10 Seconds from Victory
The referee's whistle blew; we started moving forward, ready to win this game already. For the first time in as long as I can remember, Jam(una) was poised to win gold at inter-hostel basketball (Schroeter); winning gold in basketball would seal the deal on winning the Schroeter cup. It was a dream I wanted too much to believe it could be true.
We were up against Saras(wathi), a hostel with so many good players it was criminally unjust; starting with an incredible post and forward with an 80%+ accuracy (SNS), an insanely fast point guard (Ajay), shooting guard (Evera), and some good supporting players (Krishna, Eeshwar and some guy who plays volleyball). They could assemble a whole team of institute players, and have otherwise good substitutes. Our team, on the other hand, was a motley collection of an institute player (Kanishka), a fast running support (Srikanth; he was also captain), a couple of freshies (Jana, Srinath), an old fart (myself), and some more supporting players (Hema, Rajesh, etc.).
We weren't hopeless, not by a long shot, but we definitely weren't obvious winners. After barely missing a medal for 4 years, winning gold would feel so vindictive; it permeated my thoughts for days prior to the match. Personally, I felt quite some pressure to not screw up; I hadn't played in about 4 months, missing all the league matches because of the grad-school-visit trip.
Then I found out that our captain, and crucial component of our game, wouldn't be playing after coming down with a fever1. An air of deathly silence had settled on us all. We went through the motions of a warm up perfunctorily, and blasphemously even skipped the Jam prayer2. With the stink of regret boiling my stomach, we lined up, and I got in place for the jump ball.
The whistle is blown. I tap the ball (I think), but into the wrong hands. We rush back to defend and save the basket, but before long, they've drawn first blood. The next few baskets fly by; Ajay keeps breaking through our defence and whilst our attention is diverted, SNS cuts in to receive a pass and shoot. Did I mention SNS has an 80% conversion rate?
At the end of the first quarter, we are down by ten points. It looks grim. Kanishka is furious at Shaastra, finance and Srikanth. The rest of our team is silent, but when we resume, Kanishka takes his anger out on the ball. In less than two minutes, he, more or less single-handedly, has covered the gap, and now has us up by a couple of points. By the end of the second quarter, we are up by ten points.
With the second half, Saras starts changing strategy; they've placed a single player pressing us from full court. We adapt, and start screening. The baskets keeping rolling, on both sides. We're hardly a couple of baskets on top, but we are definitely on top.
In the final quarter, they finally break into a full court press. We are prepared, and screen the hell out of the game. It feels surreal - my captain is missing, I suck, I've hardly practised screen-and-rolls, but I'm screening, boxing out their defence, and taking rebounds like a boss. I've never played better basketball in my life. We may have started in the pits, but with Kanishka's stubborn will, we put up one hell of a fight.
So it went on, and with 10 seconds in the game, the referee blew his whistle. We were one point up, with the ball in our possession. All we needed to do was keep the ball for 10 seconds; hell, we could just hold onto the ball and squat. And that's probably what we should have done. I don't know how the play started3; who had the ball or who passed it. But suddenly, it was in Ajay's hands; I try to block him, but he shoots. It misses, and as I box him out the ball hits the rim and goes straight back into SNS's hands. Time stops. I have no idea what happened earlier, but I'll never forget that second. Something other than my deep understanding of probability tells me that SNS will not miss. I know I need to do something; to scream, to shout, to accost him with malicious intent, but I'm frozen. The ball leaves from his fingers and his aim is true. We have two seconds left; we don't even make it to the half court line4.
More than losing the gold, shattering the dream, and even losing Schroeter, I feel most terrible because I let down Kanishka. For all the sweat and blood he put into the game, for the four quarters of charging like a bull, we screwed up the game in the last ten seconds. Its cruel; were Srikanth there, we could even have won by a margin. If I had only made my free throws, if I had been more proactive with my rebounds, if I had just shouted before SNS shot, if... I guess the memory will fade in time, but the regret of letting Kanishka down, of letting a sweet victory slip by will remain.
Purportedly he was up all night on Shaastra finance core business. Sigh, why.↩
I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you.↩
Apparently the guy who started out didn't know we were one up with ten seconds, so passed the ball real quick. I don't blame him; we were all under the fog of war.↩
I blame this on myself; I received the ball, but didn't lob it up front. The chances of making a basket were negligible, but at least it was non-zero.↩