It’s amazing what can go through your head in the fraction of a second that it takes for a ball to leave your hands and travel 15 horizontal feet through the air. Here’s what went through mine Friday at Boston Garden: “There is absolutely no chance that ball is getting to the rim.”
I had dreamed of this single shot going in. The nightmare, however, was that they gave me 10 to make one, and I missed them all, while the players coming out of the timeout stood around with their hands on their hips and 18,000 in the seats groaned.
But this was worse. When it left my hand, it was horribly, horribly short. Not only might it not catch the front of the iron, but there was a decent chance it would barely graze the bottom of the net. You know, one of those shots you see at a third- and fourth-grade basketball game where the ref, who’s also the kid’s dad, tells him it’s OK to jump over the line the next time, and everyone applauds the effort.
Except this wasn’t a third- and fourth-grade basketball game, and my dad was nowhere in sight. In just a moment, this ball was going to land with a thud somewhere between me and Humiliation Street. There would be laughing and pointing, and my entire family might just be asked to leave the building.
“I can’t believe I just did that.”
And the ball sailed upward …
* * *
Leading up to New Year’s Eve, I had absolutely no illusions about the way I would feel when I stepped onto the parquet at Boston Garden yesterday afternoon. In the 10 days since I’d been invited to represent Hoops For Heroes as part of the Celtics “Heroes Among Us” program — and shoot one free throw — I had tried to strain the imagination with a scenario in which this shot was no different than any of the other 575,000-plus that had come before it.
Just like Epsom Central School or Bishop Brady or Pembroke High or the Waterville Valley Recreation Department. No different than shooting with the Bean or Hodges or Cohen families, or The Beautiful Heth and Nana, or Bob Jandrue and his crew. Same as tossing it up there, carefree, in the driveway.
Just as Gene Hackman’s character had told his Hickory team in “Hoosiers,” with the aid of a tape measure: Same dimensions. Ten feet up, 15 feet away, and 18 inches in diameter. No different.
But I could not bring myself to believe that lie.
My formative years, after all, had been sculpted in many ways by memories of basketball legends doing magical things on this very floor. One of the first records I ever heard as a child — and played over and over and over again — was the audio version of this (goosebump warning for all Celtics fans): found here.
I rarely missed a televised game, and never a playoff game, through the Bird Era. The steal against the Pistons. The dual with Dominique. The head-slam and return against the Pacers. The comeback against the 76ers. The elation and heartache against the Lakers. The Big Three. DJ. Ainge. Walton. Wedman. ML. Cornbread. Tiny.
The Celtics made me cry, made me scream, made me swear, made me rejoice, made me pout, and made me — along with Mark Applebee and Pete Spanos — jump from my dad’s dock into Lake Sunapee after beating the Lakers in Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals.
And I would be stepping onto that very parquet, to shoot one shot.
Same dimensions? According to a tape measure, maybe.
* * *
Jim Gleason, the “Whip” to my dad’s “Fly” in their former western New Hampshire business, “Whip and Fly” Painters, made this thing happen.
Jim has been an incredible supporter and advocate for Hoops For Heroes, seemingly telling everyone within earshot exactly what we’re doing here. He has also been connected with the Celtics for decades, and his buddy Matt Meyersohn is the team’s Director of Community Relations & Player Development. At Jim’s suggestion, it was Matt who called a couple weeks ago to set the “Heroes Among Us” appearance up, and it was Matt who met Noah, Mason, TBH and me when we stepped out of the Suburban at 226 Causeway Street in Boston at 2:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve for the 3 o’clock game against the New Orleans Hornets.
We missed the tour of the Celtics offices due to traffic, but that was OK. Matt took us immediately across the street to the Garden, where we went up a back stairwell and eventually through the hallway from which the Celtics would appear moments later on their way onto the court. TBH and the boys were off to their seats, and Matt and I were off to midcourt for a pregame photo with the game captains, in this case Glenn “Big Baby” Davis for the Celtics and Chris Paul for the Hornets.
Paul Pierce was firing up his traditional half court shots. Ray Allen was going through his pregame ritual, dropping crumpled up tissue paper jumpers softly through the net. Shaq was reveling in his Shaqtitude. Ron Mercer was … never mind, that was a different day.
There we were. It was pretty close to overwhelming.
“This is the guy making a million foul shots,” Matt told Big Baby.
“In a row?” Davis answered, incredulously.
“No,” I answered, laughing but feeling a little inferior now. “They have to go in, but not all in a row.” Made me start to think, though. Imagine if these did have to be consecutive makes, getting to 965,000 or so in a row, and then missing?
We shook hands, they took the photo of Chris Paul, Glenn Davis and me, and Matt and I headed to the seats. On the way, Matt explained the timing: He would come to get me at our seats at the first timeout of the second quarter, at which point we would head to the court. The presentation would happen during the second full timeout, Lucky the Leprechaun would hand me a ball, and I’d walk to the foul line for the shot.
* * *
Right, the shot.
Let’s just say I’d been thinking about it a little for the previous few days.
I’d tried to prepare myself as best I could. Every so often in the middle of a shooting session, I’d think, “This is the one,” and see where it landed. Each day, I’d go out into the driveway and allow myself a single shot, just to see how it felt. In my mind, I ran through what I thought it might feel like, and told myself to be mechanically sound: elbow in, follow-through high. Intellectually, I reminded myself that the pressure of this situation is laughable compared to the daily pressure of those we’re honoring … but I knew that emotion would win out over intellect.
I considered some of the other times during this process when nerves would have played a role: at halftimes of games, at a Veterans Day assembly, aboard the Intrepid, on the set of “Huckabee.” Aim was typically not the issue when the nerves were involved, but depth was. I remembered missing many of those first shots off the back rim, pushed too strong by adrenaline.
Don’t miss long.
But then I recalled that there had also been several occasions that I had short-armed that first shot, and the ball had caromed weakly off the front rim.
Don’t miss short.
I’d had plenty of conversations about it as well. One of my best friends form high school, Tim Radford, had said he’d be proud if I just hit the rim. Noah said he thought my chances were about 50-50, and when I told him that didn’t sound so great, he said, “Well, 75 percent you miss, then.” When I told my dad I thought they were giving me just one shot, he said, “Well, at least you can only miss one.”
Most everyone else was optimistic, though, at least as far as they told me. So I was holding desperately on to that show of faith. I also figured that the vast majority of the fans in the arena would be rooting for success … I am a New Hampshire guy and a Celtics fan, after all, and this project is on behalf of Veterans and service men and women.
And truth be told, though I’m not what you might consider a particularly prayerful person, I had called in a favor to my buddy Marc Decoteau, the Army Specialist from Waterville Valley who was killed last January 29 in Afghanistan. I wear his commemorative dogtag around my neck and think of him and his family daily. I figured if there was a power greater than myself that could help this ball find its target, Marc would be the one to help. So I asked him.
The first quarter ended.
The first timeout of the second quarter came. “Just like the driveway,” The Beautiful Heth reminded me.
And there was Matt Meyersohn, as promised.
* * *
Of course, the real answer to that question was no, but each time he asked, I lied.
We made our way to the corner of the court with about 7:30 left in the second quarter. It would be during the next timeout, whether that was a team timeout at any time, or automatically at the first whistle after the 6:00 mark. It was coming soon, and it struck me that my hands were too cold, too clammy. I couldn’t imagine the ball coming out cleanly. I started to rub my hands furiously on the blue Nike wind pants I was wearing.
And then, with 6:09 left in the quarter, the Hornets called time.
“You ready?” Matt asked again.
He handed me the crystal “Heroes Among Us” award, and we parted ways.
* * *
I stood at midcourt, alone, and faced the sideline opposite the benches. The PA announcer was reading a script regarding Hoops For Heroes that I had looked over an hour or so earlier, but all I could think about was Lucky and that ball. Matt and I had seen him in the hallway earlier, and Lucky had assured us it was a good one, wide grooves, good grip.
And then, there he was, walking to me with that ball, and that’s when I believe I lost all sensation in my legs. I swapped him the award for the ball, and started toward the foul line nearer our seats and the Hornets bench. That’s where Matt had originally said we’d be shooting, but I soon realized Lucky was leading me in the other direction. So to the other end I began, crossed the top of the key, and stood at the foul line in front of the Celtics bench.
I remember dribbling a few times, then looking up and thinking how close the basket looked. Depth perception is a funny thing when the backdrop is not a wall, but a mass of people, as if the hoop is just floating there in the middle of the arena, within an arm’s length, it seemed. I could have just reached out and dropped the ball through, almost.
Don’t miss long.
I stopped dribbling, spun the ball in my hands to get the seams straight, pulled up, and let it go.
It was short.
“There is absolutely no chance that ball is getting to the rim.”
* * *
It’s true, it was short.
And I’m telling you, based on having taken many shots from this particular range and direction over the last 13 months, and knowing what I know about how I released that ball, I can say as sure as I am wearing my wedding band that the laws of physics should have denied what happened next, which is this: the ball got to where it was meant to start descending, and instead it kept going up.
It clipped the front of the rim, leapt to the back rim, bounced up, scraped the backboard and then fell through.
I stood for an extra moment in complete disbelief, then turned and thanked a supportive crowd.
Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it.
I walked back to Matt at halfcourt. “I couldn’t feel my legs,” I told him.
“I know, you barely used them,” he answered. “I thought it was short.”
“Me too,” I said.
He told me Ray Allen had turned from the Celtics huddle and applauded.
Then we began making the trek back to the seats. Along the floor, people reached out to say hello, shake hands, say congratulations and thank you. I was still pretty much in a fog until Jim Gleason popped out of the crowd and began walking with us.
“Your dad would have swished that,” he said. He was smiling, but he was right.
Jim told me I’d be doing an interview during the third quarter with Celtics sideline reporter Greg Dickerson as part of the Celtics broadcast on Comcast SportsNet. During that interview, Dickerson would ask if that was the toughest one yet, and it certainly was … none have even been close. Dickerson would then say some of the nicest words of the day: “In my mind, it was a swish. Nothing but net.”
As we were walking, I said to Jim, “That was ugly.”
“No, that was beautiful,” he said. “Shooter’s touch.”
It may very well have looked that way, but I know better.
* * *
It’s amazing what can happen in the fraction of a second that it takes for a ball to leave your hands and travel 15 horizontal feet through the air.
My part in this was to simply put it up into the Boston Garden afternoon, but the rest had nothing to do with me.
I believe with every fiber of my being that on behalf of his intrepid brothers and sisters who wear or have worn the uniform — for those who are with him now, and for those who now suffer for their sacrifice — Army Spc. Marc Paul Decoteau lifted that ball from where physics told it to go, and carried it to where it needed to go.
For more on Hoops For Heroes, with a goal of 1 million made foul shots and $1 million raised for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, visit www.hoopsforheroes.com or contact Dave Cummings at 603-554-7855.