Keith Strudler: Special Treatment
If you’re an athlete, there are single sporting events that you never forget. For most, it’s some kind of championship, or big win, or record-setting performance. Joe Namath basically made his career out of one of those moments, when he led the Jets to an upset win over the Colts in the Super Bowl. To be honest, I doubt anyone could even recall much else he did on the football field, including his time at the University of Alabama. Basketball players at the University of Central Florida now have one of those moments.
Unfortunately for UCF, it’s not a big win or some kind of record. To the contrary, basketball players for the Knights will always remember last Sunday, when they played top ranked Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Knights were the 9 seed in the Eastern Region, but to fair, might as well have been the Bad News Bears, at least according to the vast sporting public that had Duke winning the whole tournament. Most people assumed the Knights were simply a placeholder for whomever the Blue Devils would overwhelm on the way to Minneapolis, host of this year’s Final Four. And to be clear, Duke did win, and now will play Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16 and probably will win the whole thing, at least if you follow the gospel of my winning bracket.
But it’s not that UCF lost that’s memorable. A whole lot of teams lose to Duke, and it’s basically an asterisk. It’s how they lost. With less than two minutes left, UCF had a four-point lead and on a two-on-one fast break. They missed an easy dunk, which would have given them a six-point cushion. Instead, Duke hit a three pointer, then made the most unlikely of rebounds on a missed free throw to take a one point lead with only seconds left. And then on the final possession, UCF missed not one, but two layups that literally did everything but make out with the hoop in the final seconds, allowing Duke to escape with a one point win and another notch on their way destiny.
So, these UCF athletes will remember, for the rest of time, that they basically had the best team in the country beat – twice really – in the NCAA Tournament, and somehow lost. Instead of being a part of a heroic upset, they’re a stepping stone. And they will always think about what would have happened if just one small thing was different – a made dunk, someone boxed out on a free throw, a tip went in – anything, and the course of history would change. That’s the game UCF will remember forever. Not the gutty first round win over VCU, but the one that got away.
UCF isn’t unique in their angst. There’s a whole lot of athletes that spend a lot of their athletic afterlife thinking about what could have been. I’m sure the Buffalo Bills spend a lot of time thinking about one particular field goal attempt at the end of the 1991 Super Bowl. I know that the 1983 Houston Cougars think about boxing out in the final play against North Carolina State in the NCAA Basketball Finals. To be honest, I’m guessing most everyone who’s ever played a sport can remember the one time they almost made it, maybe even more than the people who did. Sport is about a whole lot of things. Regret is certainly one of them.
I suppose that’s what make playing sports such an emotional thrill. It’s not simply that you might achieve some mythic goal, something that, to be honest, may be important to literally only a handful of people. As crucial as your high school field hockey championship was to you, to the rest of the world, not so much. It’s not just the thrill of victory, so to speak. It’s also the imminent fear of defeat. That in the blink of an eye, you might do something that has remarkable consequence, something that lives long within your soul. That every time you walk out onto the track or field or pitch or whatever, you might find yourself at a moment with indelible personal impact. Like the one UCF had Sunday, where they let that moment slip away because of a couple of unfortunate mistakes. That’s a high most of us don’t get at our daily workplace, where outside of surgeons and airplane mechanics, mistakes are somewhat of an expectation. And why unfortunately for UCF basketball players, Sunday will be the single sporting event they will never forget.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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