to be done. 32 teams were left including them, their sights were locked on their next round opposition.

Just like in the first round, Keenan’s team was facing a higher seed from a much better conference. Unlike their first round opponents, this team came well prepared. They hounded Keenan on every play and made sure his teammates did more on offense. Knowing he couldn’t score as much as he’d like that game, Keenan diverted his energy to playing defense. He was every where, from passing lanes to getting in the grill of the opposition’s best player. If there was a loose ball he was right there chasing it. If a player from the other team forayed into the paint, Keenan was in there playing help defense. He’d learned his lesson from earlier in the season, no matter what defenses did to shut down his offense, he would find other ways to contribute on the court.

His team won by 5…setting up a date for them in the sweet 16. Finally the sports media started paying attention to their unlikely ascension. No one thought they’d make it this far and even more surprising was their last win. The team they beat was one expected to go as far as the elite 8. It was one of the tournament’ shockers, one in which the coach had pointed out would lose a lot of people money. Their sweet 16 match-up would undoubtedly be tougher. Now teams knew what they were capable of and would make sure to prepare for them. None of the schools remaining wanted to be fodder for the ‘Cinderella’ team of the tournament, it was going to take even more from Keenan and his teammates to overcome the hurdle in front of them.

As far as modern classics go, this game would have probably qualified. Two equally hungry teams trying to secure a berth to the next round. The little known small conference team was going up against the big conference team. What was meant to favor the big school team turned out into a slobber knocker with both teams trading baskets for most of the game. The fans were treated to a game that many thought was the game of the tourney. It was one clutch shot after the another coming down to the wire.

With 10 seconds to go, Keenan’s team was down one point and they had possession. The coach had called timeout and had drawn up a play that was intended for Keenan. Everyone in that arena expected the ball to go him, he was after all the team’s best scorer and their most clutch player. The problem with such a strategy is that the opposing team knowing this, would also game plan to prevent him from making the shot.

The arena was abuzz with excitement. The fans had been standing for the last three minutes, shouting as loud as they could. The beauty of the game was on display for all to see. Two teams duking it out on the grand stage, thrilling the fans , making sure they got their money’ worth.

As Keenan and his teammates walked onto the court, all eyes were on him. If he was nervous about what was about to happen, he didn’t show it. Instead he looked more focused than ever, prepared to do whatever it took to guarantee the win.

The ball was passed to him at the top of the circle, where he was immediately trailed by a defender. You could sense something dramatic was about to happen. The tension in the building was incredible. Fans looked on nervously, anxiously awaiting the outcome of the matchup. Both coaches were on their feet, barking out orders to their troops.

Keenan bounced the ball to and fro, trying to milk some time off the clock. Glancing every few moments at the clock, waiting for an opportuned moment to strike. With 5 seconds left, he made his move. He forced his way into the paint and was swarmed by two more defenders trying to make the shot as difficult as possible. In the corner, his teammate flashed into position wide open.

What happened next will be replayed on highlight reels for years to come. It’s one of those sequences that define a tournament. A play so unlikely that even his coach was surprised he made it.

Keenan did the unthinkable —- he passed to the open man. The opposing team defenders had little time to close in on the wide open shooter. The ball was already hoist in the air before they could cover the required ground.

For those in the arena, watching that ball sail through the air towards the rim must have taken an eternity.

SWOOSH! It fell through the net cleanly. The buzzer went off, the clock had wound down to zero. The game was over. Keenan and his teammates were headed to the elite 8.

The place erupted, Keenan and the rest of his teammates mobbed the player who had hit the victorious shot. The unlikely victors had done it yet again, shocking the sports world once more. The dance had been prolonged, they would be waltzing into the next round.