What Happens Now?

By Jerold Wells Jr.
Updated: March 15, 2005

Minneapolis, MinnAt the end of Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson had the opportunity to close the door on an amazing upset victory over the defending champion Houston Rockets from the free throw line. Four consecutive misses later, the game was over and the Houston Rockets would repeat after three more wins to sweep the series four games to none. What happens to a basketball player who fails on the biggest stage? A player who, when confronted with the biggest shot of his career, cannot rise to the challenge presented to him. Nick Anderson will not be remembered as the an integral part of a regular season juggernaut led by Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway; nor will he be remembered as the player that stripped Michael Jordan of the ball and forced his “Airness” out of the number 45 and back into the gym to properly prepare for NBA basketball. His legacy will be that of the player who missed four free throws in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. He is baseballs Bill Buckner (in the World Series of 1986); he is footballs Jackie Smith (during the Super Bowl of 19879). In the annals of sports history, the players that rise to the challenges presented to them are remembered fondly, but those that fail to do so are also remembered. They are failures and scapegoats; they are players that lacked the necessary fortitude to come through in the clutch. They are the standard by which disappointment is measured. They let the ball roll through their legs, they dropped the ball in the end zone, and they failed to seal the Game 1.

Where does he go from here?

So what then does a young athlete do when faced with the possibility of following in those unenviable footsteps? Or, of being the next athlete who is remembered more for his failure than his many successes. Jackie Smith is a member of the Professional Football Hall of Fame and some argue that Bill Buckner should be a member of the Professional Baseball Hall of Fame. For all of their accomplishments, it is failure that shapes their legacy. All of that brings me to one question. Where does Darius Washington Jr. go from here?

The Louisville Cardinals and the Memphis Tigers clashed in an “Instant Classic” Conference USA title game last week and the ending proved to be a fitting climax. Each team refused to lose the game lying down and proved that some of the best basketball in the land is played in Conference USA. Central in this theme of top-flight basketball was Memphis’ freshman point guard Darius Washington. He finished the regular season as the second leading scorer in Conference USA and proved to be a big time performer in spite of the loss of impact teammate Sean Banks. As for the Championship game, Washington led his team with 23 points and tallied 6 assists. Of those 23 points, 8 came in the final 4:53 when every possession would prove to be a crucial one. Washington even came up with a steal to even the game with less than 30 seconds remaining in a tight contest. After watching Louisville inbound, get fouled and convert two free throws for a two-point lead, Memphis in bounded the ball to their best player. Washington dribbled the length of the court and pulled up for a game winning three pointer. He missed……but he was fouled. Francisco Garcia of Louisville bumped Washington while he was attempting the game winning shot and Memphis’ NCAA Tournament hopes would fall squarely on the shoulder of their freshman point guard. There was the scenario. No time left, three successful shots to win, two for the tie.

The first shot swished cleanly through the net making the score 75-74 with two shots remaining. Washington would miss the next two shots and collapse to the floor, heartbroken and crushed that he could not deliver a victory to his team, his coach, and most importantly to himself. As a basketball player there is no bigger moment. Down two, three shots, a win or a loss is in your hands. I have no doubt that Darius Washington Jr. has successfully converted three free throws in practice before. He probably made three in a row during shoot around before the game. Nevertheless, there on the biggest stage there is, in the biggest game of his career, he missed.

Therefore, the question must be asked: “What will happen to Darius Washington Jr.?” Over the remainder of his NBA career, Nick Anderson faced heavy criticism for avoiding contact at the end of games so that he would not have to shoot contest-deciding free throws. Quite simply, he was never the same player. I believe Washington will emerge from this situation intact. His talent will not allow his to wallow in the mud puddle of failure. He is a talented player who can use this as motivation to improve, rather than a stigma to run from. He should take solace in the fact that he provided the big plays, the determination, and the grit needed to get Memphis into that title game. Most importantly, he should know that if faced with such a situation again, he would not fail.