For two hours on Friday night, fourth-year Matt Johnson and the Chicago men’s basketball team made the 535 of us in attendance forget about the desire to have big-time college sports in Hyde Park. We may not have the multi-million dollar coaches, the McDonald’s All-Americans, the television timeouts, or the sold-out arena, but what we did have at the Ratner Center was the game itself, and it was surely one of the best any of us will ever see.
The 103–102 Chicago victory over fourth-ranked Emory had a little bit of everything: 74 baskets (26 of which were three-pointers), 52 free throw attempts, 22 lead changes, a wild technical foul by the Emory head coach, and a new Maroon and UAA scoring record by Johnson, who put up 49 points on 15 baskets, including eight three-pointers. Three Emory players scored over 20 points, and every Maroon who played made a basket.
The game was unusually fast-paced; until the final three minutes there were only four short timeouts. Every play seemed to lead to a quick three-pointer, a mid-range fadeaway, or a low-post put-back, and the only way to stop the onslaught of offensive action appeared to be to commit a foul, of which there were 42.
The thriller was capped by a Hollywood-style finish: with his team down by two points and only a few seconds left, Johnson dribbled up to about ten feet past the half-court line. With two Emory defenders draped over him, Johnson threw up his last beautifully controlled three-pointer of the night. No one in Ratner, Emory players included, thought for a second that it was not going in. After a picturesque swoosh as the light on the backboard turned red, the ball dropped to the court, and the crowd lost control. The small number of students in attendance even joined Chicago players in pushing Johnson all the way to the other end of the court in a wild display of post-game euphoria.
I’ve watched almost too much college basketball in my life. Growing up in a Big Ten town gave me a somewhat limited perspective on professional sports. All that mattered from the months of November to April in East Lansing was the success of Tom Izzo’s Michigan State basketball machine. While I am willing to admit that Big Ten programs are cleaner compared to the more scandal-seared teams like Kentucky and UConn, I had a firsthand look at the temptations and distractions of big time college sports. I know people who applied to Michigan State just for the sports, and I saw games increasingly filled with bureaucratic student sections, overly aggressive fans, and distracting commercial sponsors. The intensity of the games was no longer just the result of the immense skill of the players; every matchup relied on the hype and commercialism that now dominates amateur sports.
I’ve also been to my fair share of D-III games. East Lansing was in the heart of one of the top conferences for D-III sports. Games at that level can occasionally show up on the national scene with shots like Johnson’s. His buzzer-beater made it into this world of hype, even appearing on SportsCenter’s Top Ten Plays and College Gameday. Certain historic rivalries like Calvin vs. Hope in Michigan also have a nationwide audience, but for the most part, D-III games stay removed from everything that big time sports now stands for. With less obsession over talent, and publicity, these competitions are marked by a great focus on the fundamentals and strategy of the game. There's no pre-game dunking because, well, most of the players can’t dunk.
There is a wonderful exactness to college basketball: every 35 seconds, a team is obligated to attempt a score, and if a team is losing at the end it must score in precisely that amount of allotted time in order to win. The competition in Friday’s game was sufficiently ardent, but there was also a strong sense that the game was simply a game, that regardless of whether or not a team met this standard of exactitude, everything was going to be just fine. Most fans were seated throughout the game, and a fair number were reading during the action.
The game against Emory was only seen by a few hundred of us, but in many ways, that was the perfect number. Regardless of victory or loss, most Chicago students were off enjoying dinner, apartment gatherings, or maybe a little extra Wittgenstein.
The few of us at Ratner hoping to get a glimpse of competitive basketball got more than we ever could have hoped for. Matt Johnson and the Maroons played a game of the highest caliber in the smallest of arenas. “The Shot” will circulate on YouTube for years to come, but to be there was to experience basketball purely and with perspective. It will likely end up being my finest encounter with University of Chicago athletics in my four years here, and that’s exactly what I want it to be.