Sports Opinion & Analysis

Game-Winners, Buzzer-Beaters, and Where We All Were When

In NBA on November 29, 2012 at 5:12 pm

By Jeff Weyant

The moment when a last-second heave is flying to the basket is pretty much excruciating: you have no idea what’s going to happen or if the shot will go in or out and without realizing it you’re holding your breath and clenching the remote harder than you should be and for that brief second everything is unimportant except that little orange ball. And when it’s over everything inside falls out like skeeballs after you put a coin in the machine, rolling and thundering down the covered shoot until crashing into the slot at the bottom. The accompanying outpouring of emotion is, strangely enough, usually the same whether the basketball went in or not. The only difference is that we remember the ones that went in.

1. And to think we almost missed it

It was November 5th, 2010. I was at my brother’s apartment with some friends watching the Phoenix Suns cough up a game to the Memphis Grizzlies. After a tight fourth quarter, the Grizzlies were up 98-94 with three seconds left. Phoenix had the ball. We all sighed, as was common for Suns observers that season, and went outside to vent our frustrations to the wind and the sky. About ten minutes later we go back inside and reflexively turn on the TV, because that’s what you do when you’re feeling glum about a basketball game, and at that exact moment Grant Hill threw the ball from out of bounds to the rim and Jason Richardson tapped it home. Confused and bewildered, we nevertheless yelled and raised our arms and shouted and generally made a lot of noise. This routine November game, hurtling towards the abyss moments before, was suddenly heading to overtime. And why? Because Richardson made a long three-pointer, the Suns fouled quickly, and Rudy Gay missed a free-throw, all of which set up the out of bounds alley-oop with 0.4 remaining. It also set up a crazy half-hour of incredulous wonder as we watched the Suns claw their way to a double-overtime victory.

This is the power of a game-winners and buzzer-beaters. They take us out of our seats and out of ourselves. They elicit sounds from regions deep within our bodies that we rarely let see the light of day because we’re usually embarrassed. Uncontrollable excitement, after all, often leads to actions that we normally find laughable in others. And the physical nature of the moment is important because these shots commemorate a time and place, a memory of when and where we were, and with whom, and memories create physical impressions on our brains. Visions of the past, then, are like tattoos or scars. They last a while and we can look at them over and over again.

2. The memories go marching one by one. . .

Sometimes, of course, these moments come and go and we remember them no longer than we’ll remember last night’s lottery numbers (like this clip that my brain apparently erased even though I watched it live). And then there are those game-winners that invoke other memories, sending a chain-reaction down the line as we associatively recall other events. When I saw Jamal Crawford in January of 2010 crush the Suns with a long three-pointer at the buzzer to cap an Atlanta comeback, I was transported back to January 2009 when Danny Granger did the same thing. I relived the same moment of soul-crushing defeat when Crawford’s shot dropped that I’d felt watching the Pacers All-Star pull up unbelievably fast from the top of the arc and fire, clinching Indiana’s own comeback. My mind was reeling, reasonably so. And this chain of memories acquired a new link a year later in April 2011 when Crawford was dribbling out most of the clock with a lead over the Orlando Magic in the playoffs. He then pulled up and hit nearly the same shot he’d heaved against the Suns. Naturally it went in and the Atlanta crowd exploded, just like I and they did a year earlier except they were celebrating and I was sobbing. But that’s how it works: feelings of extreme happiness and extreme dejection are almost the same thing, as if our emotions are on a circular track and not a straight line, so that when we go far enough in one direction we come back around to the other side.

3. Powerless before The King

This emotional response happens a lot when we see a buzzer-beater, even when we’re not particularly disposed to cheering for the person shooting, and even when we’re actively rooting against him and his team. Enter LeBron James in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals where he sank a last-second three-pointer to beat the Magic to even things at 1-1: In retrospect it’s forgettable because it’s the only win the Cavaliers got in a series that’s representative of why he left Cleveland. But at the time, watching it in my living room, alone, on the couch, predicting a series win for Orlando but already kind of bored (as it seemed to everybody, even Cleveland fans, that Orlando would have a 2-0 lead going home), LeBron James shocked me out of my reverie. His three-pointer was so clean and accurate that you knew it was going in when it left his fingertips, and the way he celebrated with his teammates, like they’d just saved a family from a burning house, was easy  to get caught up in. So I jumped around and sputtered “Oh!” before dribbling out several more wordless grunts before realizing that the Cavaliers had actually won the game, which is not what I’d wanted at all. But then that’s the power of these moments. They jolt us out of ourselves. We’re no longer individuals with hopes and dreams and aspirations. For that one instant we’re every other person watching the game who then reacts in the exact same way: leaping and emitting guttural tones before cooling down and going to the bathroom or turning off the TV or whatever.

4. The What-If factor

Naturally, destinies rise and fall on game-winners and buzzer-beaters. What if Pau Gasol and Ron Artest whiff on their last-second putbacks in the 2010 playoffs? The Lakers go home for Game 7 against the upstart Thunder and to Phoenix down 3-2. Do the Lakers make the Finals? Do the Suns make the Finals? Do the Suns win the Finals? What if Jordan misses in ’98 against the Jazz? His entire legacy changes if the Bulls don’t win the series, right? What if Larry Bird doesn’t hit all those thousands of times in and out of the playoffs? What if Magic Johnson’s “baby baby sky-hook” rims out? The possibilities are endless which is the strange thing about these shots: for the most part it’s virtually random as to whether they go in or not and that makes them completely insignificant statistically but immensely significant otherwise, because games, seasons, and careers rise and fall based on whether or not this one orange ball hits the bottom of the net. No one cares about the missed free-throw two minutes ago. The final shot is all that matters. It’s kind of mind-blowing.

5. The view from the other side

And on the other side of the coin, what about the shots that rolled in and out? There’s no video for this final section and that’s kind of the point: we forget the ones that didn’t get the job done, the ones that fell short. Video evidence is hard to come by. The most recent example of a shoulder-slumping, in-and-out game-winner is Michael Beasley’s layup attempt near the buzzer against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday. Here’s a young player in the midst of the most important season of his career. He has to show that he can play up to his talent or he’s going to be in China or Europe before the next presidential election. He knows this. We know this. So he’s playing hard every night, harder than he’s ever played, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Tuesday looked to be his night, where everything went right and he got his mojo working, his confidence was high, and he had a first step to the basket to tie the game for his team. And then the ball went in and out. And then he fell to the ground, absolutely devastated. That shot might have cemented his psychological development this season, helping him establishment a presence as a consistent big-time scorer and occasional big-time rebounder. Instead he fought back tears and went to the locker room. Destiny held Michael Beasley in her arms for that one shining moment – and dropped him like a sack of potatoes. A cruel mistress.

Sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t. Game-winners and -losers are bits and pieces of life as it swirls around in the eddies of time and we’re forever trapped, caught between sandbar and shore, seemingly unable to determine our own fate. I don’t recall deciding to scream and shout and jump when Kobe Bryant banked in a three over Dwyane Wade. All of a sudden I was up, being loud, to the chagrin of my anti-Laker friends. I was as in control of my reaction as Beasley was in control of that ball, teetering on the edge of inevitability, deciding whether to go down or out, deciding between life or death.

And since nobody can fight that there’s only one thing to do: keep swimming.


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