But there are only two sports scores that will forever be ingrained into American History. USA 4, USSR 3 and Georgetown 87, Duke 84. Both are beautiful and ageless stories of hope to pass to future generations. Both illustrate the underdog message and inspire one to never give up, regardless of the odds against. Messages akin to David vs. Goliath, Good vs. Evil, Democracy vs. Communism, the list is endless. Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this story, The Rebirth of the Hoyas.
It was a chilly Friday night, as Georgetown Seniors lined up outside of Tom Tom's watering hole in Adams Morgan. It was nearing the end of January, which meant it was time for senior disorientation week. I was sporting a worn out baseball cap, which was the norm in my younger days. The hat had been through a lot. It had seen the heartbreaks and agony of the Esherick Era, a period so painful that the hat boasted the sweat and tears of passionate disgust as a badge. The hat also saw a season and half span of basketball under a new realm. A new dawn had begun but the low hanging clouds were still obstructing the rays of hope from shinning on the Hoya faithful. Bitterness was replaced by cautious intrigue. Anger replaced by guarded curiosity. Who was this John Thompson III? What was the deal with this funny offense? Why does our 7'2'' center play at the top of the key?
Thompson's first season at the helm was filled with ups and downs. We were destroyed at home in his first game by Temple, and later embarrassed by Oral Roberts. But in his first Big East game, he guided us to a victory at 16-ranked Pittsburgh, an arena where Georgetown had never won before. We won nail-biters at Villanova and against Notre Dame. Having "win" and "nail-biter" in the same sentence was foreign to Hoya fans, unless we were talking from opposing teams' perspectives. By February, Hoya fans started to believe in something they never thought they would see again, an NCAA Tournament berth. After a win over West Virginia the Hoyas were sitting at 16-6, 8-3 in conference play with five games left, three against teams they had already beaten. A small place inside of us all called hope started to peak its head out. And then in an ever so cruel twist, the collapse that everyone knew was coming, but just for once wanted to believe could be avoided, occurred. It was as if the ghost of disgraced coaches past (Craig Esherick) kicked the table that supported the house of cards we were building. And what hurt the most was that it wasn't a grandiose card sculpture, it wasn't something that drew the envy of neighbors. It was really just a few cards lined up against each other. A few decent wins here and there, combined with a few bad losses. But Esherick would have none of it. We lost our last five and any chance of an NCAA Tournament berth. And we all learned an important lesson. You see, hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a man insane.
Flash forward to that Friday night at Tom Tom's. The next morning Georgetown and Thompson faced its biggest challenge to date. The Duke Blue Devils were coming to town. Duke was the preseason #1 and hadn't left the top position for all nine weeks of the season. They were 17-0 going for a school record 18-0. They had absolutely destroyed opponents, with an average margin of victory of nearly 20 points. Meanwhile Georgetown was 11-4, with no key victories but no horrific losses. Some in line knew what was at stake the next day, although most did not. The last time Duke came to DC they absolutely humiliated the Hoyas 85-66. The ending score does not do the massacre justice; the score was 48-24 at halftime!
Thoughts of a sequel to that shame ran through my mind while in line for the bar. Thankfully, or so I thought, something interrupted my inner torment. A bouncer rudely and without cause accused me of cutting the line. I calmly responded that I had not and in fact was with the same group of friends I had arrived with. Although skeptical of my explanation, he regressed. As we approached the front entrance, I was ordered to remove my hat. I proposed that I put it in follower Furious Z's purse but was hastily denied. I reluctantly placed the headgear in what was my only option, a box so dark and deep it seemed bottomless. After having a reasonably miserable time at the bar, I left alongside follower blichman, a Dukie who had made the drive up from Durham to witness the contest the next day. As I reached into the box I knew something wasn't right. The accessory with which I had shared so many memories was not there. I did not need to dig through, I sensed its absence. I felt an emptiness in the air that could only occur when something so special and critical to your very existence vanishes, never to be seen again. I heard arguing in the background as follower blichman, a great friend and man of high moral stature, contended that the doorkeeps in fact purposely misplaced the hat as a form of cruel justice, since they were unable to convict me on their first accusation of cutting the line. To me it didn't matter, mere words or acknowledgment of foul play would not bring the hat back. It was gone, and for that I mourned.
I awoke the next morning to sounds of Cream's "Badge" playing through the house, as was our gameday ritual. But as I dressed I realized there was no song that could be more ill-fated for my morning routine. My badge was missing. Like a soldier without his medals, I felt as if I had lost the testament for my anguish. The lessons and pains endured had vanished. I reached for a new hat, which my mother had purchased for my birthday in hopes I would one day retire the old, dirty, sweaty and malformed cap. While I indeed expected the transition to a new hat to occur eventually, I didn't want it to happen like this, not under these circumstances, and not on this day out of all days. Like a knight without his shield, I marched into battle with my head down, expecting only to be wounded again, but without the proof that I had been scarred so many times before.
The atmosphere of the game was like nothing I had seen before. The fans, the players, the arena were trembling with anticipation. Nothing was as telling as when the students sang the national anthem faster than the lead singer. It was as if the students were saying to the person at halfcourt, this isn't your time to amaze us with your vocal abilities, this is our time to shock the world, so don't get fancy with the great anthem. The game started out slow with lots of missed layups by Duke and strong defensive stands by the Hoyas. Georgetown was able to jump out to an early lead but the game was close. The electricity still swarmed the arena as whispers of shock that Georgetown was playing even with the ranked Blue Devils buzzed across the stands. After the first official timeout Georgetown went on a 10-3 run, punctuated by the below video of the classic Princeton Offense play, a backdoor pass.
Again and again, plays like the above occurred. Consider the following: Before Duke decided to play zone at the 2:00 mark of the first half, Georgetown had converted 15 out of their 23 shot attempts, resulting in an incredible 65% shooting percentage. And this was not luck, of their 15 field goals, 12 were layups. Of those 12 layups, 7 came off of assists. The other 3 field goals were three pointers, 2 of which came off of assists. So 9 out of their 15 field goals were created by efficient passing. This was not the game Duke was used to. This was not isolation, not one on one basketball. This was fundamental team basketball, every single Georgetown player on the court had at least one field goal. And then Duke went to a zone defense, in hopes of tightening the inside passing lanes. Below is a video of the new defense, and how Georgetown reacted.
Best way to beat a zone is to hit outside shots. And that is exactly what Georgetown did. The half ended shortly thereafter with Georgetown going into the locker room with a 14 point lead.
In the second half Duke changed its offensive strategy and started driving to the basket. Big man Roy Hibbert sat most of the second half and Duke pushed Jeff Green to the perimeter. This created a gaping hole in the lane for the experienced Duke guards to penetrate. The drives led to fouls, and free throw shooting was something the Duke squad excelled at. The game went back and forth, with Georgetown maintaining its double digit lead until the 8:00 minute mark. Over the next four minutes, Duke went on a 16-8 run as Georgetown committed four fouls while only attempting four shots. The lead was now down to 2. Georgetown quickly responded with a layup and strong defensive stands as Duke went cold and missed their next three shots. With 1:15 left Georgetown had rebuilt the lead to an 8 point margin, but many in the stands were still weary. Weary of a veteran Duke team that had been in situations like this before. Two quick layups by Duke senior Sean Dockery closed the gap to 4 and Georgetown was forced to call a timeout with 47 second left on the clock.
The only thing stopping Georgetown from an improbable upset victory were free throws. By this point Georgetown had hit 12 out of 17 free throw attempts, but only 6 out of 10 in the second half. On the ensuing inbound, senior Ashanti Cook was immediately fouled. He missed the first but made the second. Georgetown had a 5 point lead with 44 seconds left. On the next possession, J.J. Redick had his three point attempt blocked and Georgetown was sent back to the free throw line, this time fellow senior Brandon Bowman was put on the spot. Bowman hit both and Georgetown pushed the lead to 7 with 28 seconds left. But Duke would not give up. A quick layup by Dockery cut the lead to 5 and then Greg Paulus picked up a loose ball for another layup to cut the lead to 3 with 18 seconds left. Bowman was immediately fouled on the inbound and hit 1 out of 2 three throws to make it a 4 point game. Dockery raced the ball upcourt and converted a long perimeter shot, just inches away from being a three. On the inbound Jonathan Wallace was fouled. As he toed the line the scoreboard read 86-84 with 6 seconds left.
Two free throws would seal the game. Wallace hit the first and there was a hush in the crowd. The silence across the arena was deafening. As the second shot went up the crowd's collective heart stopped. Most knew what was at stake. With that shot, a young, new coach would get his greatest victory. With that shot, a funny and complicated offense attributed to teams with lesser athletic talent would force the basketball community to take notice. With that shot, a group of misfits that were not highly recruited out of high school would become a team. And with that shot, the heartbreaks and disappointments of a fan base longing to believe in something would be washed away.
The shot went in, and then out. Hit the inside back rim, then the inside front rim, and then popped out. It was as if our old friend Craig Esherick had the ball on a string, toying with us as he mocked the hopes and faith of Hoya fans. Duke collected the rebound and raced upcourt. There was only one player allowed to shoot the ball in this instance, and it was All-American, senior guard J.J. Redick, who at this juncture had scored nearly half of Duke's points. As Paulus cut to the sideline to make room for a Redick three he lost control of the ball. The ball was loose and Bowman jumped on it. The horn sounded. The clock expired. The scoreboard was set. It read Georgetown 87, Duke 84. Georgetown had just done the unthinkable and the fans gathered at midcourt to celebrate.
The others raced by but I stood still. I blankly stared up at the scoreboard. I wasn't expecting it to change, I believed what I had just witnessed, but never thought I would see it happen. Not after all I had been through with this team, not after all the pain and hardship. But something was different, our past failures didn't weigh down on me. I wasn't stuck in the past, I was able to take joy in the present, and feel optimistic about the future. My shield, my medal, my badge, my hat was not with me. And it was then I realized that it is okay to let go of the past. It is okay to push the pain away. And it is okay to hope. You see, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.