Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Lesson For Memphis: Nothing Is Free

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the images of the 2008 NCAA Basketball Championship gave me enough of them to stock an entire library. Sure, there will be those common descriptions, such as determination, confidence, winner and loser. But as I watched the game wind down, there were three words, when placed together, looming larger than life. Those three words are “nothing is free”.

In sport, as in life, nothing is given to you. You can’t just reach for the prize, you must also take steps closer to grasp it. No one will hand it to you or allow you a pass. You can put in weeks, months, and even years of hard work, but no one is going to cross the finish line for you. The Kansas Jayhawks stayed true to their mission, completing a dream season and claiming the title of college basketball champions. But their opponent, for whatever reason, expected a little help along the way, and didn’t receive any.

The Memphis Tigers had the look of a champion. Their 38 wins marked the most by a program in NCAA history. If you eliminate less than a minute from their entire season (the closing seconds of regulation against both Kansas and Tennessee), the Tigers are undefeated. But despite their season accomplishments, they left the Alamodome on Monday night without a championship. They were 20 seconds away from moving freely to the podium to accept their congratulations, but again….nothing is free.

Kansas crossed the finish line, making their run from beginning to end. They did all that was needed, without expecting any handouts. When backed into a corner, faced with playing catch up, and the clock becoming the enemy, the Jayhawks delivered a blow, striking Achilles in the heel. Memphis’ weakness was always their struggles from the charity stripe (59% season percentage), and their title game opponents put them there, daring the Tigers to take the crown, and refusing to go without effort. Memphis missed 4 of 5 free throws in the final 20 seconds of regulation. One more make and one less miss would have completed the season goal, leaving the Chalmers 3-point basket with 2 seconds remaining to only have relevance in the box score, and none in the trophy presentation.

In a span of 20 seconds, a bench that was anticipating ladder climbing and net cutting, found themselves deadlocked on the scoreboard, before eventually getting worked in overtime and sent home. Of all things, it’s the inability to convert a “free” throw that transformed celebration to sadness. If you can’t depend on yourselves, who can you depend on? You pin your hopes on Kansas surrendering and allowing the clock to run out? You become dependent on wishes and prayers that a shot will be flung wide of the basket, just as the horn sounds? Or maybe you become so dependent on thoughts of your squad running out to big leads, so late game bricks from the line only effect the spread, without affecting the outcome? There were 63 other teams dependent on thoughts, hopes, and wishes, and now Memphis can join them on the loser’s bench.

Kansas took steps forward, and they reach no more. Meanwhile, Memphis is stuck behind the line, only thinking of what could have been. My brain processed thousands of images in that overtime victory. But in the midst of finding words to add to each picture, I found an answer for first-time hoops watchers wanting the definition of a “free throw”.

…”Nothing is free”.

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