Something fairly remarkable happened on Thursday night that I haven’t been able to shake. It’s a moment that I can never get back, but in that time I found a striking clarity I won’t soon forget.
The Niagara Falls boys basketball team is up 49-41 with 9.7 seconds left in its Section VI Class AA semifinal against McKinley at Buffalo State Sports Arena. They are about to win and advance to the finals, and Dave Pascucci is shooting free throws for the Wolverines that at this point are mere formalities.
For McKinley these free throws will close out its season, and for the ten seniors on the team this will be the last time they take the floor as high school basketball players. Emotions are high, and as four Macks take their place around the key one of them is openly crying.
This player, let’s call him Number Three, had tears welling up in his eyes during McKinley’s final timeout and was overcome with emotion as he stepped back out onto the court. Impartiality be damned, I had to feel for a kid in that situation, watching his season slip away. Feeling helpless.
Pascucci misses his first free throw and hits the second, making it 50-41 and giving the Macks one final inbound pass and about ten seconds to play with. Unlikely to score nine points in just under ten seconds, McKinley admits defeat and isn’t going to rush up the court for a wild 3-pointer.
Instead, they inbound the ball and everyone seems to stop. The Wolverines don’t press, the Niagara Falls pep band gets ready to play and the fans applaud the effort from both sides.
This is when I get ready to put a box score together, doing the math for the quarter-by-quarter score and getting the totals for each player on both teams. Questions and stories will come later, but right after the game is reserved for the raw data.
But the game wasn’t over, and someone was sprinting up the floor for the Macks. The other nine players weren’t moving. No Wolverine stepped up to defend the player’s futile drive to the hoop and as the clock kept ticking he leaped into the air and threw down a thunderous dunk in front of the unassuming crowd.
Dunks aren’t completely foreign in high school basketball, but one by the losing team to end the game, the ball bounding out of bounds as the clock ticked off the last three seconds; that’s something new for me.
Thoughts of poor sportsmanship or showboating swirled in my head as the faceless player revealed himself. It was Number Three, who didn’t break stride as he ran crying towards his bench and finally broke down in the arms of a fellow Mack. The moment finally overwhelmed the senior and he was consoled by teammates and opponents alike as the teams exchanged handshakes after the final buzzer.
It was a moment that, in the big picture, doesn’t mean much more than two points in a 9-point game. In fact, I forgot to note the basket on paper and almost didn’t include it in the box score I submitted to the Gazette 45 minutes later.
By all accounts it was an inconsequential action, but that act left me dumbstruck. What makes a teenager do something so fascinating? How does a child so overcome with grief decide to spend his final seconds doing something that has been so important in his life?
I have no idea. I can’t possibly understand what made Number Three dunk that basketball, but that’s what makes it so damn beautiful. I never played high school sports and don’t have an athlete’s mentality. I’m a writer, I analyze moments and retell the story and only hope to get it right.
There are times with my job where I really wonder why I get paid to watch sports. It seems silly that I get to do this, that anyone would want to hear about teenagers trying to put a ball in a hoop or run a baseball diamond.
But that’s when things like this happen, these little signs of life that come screaming out of the minutia and put everything into perspective. I will never understand what was going through that kid’s head, but just knowing that is enough to change the way I understand just what I do.
You don’t go to gyms expecting teenagers to teach you something important. Maybe the surprise is half the lesson.