By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Few rules govern this column. It has to be clean, worthy of print and contain some loose connection to sports. The specific subject is completely at my discretion, a fact that’s equally exhilarating and nerve-racking. Eyes will scan these words. Opinions will be expressed. Emotions will be moved and thought provoked (I hope). Pressure? Lil’ bit…
A local angle is good, but not required. Like beer, variety is important; too much of one sport, even the NFL, can get a little stale. Humor is often attempted. Weird connections to pop culture are common. But it’s the point – the connection between sports and our ordinary lives – that matters.
Whatever the sport, team or athlete, and regardless of how spectacular the take-a-way, a topic won’t work if it fails to ignite passion. It’s either there or it isn’t. If it’s not, I move on. A forced screed will be a grind to write and you’ll sense the artificial motivation.
I was grasping this week. The sports calendar was stuffed as always. Candidates were plentiful. But nothing moved me. I was staring at a haunting blinking cursor and an approaching hard deadline. Momma…
Then a woman I had never heard of, on a team I knew nothing about, made a shot. And away we go…
Sports has changed considerably in my lifetime. The money is unreal. Individuals are often celebrated more than teams. Showmanship has blossomed a little too much for my liking. And the games have evolved – for good or ill.
The constant remains the compelling convergence of people and pressurized, win-or-lose situations.
Hit that ball, bury that kick in the net, convert that shot and you win. Fail…and you lose. Watching humans, even elite professionals, function in these moments is fascinating. The anxiety is palatable from the couch. Imagine what the athlete is experiencing. Think of Tom Brady in all those Super Bowls. Or Adam Vinatieri before drilling so many clutch kicks. Or Villanova’s Kris Jenkins as the clock ticked to zero in the championship game last year. Excel? How about not vomiting?
Basketball is particularly compelling in these moments. Faces, expressions and mannerisms are discernable. The pace is more frenetic than baseball, but it isn’t as purely reactionary as it is for many football players. Basketball is played fast and demands instinctual responses, but there’s a sufficient cerebral element – time to think, assess - that makes it easy for big moments to imprison an athlete in his or her head.
The best manage the pressure, even relish in it. It’s evident in their body language. Fear is absent. There’s a wry grin, a calmness and a determination. They don’t defer. They want the shot. Because they’re going to make it. There’s no doubt.
Last Saturday, Mississippi State guard Morgan William, all 5’5” of her, made a shot at the buzzer in overtime to beat UConn 66-64 and send the Bulldogs to the national championship game.
It was the biggest shot in women’s college basketball history.
Exaggeration? Maybe. But name a bigger shot on a grander stage? William didn’t just win a Final Four game. Her shot upset an undefeated opponent, ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak and Huskies’ bid to win a fifth consecutive NCAA championship.
What was so amazing, more than the upset itself, was William’s body language in the final seconds. She sought the basketball and shot without hesitation. And when the ball went in as the buzzer sounded she had an “only fool’s doubted me” look on her face. Morgan William: smallest player on the court, steadiest nerves and the biggest heart.
At the risk of sounding like Dick Vitale, it was scintillating. Sensational. Exhilarating. Inspiring. Pick-your-superlative stuff.
What’s the comp for mere mortals grinding through our less publicized and comparatively mundane lives? I suppose it’s any pivot point - significant parental moment, job interview, big presentation, etc. – that puts a knot in your gut because of the acknowledged and wholly uncomfortable chasm between success and failure. What to do in these moments? Well…be cool, sharpen your senses, attack with confidence and cross your fingers that a little bit of Morgan William resides within you.
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