Of All the Words of Mice and Men, the Cruelest Are 'It Might Have Been'
As Gordon Hayward's desperation halfcourt shot banked just a little too hard off the backboard, Kurt Vonnegut's famous phrase from "Cats Cradle" came into my mind. Right now all over the country, people are praising Coach K and his Duke Blue Devils for their fourth title, putting the coach in rarified air amongst his peers and moving Duke past Kansas into sole possesion of fourth all-time in NCAA titles. But I don't care about that. Let the other writers celebrate the winner and crown Coach K the mightiest to ever walk the floor.
I will instead focus on the losers and how close they were to unmatched glory. Think for just a second what would have happened if Hayward hit his shot. It would have set in motion a celebration that would have likely never been topped in NCAA Tournament history. 72,000 in attendance would have joined every American who didnt have a personal connection to Duke University in an unadulterated glee ride celebrating the utlimate victory for the little guy. A small private school in Indiana, filled with players who were not recruited by the big boys and were never considered able to make it this far, had found a perfect ride to the Championship game and in the process, taken down the evil empire of college basketball. It is such a perfect story that it simply does not seem real. But the joy that would have emoted from Lucas Oil stadium would have been real and might have been unsurpassed in sports since the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
Disagree? Think of a better example of an entire country rallying around a story and celebrating together. I can't think of one. In our territorial notion of sports, we celebrate victories over other areas of the country and loyalties are often split based on where you are. We dont do much in the way of nationalism either and because the main sport in which the world competes against each other (soccer) isn't our bag, we dont get off on beating other countries very often. But this would have been the force of a collective nation, minus a few random Dukies, celebrating at the same time. How great would that have been?
And that shot! Had Hayward bankd that shot in, it would have immediately taken its place as the greatest shot in the history of college basketball. Lorenzon Charles, Christian Laettner, Keith Smart and Michael Jordan would have had to scoot over and make room. A new king of the mountain would have taken its place. The circumstances (as the buzzer sounded, from half court, the underdog making it to beat mighty Duke) would have immediately catapulted it into discussion as the GREATEST play in history for any sport. It would have been on commercials from now into eternity and there would never be a moment when its iconic image would have left the collective sports mind.
And the individuals involved. It goes without saying that Gordon Hayward's life would have never been the same. He would become a name that was remembered for generations and it is not an exaggeration to say that his life would have changed forever. In addition to becoming a hero on Butler's campus for eternity, he would also have become a superstar in the nation as a whole. He would have owned the Today Show, David Letterman and the White House and from now until the day he died, he would have been remembered as the guy who hit the greatest shot ever.
And he isnt the only one. Matt Howard would have been a hero as well, with his points down the stretch and a hard pick on the last play that would have lived forever. His wispy moustache would have reached cult status and we would have seen middle school kids growing similar facial hair to be like Matt. Coach Brad Stevens would have been more than just the Coach who looked young and took his team on a magical ride. He would have been a national champion and on the path to be the greatest young coach in the nation. His future is bright regardless, but a 33 year old coach who wins a national championship at Butler on the greatest shot in history would have had the world as his oyster.
Alas, none of this happened. The shot was off just slightly. Duke won and while college basketball fans will remember Butler, it will be as a part of something great, not something iconic and legendary. Butler and its players have nothing to hang their heads about. They put together a magical run and were part of a great championship game. They will forever be able to look back and remember being part of something special and unique. But that doesnt mean that there won't be moments where Vonnegut's words ring true. When it comes to a championship, it might have been.