Hindsight 2010: Shots of the Year

It was a bad shot. That’s really where you have to start. It was pretty much indefensibly bad. Ali Farokhmanesh cannot plausibly argue that it was wise to take that three-pointer from the right wing with 37 seconds on the game clock, 30 on the shot clock, and his Northern Iowa Panthers up one on top-seeded and top-ranked Kansas.

Farokhmanesh had played an uneven game to that point. After a hot first half (4-for-4, 11 points), the UNI senior hadn’t scored since intermission. The Panthers, likewise, began leaking oil down the stretch. Solid for much of the afternoon, Northern Iowa struggled to get the ball past halfcourt against Kansas’ press. The Jayhawks found lanes for layups and putbacks. A double-digit lead was trimmed to one, and it seemed Kansas would have, at worst, a chance to tie with its next possession.

Against the press, Jake Koch’s pass to Kwadzo Ahelegbe—who had just turned the ball over in the backcourt one possession earlier—was soft, and almost stolen. Ahelegbe quickly threw the ball upcourt—he wanted no part of controlling that basketball—to Farokhmanesh and, conceivably, a 2-on-1 break.

Now, when Farokhmanesh caught the ball on the right wing, his momentum carried his right foot just beyond the proper triple threat position. I like to romanticize the split-second it took an experienced marksman like Farokhmanesh to bring that right foot back, imagining that he processed the remarkable concatenation of possibilities in front of him.

Farohmanesh could hold the ball and wait for Sherron Collins to foul him. Farokhmanesh was an 83.1 percent free-throw shooter, but hadn’t been to the line much that season (59 times) and not at all that night. Even so, making both free throws would only make it a three-point game. Still, this is what almost every college basketball player who has ever played would have done in that situation. It was the safe thing to do, and, many coaches would say, the right thing to do.

Farokhmanesh could pass the ball, namely to Johnny Moran on the opposite wing. Really, Moran should have been cutting to the basket, opening up a nice diagonal passing lane for Farokhmanesh to thread the pass for a layup. Of course, this all sounds too risky, since Northern Iowa was up by one and didn’t need to score, and Moran himself had committed a key turnover the last time he had the ball in his hands.

Finally, Farokhmanesh could shoot the ball. This was, by all accounts, the worst option on the board. Although transition three-pointers are usually frowned upon at any stage of a basketball game, there are certain contexts that make them excusable. First, you could be having a great night shooting. This was not the case: Farokhmanesh had missed his last seven shots. Second, you can be in excellent rhythm going into the shot (i.e. dribbling into it, or receiving a kickout, secondary-break pass that you can step into). This was not the case: Farokhmanesh was actually in a pretty awkward spot, receiving the ball while not in catch-and-shoot position. He had to gather himself after the pass. Third, you could have someone under the basket, well-positioned for a rebound. This was not the case: Moran was way out on the other wing, and no other Panthers were beyond halfcourt yet.

All this means that, if this were the midway point of the first half of a regular-season Missuori Valley Conference game, Ali Farokhmanesh’s three-pointer from the wing would have been a particularly dumb shot. But given the circumstances, it was even dumber. If Farokhmanesh missed the shot—as he had his previous seven—Kansas almost certainly would have gotten the rebound. Furthermore, the Jayhawks would have been able to quickly get the ball in the hands of Collins against a scrambling Panthers’ defense that had given up baskets on three consecutive possessions. There is little doubt in my mind that, had Ali Farokhmanesh’s shot not gone in, Kansas would have won the game, and Farokhmanesh would have been an obvious scapegoat.

Of course, in spite of all this damning evidence, Farokhmanesh took the shot anyway. I wanted to call it college basketball’s equivalent of Belichick going for it on 4th-and-2 or Osborne going for two and the title, but really, those things were far smarter, had far better odds, and were decided by coaches with near-untarnishable legacies. Farokhmanesh had no such track record. In the time it took him to move that right foot back a few inches, he made the decision that he would either be the hero or the goat of the most significant basketball game in his school’s history, that he would be remembered regardless of whether the ball went in or not, that he would not lie with those timid souls that know neither victory nor defeat.

And when I think about it that way, the fact that Ali Farokhmanesh made that three-pointer almost seems irrelevant. It is, without a doubt, the ballsiest shot I’ve ever seen a basketball player take.

It’s great that Ali Farokhmanesh made that three; it’s even better that he shot it.

*

By now, Gus Johnson’s reputation as an announcing extraordinaire is well-established. Gus* has been on the mic for a disproportionately high number of memorable sporting events. A list off the top of my head includes Princeton-UCLA in ’96, Gonzaga-Florida in ’99, Knicks-Heat Game 5 in ’00, Ohio State-Illinois in ’05, Syracuse-Vermont in ’05, Gonzaga-Oklahoma State in ’06, UCLA-Gonzaga in ’06, Ohio State-Xavier in ’07, the Broncos’ ridiculous Week 1 win over the Bengals last season, and that Jaguars’ Hail Mary to beat the Texans this year. In a tightly contested game coming down to an exciting finish, almost regardless of sport, there is no other announcer a sports fan would rather have manning the mic.

*It seems wrong to refer to him as “Johnson.” It’s Gus!

Gus’s propensity to witness the remarkable has lent his late-game stylings an interesting quirk; namely, Gus often expects the unexpected to occur.* Key late-game shots are announced by Gus in very similar fashion: He hangs on that last syllable, his own voice rising in anticipation along with the crowd as the ball hangs in the air. You get three examples in the Gonzaga-Florida clip: Quentin Hall’s runnerrrrrrr, Casey Calvary’s loose balllllllllll, and Billy Shannon’s shot from the cornerrrrrrrrrrrr.

*This is probably a correlation more than a causation, since it seems to have been with Gus since the start.

This isn’t how most other basketball announcers do it. Marv Albert is a fan of “For the win” spoken in his trademark three-syllable rhythm. Bob Costas didn’t say much. Al Michaels was always in control. Mike Breen does a very much abbreviated version of Gus’s last-second lilt.

My favorite Gus call, though, comes from what he himself said was the best game he had ever announced: Kansas State and Xavier’s incredible double-overtime matchup in last season’s Sweet 16. The game was already an instant classic by the time Jordan Crawford decided to hoist a potential game-tying three from about 35 feet in overtime. The second half had been tight throughout, the respective backcourts matched each other shot for shot, and there had already been a memorable moment with Terrell Holloway* hitting three free throws to send the game into OT after an ill-timed foul by Kansas State.

*Terrell Holloway now goes by Tu Holloway, which I haven’t gotten used to yet. He really made the decision one game too late in his college career. If he had switched to Tu before the game with K-State, when he became known on a semi-national level, there wouldn’t have been any issues.

Both teams had been shooting the ball so well that, when Xavier got the ball down by three in the final 30 seconds of overtime, I kind of assumed the Musketeers would tie the game. But their offensive possession was terrible: Holloway dribbled around the three-point arc for a while and threw it back to Crawford, 40 feet from the hoop, with nine seconds to play. Gus’s voice expressed the desperation: “Crawford, eight…Crawford’s gotta hurry!”

Crawford took two dribbles to his right around a perfunctory screen, and when K-State responded with a perfunctory switch, pulled the trigger from no shorter than 35 feet. As he started taking the shot, I and I think everyone watching the game had the same feeling, best expressed in a kind of grunt by Gus that rose toward its end: “Uuuuhhhhhhh?”

Gus’s Uuuuhhhhhh? was able to articulate simultaneously that although Crawford’s 35-footer wasn’t a good shot—and in fact, it was a terrible shot concluding arguably the worst offensive possession Xavier had had in the second half—there was something about this game and this Tournament that made you think that, just maybe, it might go in. It wasn’t Allan Houston’s running jumperrrrrrrrr or Ron Lewis letting it gooooooooo. It was Uuuuuhhhhh, almost as if Gus were asking Jordan Crawford if that shot were really a good idea. But it ended on that high note, that “Hey, it could happen” hope. As John S said in our review of that game:

“In the brief moment when Crawford’s shot was in the air, I thought–similar to my thought when Scott Brosius was up in Game 5 of the 2001 WS–that ‘there’s no way this shot will go in because THINGS LIKE THAT DON’T HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE.’ Having that thought and then being proved wrong is, in a nutshell, why I watch sports.”

And when that shot did rattle in, I mean, how can anyone outside of Manhattan, Kan. not think that was awesome? My mom was incredulous. Gus called it “nirvana.” His long scream when it went in was validated by his own doubt moments earlier.

It was a shot even Gus could barely see coming.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on January 4, 2011 at 10:38 PM

    “And when I think about it that way, the fact that Ali Farokhmanesh made that three-pointer almost seems irrelevant. It is, without a doubt, the ballsiest shot I’ve ever seen a basketball player take.
    It’s great that Ali Farokhmanesh made that three; it’s even better that he shot it.”

    That’s a really interesting point, but I definitely disagree, and I’m even skeptical that you actually believe this. I mean, if he had missed and Kansas had come back, would you really have defended the “ballsiness” of it? It seems far more likely that you would criticized Farook for recklessly throwing the game away.

    After all, the other side of “ballsiness” is stupidity, and the difference depends largely on the result. There are plenty of bonehead sports moves that, had they worked, would have been considered ballsy: Had Reggie Bush’s Rose Bowl lateral worked, the move would have been considered gutsy instead of stupid. Grady Little’s decision to leave in Pedro would have been ballsy if he had pitched out of the jam. If Joe Girardi’s IBB of Josh Hamilton had worked… just kidding–that never would have made sense. On the other hand, borderline reckless moves like Sean Payton’s onside kick get praised when they work out (contrast Payton’s move with Belichick going for it on 4th and 2).

    All of this is a long way of saying that it ABSOLUTELY mattered that Ali Farokhmanesh’s shot went in.

    Reply

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