The March Madness shot that broke our hearts and the real tragedy that followed Opinion by Michael Croley
Updated 6:16 AM ET, Thu March 17, 2022
Michael Croley is the author of ” Any Other Place ,” which won the James Still Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.His work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, The New York Times, Bloomberg, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Paris Review and elsewhere.The views expressed here are his own.Read more opinion on CNN.
(CNN) Tim sent me out for the food.Burgers from one place and wings from another.When I came back to the apartment he was standing in front of the television, hands on his head.
Michael Croley “He’s going to blow it,” he said when I walked in, balancing bags and drinks and keys.He grabbed the hem of his T-shirt and billowed it several times to fan himself.
He had sent me to get the food so that he could watch the game.
Or I had volunteered.My memory fails me sometimes when I need it, and I need it even for insignificant details, because Tim died last May and everything that wasn’t important suddenly is.”You’re sweating,” I said, putting a bag down.”This guy is blowing this game.They’re going to lose.” It was March 2002.The first March he and I had spent together since I was probably 11 years old, and he had gone away to college.I was 24 and he was 30.He had taken half the day off to be home to watch the NCAA Tournament.
I was working a dead-end job and had also taken the day.Read More I stood by him.He fanned himself with his shirt again.”You’re all worked up,” I said.
“Calm down.” “They worked so hard to get in the lead and now this dumbass coach is going to blow the game for them,” he said.I laughed.I do remember the teams.UNC-Wilmington, the underdogs, against the University of Southern California.
We watched the final minute together and Wilmington won.We ate our food.I don’t remember who won the tournament.Kentucky, the only team we ever really cared about, college or pro, lost and that’s really all that matters.
But Tim and I stayed up every night of that first weekend, watching the games, and then watching more games.March Madness was always a big deal.
As Kentucky boys, we rooted for the Wildcats because when Kentucky won, our state didn’t seem like a laughingstock to the rest of the country.Despite our age difference, we spent hours outside at the hoop behind our house.I was a young boy when he and Dad assembled it, mixing the concrete, digging the hole, setting the steel pole upright and level.The Virginia Cavaliers tip off against the UMBC Retrievers in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina.We had a game we played that disallowed Tim from blocking my shot if I stayed behind an azalea bush in our yard that ran parallel to the court.
If I went past the bush — and I always tried to drive past — he had free rein.
And on those challenges, Tim sent the ball flying into the yard, laughing at my attempts, amused that I always tried.When we weren’t playing hoops we were watching it with our father.Sometimes we watched with our cousins and uncles at a cabin out in the country, near where my father had grown up, and during tight games all of us stood in a semi-circle around the big console television, rocking from heel to toe, hands pressed deep into our pockets, as the Cats took on whomever.My favorite time of year has always been the first weekend of March Madness.Before the internet, Dad brought brackets home from his office for us to fill out — always Xeroxed copies from the Monday edition of Lexington Herald-Leader.When I was ten, I won, and Dad brought home all the cash and handed it to me.
If I’m being honest, I have never been as excited on Christmas morning or my birthday as I am on the Thursday morning the NCAA Tournament begins.I love the tournament for all the reasons any sports fan loves the tournament, but as I’ve gotten older, I know that I love the tournament because of these memories and how it kept me close to my brother and our father.And we were already very close.He broke our hearts Thirty years ago this March, on a cold night in Philadelphia, where I find myself this year for a conference, Christian Laettner of Duke broke our hearts in what many consider the greatest college basketball game ever played.Everyone I know remembers where they were.My friends were at home with their parents, where we all watched with the television’s sound off and the radio turned up to listen to the voice of the Cats, Cawood Ledford .Tim was a junior at UK and in his apartment in Lexington with his roommates and his date, who showed up with 10 minutes to go in the game.
Duke’s Christian Laettner battles University of Kentucky’s Deron Feldhaus for position during first half action in the NCAA East Regional final game at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, March 28, 1992.
Every year CBS ends its montage of amazing tournament moments with Laettner’s wheeling shot.And every time I see it, I’m thrust back into my past.I fell to the floor when the shot went through the net.It felt as if all the blood left my body.I couldn’t hold myself up.My mother — my Korean mother, who became as rabid a Kentucky basketball fan as the rest of us — said, “What happened?” Dad, sitting beside her, softly said, “We lost.” On the ground in front of them, I couldn’t move or process what had really happened.
We were all so stunned.All that excitement and anticipation of their winning disappeared in 2.1 seconds, the time it took for a college senior, who had not missed a single shot all night, to fake right, spin left and make one more.Tim’s date turned to him and said, “If you don’t want to go out tonight, I understand.” He told her, “Thank you.I appreciate that.” Duke’s Christian Laettner takes the winning shot in overtime over Kentucky’s Deron Feldhaus for a 104-103 victory in the East Regional final NCAA college basketball game in Philadelphia on March 28, 1992.The second year we lived together, Tim and I took a full day off from work to watch the tournament and began Thursday morning with a round of golf.On the way back home, we stopped to pick up wings, which we dispatched while watching Kentucky play the opening game of the tournament, the noon tip-off.We both fell asleep, sated, and with Kentucky up by a healthy margin.
When we awoke, there was still a full day and night of games awaiting us.These weekends had a rhythm to them, which involved unhealthy food, cussing the television, crossing out our brackets and calling our father in Kentucky to talk about the games.I suppose, on the one hand, it’s an adolescent way to spend a weekend, but, on the other, basketball — sports — had been a way of life for us.
We were born to competitive parents.We tested ourselves through sports, and it was playing sports where we most often felt our racial difference compared to our peers.
Being half Korean felt like a secret burden I carried around but never discussed.Games could always go sideways and when they did a slur about my heritage nearly always slipped out.
It wasn’t until well until adulthood that I realized I had always been on edge as a boy, waiting for someone to turn on me.And our mother, like so many immigrants before her, pounded into us that we had to be better, that we had to work harder, that even the A+ I brought home in sixth grade wasn’t good enough when the teacher was marking papers with A++.
Cheerleaders for the Kentucky Wildcats hold up the #1 sign after they won 87-71 against the Iowa State Cyclones during the third round of the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.There is no one on this earth who understood what it was like for me to grow up as I did in Appalachian Kentucky besides my brother and now, he is gone.My life has always been filled with friends, but Tim’s death has made me feel an acute loneliness I did not expect.And though that is a weighty subject to consider, a true existential reckoning I must face for all the days I have remaining, I keep marveling that what I miss most about Tim is the ability to talk to him about so many things that truly don’t matter like games, SNL sketches or some guy who cut me off in traffic.How can these minute and trivial issues be what makes his absence so much larger? Years after I moved out of Tim’s apartment, I still visited him for the opening weekend of the tournament.
The first year I started dating my wife, Mary, I was at Tim’s house, who was married by then with two boys.He had sent out an email to all his friends saying I was going to be in town, detailing the weekend’s schedule, and the rules of his own betting pool.On Friday afternoon, I mentioned to a friend of Tim’s that I had to return to Ohio in the morning.
The friend gave me a quizzical look, clearly wondering why I could possibly justify leaving with more games left to watch.”It’s my girlfriend’s birthday,” I said.He took a deep breath before he spoke.”You like this girl?” he said.
“I do,” I said.
He shook his head as if a hard, hard truth had been bestowed upon him.”Her birthday is always going to be this time of year.That’s gonna be a problem,” he said and then laughed.We all did.I got up early the next morning and Tim came trudging down to tell me goodbye.”Good visit,” he said and gave me a hug.
We were never shy about our emotions with each other, never afraid to tell each other “I love you” in front of our friends.People knew how close we were, but after Tim had kids, he made a point to hug me before I left, tell me it was a good visit.The year we didn’t fill out a bracket Last year, as Tim’s health worsened, neither of us filled out a bracket.We watched the games and we texted.
I didn’t know then that I’d never fill out a bracket again.
I didn’t know then that I’d never spend another long day with him, watching games deep into the night, barely able to keep our eyes open but still at it because it was March, a game was in overtime and a 13-seed had a 4-seed on the ropes.I hoped against what common sense and medical science told us since he was first diagnosed with lung cancer because hope was all we had left by then.But Tim knew, I think now.His wife told our mother that he wanted to see our dad.My parents drove from Kentucky to Maryland.They sat with him in silence watching the games, but I’m sure they all thought of other years, other tournaments.In his poem, ” You Can Have It ,” Philip Levine writes of his dying brother and says, Give me back my young brother hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.Tim, ferociously tough, never complained throughout his illness.
Like Levine, I long for that brother, for his fight and spirit.I long for Laettner’s shot to miss, for Tim to have gone on that date after the game, for his cancer to have not spread.Get our free weekly newsletter Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
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Thirty years ago, I was fourteen and Tim was twenty, and I thought I it felt like death when Christian Laettner hit a jump shot.It was a foolish notion then and is a foolish one now, but that does not mean a basketball game cannot sting.
Before I depart Philadelphia, I’ll go to a bar in the afternoon by myself and I’ll eat some wings and I’ll think about my brother.I’ll remember the 2.1 seconds, how that ball hung in the air when Laettner let it go, the way I crouched as if I was looking up at it from the court itself, and how I fell when the game was over.I’ll remember it again as if I’m still a boy and then I’ll remember everything that came after, how it all unfolded, how exciting it all was, how much I clung to Tim as a boy and young man, and how hard he held on to me.I’ll fly through the night to my family, thinking about the distance between the stars and the distance between years, of how small both are to the eye and how quickly they disappear when I blink..