Together, we watch. An old friend, wise beyond his years, does not say much. Yet, when he speaks, I listen.
“Pressure is just the shadow of great opportunity,” he tells me.
So instructed, in my mind I flash back to the spring of 2019. One of the biggest and most popular sporting events in the USA, watched equally by millions all across the globe, gets underway. A thrilling, cut-throat, single-elimination tournament, featuring conference champions and an equal number of at-large berths. Aptly named “March Madness,” the annual event will eventually crown a Men’s collegiate Division 1 basketball champion.
The competition duly reaches its midway point. Eight teams remain in contention. In a heavyweight clash, Virginia meets Purdue. The black clad Boilermakers lead 70-68 with six seconds left to play. Their opponents at the free throw line, in the bonus and shooting a 1 and 1.
The shot misses. In the ensuing scramble, the ball is batted well over the centre line. Relentlessly, the clock ticks down towards zero.
Then comes an unforgettable sequence. The diminutive Virginia point guard, an extremely talented freshman named Kihei Clark, races back, gathers the ball. Pivoting quickly, given only a split second to assess, in a do or die situation he opts not for a long-distance 60 foot heave. Instead, he coolly delivers a letter-perfect, three-quarter court pass to a teammate. The ensuing jump shot splashes softly through the net as time expires. 70-70, amid pure bedlam. A rare and crucial opportunity successfully taken.
Momentum now on their side, the Cavaliers control the overtime period, eventually winning 80-75. The following weekend, with Clark deservedly lauded for his sterling performances, the team then defeats Auburn and Texas Tech to secure its first and only NCAA hoop title.
Flash forward four years to the spring of 2023. The university basketball landscape continues to evolve. Given an extra year of eligibility in the wake of a cancelled COVID season, and now allowed to transfer schools without penalty, players take advantage. Any perceived dominance by the traditional “blue blood” programs, such as UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Connecticut, is less and less a factor. NCAA tournament upsets, given the nature of a “one and done” competition, become an even more regular occurrence than before.
With this, of course, arrives a darker part of March Madness. Namely, the chance to watch a particular player, or a particular team, especially when considered the favourite, melt down under duress.
The 2019 championship aside, Virginia looks to improve upon several indifferent seasons and a number of crushing first round tournament exits. The current squad, a defensive juggernaut and a #4 seed in the South Regional, opens NCAA play against a sneaky and dangerous #13 ranked Furman.
Kihei Clark is now a fifth-year senior, an ultra-experienced, skilled, intelligent, and thoroughly capable veteran. Ice water courses through his veins, thanks to the stresses and demands of competing for years in the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference.
Once again, though having frittered away a healthy lead, the Cavaliers find themselves in a two-point game. Only twelve seconds remain. Still, up 67-65, with possession, all looks in order. Little does anyone, likely least of all Clark, suspect that disaster looms.
He receives the ball but is quickly cornered. Stuck dangerously near his baseline. The crowd in a frenzy as the seconds tick steadily away. 11, 10, 9, 8. Two Furman defenders close, look to trap, to force a jump ball, to get a deflection. To foul if absolutely necessary.
Sadly, what transpires may become Clark’s ultimate legacy. Shockingly, eschewing any attempt to dribble out of trouble, blind to a wide-open teammate immediately cross court, he then fails to call timeout. Instead, initially shielding the ball from the advancing opponents, he inexplicably panics and loses his poise. Tosses the ball wildly. A Furman defender, roving near half court, easily swallows up the desperate, looped, ill-advised pass. The subsequent quick transfer and deep 3-point jump shot pierce like a stiletto through Virginia’s heart. A 68-67 loss. The season, and an otherwise distinguished career, ends in the roughest fashion imaginable.
Why do these glaring, unfathomable miscues occur? Much of the time, in all sports, they take place late in a game, so take on larger than life importance. So many what ifs, so many who knows, so many what was he/she thinking.
I search for possible answers. Think back on some of the big occasions in my own athletic career. Analyze the really critical errors, of which there were a number. A fumbled catch, a snap hooked drive, a badly skewed kick, a poorly judged pass, a horribly incorrect coaching or referee decision. All at absolutely the wrong moment, with definite consequences. Due to lack of technique, a lapse in concentration? Due to nerves, fatigue, performance anxiety, fear of failure?
Regardless, I draw a blank. No consistent theme emerges, no rhyme or reason as to why and when I did what I did. No doubt Kihei Clark, reeling from his killer turnover, feels the same.
Perhaps it is nothing more than simple fact. That, regardless of pedigree, in all walks of life, no one is ever totally immune to the insidious pull of pressure.
So beware. Opportunity always knocks, but the shadow lurks nearby.