As I was watched Damian Lillard drill that game winning three against New Orleans, I couldn’t help but think about myself. Because I’m a narcissist.
No, it was actually because I was recently thinking back on my basketball career and lamenting the fact that I NEVER hit a game winning shot as time expired. Not once. That might seem like a ridiculous thing to regret. But it’s not.
What scenario does every player imagine when they practice? They don’t pretend to get an assist on the winning basket, or clinch a game with a steal, or take a timely charge.
Those are all things I have done, and I am proud that I did them. This isn’t a humblebrag. But no one dreams about heroic defensive stands. You dream about sinking a shot as the clock hits double zero, and getting mobbed by your teammates.
That is the holy grail of in-game moments. Call it selfish, close minded thinking, but it’s the truth. Nothing gives a person more satisfaction, credibility, and confidence than draining a shot on the final possession. At least that’s what I assume. I don’t actually know, because I never did it. What I do have experience with is missing such shots.
And I learned something from all those misses. It’s something that I have been in denial about for years, and I think it’s finally time to come clean: I had a tendency to be unsure of myself in clutch situations.
If it was a one possession game, and my team had the ball, I wasn’t dying to shoot. I would if I had to, but I was never the guy in the huddle saying “run me a play. I got this.”
I liken the feeling to a fictional college exam. It is an hour long, and in order to pass you have to get every question right. You perform brilliantly for 59 minutes, but you get stuck on the last question. You have a good guess, but you’re not sure. You start to panic.
Then you are given an option: if you want, you can let your friend answer the question. He has been taking the same test, right next to you. You know you studied just as much as him, but he looks so calm! And he already finished. He probably knows the answer. He probably wants to help. Maybe he actually studied way more than you realize!
Also, you get your grade the second the exam ends, you get thousands of dollars in bonuses if you pass the class, there are a thousand angry people in the lecture hall shouting at you for the duration of the test, and the whole thing is being broadcast on TV. What would you do?
The metaphor isn’t perfect, but you get the point. Lots of pressure.
There are times when that is not a problem, and you thrive in that environment. But all too often I was content to let someone else answer the questions for me.
It hurts me to even write that. It’s embarrassing. Heretical even. Every athlete is brought up to believe that a true competitor will always rise to the occasion when the intensity ratchets up. You should always want the ball for the final shot, and if you don’t you better damn well pretend you do.
But I think that most players actually aren’t built like that. A lot of us think that the pain you feel after failing outweighs the joy you get from succeeding. It’s irrational, but it’s reality.
It’s the basketball analog of the Prospect Theory in behavioral economics. The theory states that monetary losses have more of an emotional impact than an equivalent amount of monetary gains. Basically, people hate to lose more than they like to win.
In my case, that meant the soul crushing despair I felt after screwing up an important play was more powerful than the elation I felt after performing well in a big moment.
I don’t know why I’m wired like that, but I have a feeling the roots can be traced back to a particularly transformative high school game.
I was a 16 year old junior. My team had made it to the CIF Southern Section DIII Championship game. We were a public school with no history of success in basketball. Our opponent was a private school with a rich basketball tradition and a starting frontline that was a combined 20 feet tall. To nobody’s surprise, they were the heavy favorite.
We were losing by 20 points midway through the third quarter. It appeared that we were going to get crushed, just as the papers had predicted.
But basketball is a game of runs. It’s also a game where the team that is vastly overmatched in the height department would behoove themselves to abandon a strategy that was heavily focused on getting shots in the paint. We were eventually given the green light to launch from anywhere, and pretty much every player on the team turned into Jimmy Chitwood. It’s amazing what can happen when you let go of all inhibitions because the idea of a comeback seems so far fetched.
The team was rolling, and I was leading the charge. The Pack, our unmatched student section, was going nuts. By the end of the third quarter, I was in the zone. I existed in a beautiful space where my body intuitively knew how to act. Thinking would have been a hindrance. I felt like the living manifestation of the ideal basketball player I had always dreamed I would become. For a roughly 15 minute stretch on the morning of March 6th, 2004, I was unstoppable.
Unfortunately, I needed that 16th minute.
With the score tied and 30 seconds left, the other team called a timeout. Our coach brought in a reserve, our resident defensive ace, to guard their best player.
I remember thinking: “I should guard that guy.” Next thought : “But I don’t want to. What if he scores on me?”
Just like that, the magic was over. I guess that’s why they ice kickers in football. That timeout break provided enough time for a smidgen of doubt to work its way into my prefrontal cortex, where it proceeded to wreak untold amounts of havoc on my metal well being.
The game continued, and lo and behold it turned out to be unwise to let a converted football player, who had been getting cold on the bench for the last 35 minutes, guard their best player on the most important defensive possession of the game. (Shoutout to Obi, I don’t blame him, he was awesome) Their player easily got into the lane, and while he ended up missing, the defense had broken down, and the shot was put back in by one of their forwards.
At this point my brain had fully transformed from a simple, relaxed, unquestioning, purveyor of electrical impulses to an anxious blob of neurons that suddenly realized it was in the final moments of the most important athletic event it had ever been a part of. My body followed suit. Muscles that just seconds ago were springy, vibrant allies in the fight against Santa Margarita were now dull and heavy. With these changes came the worrying, and once you start worrying you might as well forget about shooting a game winning shot. Just dropkick the ball into the upper deck and save everyone some time, because good things aren’t going to happen if you play scared.
So that’s about where I was at mentally as I began the final play of the game. Tentatively dribbling across half court, mind foggier than San Francisco, body a lethargic meat sack. My thoughts began to feel oddly disconnected from my physical body.
What is the exact opposite of being ready to seize a moment?
I was relieved when my coach called a timeout.
I sat in the huddle, listening, but not. I knew that I was going to get the ball, but that’s as much as I cared to process. I was experiencing some kind of dissociation. I was not quite detached from reality, but my body was languid, and the thoughts that pierced my mental haze felt like they were coming to me from a nearby, drugged up, Drew-like apparition.
The final play was still ahead of me, but instead of seeing a once in a lifetime opportunity, I saw the distinct possibility of crumbling under pressure.
It was eventually time to start the action again, and there was nothing left to do but get the ball and make the best of what had quickly become a less than ideal situation.
I received the inbound pass, sized up my defender, and proceeded to execute a solid crossover. I opened up enough space to give myself a clean look at a three. Had I been in that same position less than two minutes prior I would have taken the shot with the confidence of Ryan Gosling at a sorority house.
But the basketball gods are fickle, and I no longer trusted my long range marksmanship. Instead of taking the open three, I drove to the basket and attempted a leaning, left handed scoop shot. It was easily swatted away by one of their big men. Game over. (Adding salt to the wound, a video review of the final play made it obvious that in rotating over to block my shot, this big man had left one of our best players wide open underneath the basket. I live for that pass. That is what I do. Drive, draw, dump off. It’s like I wasn’t operating at full capacity!)
I was devastated. Not so much by the outcome, although that provided the short term sting, but by the way I had come unhinged mentally. Putting aside the bizarre depersonalization stuff, I focused on how I had been on a basketball court and felt something even remotely resembling fear. That was unforgivable. It is a moment that has always stuck with me, and I think that ending must have played a role in some of my other crunch time disappointments.
It is sacrilegious for a basketball player to reveal that they get late game nerves. In fact, it is so daunting that this is the first time I have ever admitted it to anyone, coaches and family included.
I don’t want to overdramatize things. I understand that basketball players aren’t ER surgeons. I just want to make it known that not every player is born with Reggie Miller-esque ice water in their veins.
It’s actually a little ridiculous how, when in front of a microphone or behind a keyboard, all players magically become Robert Horry. Everyone claims to want the last shot, and to crave the ball with the game on the line, but that can’t possibly be the case. I have seen too many people hesitate or stumble when the chips are down to believe they all are brimming with confidence.
So, even though every player boasts that they want the ball in the big moments, I think that’s just become part of basic basketball player rhetoric. It’s like hearing someone say “both teams played hard” or “we just wanted it more than them.” There are certain sound bites that are automatic and expected, even though they are nonsensical.
Despite the narrative that every player puts forth, not everyone truly wants to take on the risks that come along with being the crunchtime go-to-guy. Can you live with yourself, and the outside ridicule, if you fail in the clutch 5, 6, 7 times in a row? Do you have supreme mental toughness? Are you perfectly rational, believing you will get the same utility from a miss or a make?
Even at the highest levels, not every player can answer yes to all those questions. Which is why we need to appreciate people like Lillard. Although we live in an age were pretty much everything can be measured, I still believe that there is something intangible that makes people want the ball for the last shot. And I think the desire to put the game in your hands, no matter the consequences, is more rare than people realize.