I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest right now, and I love Duke basketball. Not a natural overlap, but I have to work with what I got. And given the showdown that’s coming up this week, here’s what I think DFW might have written about Duke’s last-second win over UNC last year, fueled by Austin Rivers’ heroics.
(And if you’re wondering, well, yes, this is all just an excuse for me to tell people that I’m reading Infinite Jest.)
The shot caroms off the back rim, the front rim, up in the air for the briefest of moments, and then down into the welcoming hands of one not unsurprised Mason Plumlee. Plumlee, who’s been dogged and overmatched today in all facets by the UNC Tar Heels frontcourt duo of John Henson and Tyler Zeller, has an easier time corralling this particular rebound, although no Duke fan can honestly tell you he was completely confident in Plumlee’s ability to grab the ball without knocking it out of bounds. The fact that this play is probably Plumlee’s second-most important and productive of the night–second only to his steal of a Kendall Marshall pass just seconds ago which set up Seth Curry’s deep three-pointer, a shot that in a perfectly just world would have been whistled for traveling, but as even UNC alumnus Rasheed Wallace famously says, “[the] Ball Don’t Lie”[i]–this fact should give you, the fan, a sense of the struggles Plumlee has had going up against two players who will in just four months be drafted in the first round by NBA franchises, this game just another disappearing act in the cavalcade of disappearing acts that has defined Plumlee’s Duke career. After pausing for a second to allow his teammate the necessary time to gain separation from his retreating but vigilant and ever-lurking defender, he quickly and gladly relinquishes the ball to SG/GB[ii] Austin Rivers, who, with ten seconds left and Duke trailing by just two, has a chance to become a hero by tying the game or to become a legend by winning it, a narrative which is certainly not lost on ESPN’s broadcasting duo of Sean McDonough and Dick Vitale.
Rivers’ first–and unbeknownst to fans then, only–Duke season has been an uncomfortable mix of breathtaking and stupid play, an amalgam of precocity and arrogance. He is undeniably the most talented player on Duke’s roster, the most-hyped freshman to don the Blue Devil logo since god-knows-when, the top recruit of the 2011 HS class and the son of NBA All-Star PG Glenn Anton “Doc” Rivers, with a bevy of scoring options at his disposal every time he touches the ball: step-back three, hard drive to the rim, drive and floater, drive and pull up, each move complemented with a healthy array of jab steps and ball fakes to disguise his true intentions[iii] so that at the collegiate level, Rivers is as close to “unguardable” as one can be. The fact that Duke is off to such a, by their standards, poor start this year, incongruous with the addition of Austin’s quote-unquote Skill Set, leads to the typically lazy but in this case possibly appropriate narrative of Rivers “Not Being A Team Player” and “Only Looking For His Own Stats.” Games like the OSU Debacle, in which Austin scored 22 points but Duke lost by an equivalent margin, and the most recent meltdown against Miami only 3 days prior, when he had a box score explosion of 20 and 9 but had crucial FT and 3PT misses down the stretch, only fuel the Bayless-ian[iv] idea of Austin as a “Great Player But Not A Winner.”
Tonight, Austin is having another fantastic statistical game, with 26 points, including 5 3PTs, and 5 rebounds, but his output has come primarily before Crunch Time and rather in the first 37 and a half minutes of the game, at the end of which Duke trailed by 10. The Blue Devils have battled back, miraculously, on a string of UNC miscues, misfires, and outright ridiculous errors, and they’ve received contributions from a variety of supporting players–Tyler Thornton, Curry, and Ryan Kelly–to draw them within two. Whether Rivers’ recent absence is a symptom of the Tar Heels’ defensive pressure or a willing passivity on his part is unclear. Regardless, here he is now, pounding the proverbial rock onto the Dean Smith Center[v] wood floor under the watchful gaze of the ever-attentive Reggie Bullock who, despite being the primary defender torched by Rivers tonight, is damn sure it’s not going to happen again and picks him up defensively well before Rivers is into shooting range, even his range, which is more like his Range tonight with some of the absurdly long “buckets” he’s managed to nestle in the twine.[vi]
But now, as the clock ticks down to around six seconds, with Rivers surveying the defense and trying to manufacture the smallest sliver of space from where he can fire off a shot, which is really all he needs to be effective, Plumlee lumbers over to set a screen on Bullock’s left side–Rivers’ right, his preferred side–to free up his teammate. The pick-and-roll is perhaps the most basic and effective offensive play in basketball, because it forces the defense to make a strategic decision and then execute this strategy to perfection: do they have the screened man fight over the screen to prevent a long jumper or go under it to surrender one but prevent a drive; do they switch off defensive assignments and have the man guarding the screener assume his teammate’s defensive responsibilities on the ball handler; do both defenders try to work in concert to trap the ball handler and force him to pass to someone else; does the second defender “hedge” and force the ball handler away from the basket temporarily just to allow his teammate time to recover and re-engage the ball handler defensively, hopefully sparking a reset of the possession, etc. All of these permutations are of course affected by the personnel involved offensively and defensively, the game/clock situation, general coaching philosophies, and so on until it becomes so confusing and a case of “picking your poison” that you wonder only half-facetiously why any team would call an offensive set beyond basic pick and rolls.[vii]
After considering all of this, the Tar Heels elect to switch, or more likely have just ended up with, seven-foot-tall Tyler Zeller on the considerably shorter but infinitely quicker Austin Rivers 25 feet from the basket. Zeller, who by all accounts has played marvelously for the greater portion of the contest, to the tune of 23 points and 11 rebounds, has the potential to erase his disastrous past couple minutes with a defensive stop here. During Duke’s–not to be too over the top with my fawning but it is deserving of this term–sensational comeback, Zeller has, in order, failed to secure a defensive rebound which allowed Ryan Kelly an open jumper, missed a free throw, failed to secure another defensive rebound in an even more humiliating manner–in which he literally tipped the ball up off of the backboard and into his own basket, a play that occurs maybe once a year and very likely never at such a crucial moment on such a grand stage, and then missed another free throw, the one at the start of this piece that set this whole scene in motion. It’s not ridiculous to say that Zeller has directly cost his team up to six points in roughly two minutes of game time, a horrid pace that is so at odds with his stellar performance to this point that it isn’t unfair to claim that he is, in sports terminology, “choking.” He is now faced up with Rivers in a dire situation that’s not strictly of his own making but pretty much is, because even if he had made just one more free throw he could have had Reggie Bullock out here with him to double team Rivers, but now since Duke’s only down two Bullock had to trail Plumlee to the basket to deter a potential alley-oop, and Zeller has to respect everything Rivers does because a three here is a game-winner but a two forces overtime, and really, UNC won’t be able to re-group in overtime, since the momentum is entirely with Duke and you can practically hear the sphincters of the fans in the Dean Dome slowly but surely clenching along with the last vestiges of cheers that aren’t so much an exhortative “come on” but an angry “come on,” as in “come on, we should have won already,” so if you think about it, any shot Rivers hits here is a game winner, de jure or de facto, which means Zeller has some tough decisions to make, defensively.
And now as Zeller is deciding just how he’ll navigate this situation, the clock is ticking down to five seconds down to four seconds and now Rivers is backing out to re-set with only about three seconds left, and Curry’s yelling at him in the corner to get going because time is literally running out, like what is he waiting for, and it’s apparent to everyone in the stadium and on the court and watching on TV back home and even listening on the radio that Rivers is planning to rise up and shoot a three-pointer right now, that he’s going for the jugular as they say or maybe putting all his chips on black and letting it ride,[viii] and now Rivers is in the air and the ball is floating out of his hand just over the outstretched palm of UNC’s potential scapegoat Tyler Zeller, the only person who wasn’t told or made aware that this was Rivers’ plan, apparently, and was still on his heels as Rivers shot and was too slow to get a hand up in his face, making this final shot one that was, for a player of Rivers’ caliber, essentially unguarded.
And we hear the already nervous UNC fans become steadily more and more nervous as the shot arcs through the air, the few fans who were already yelling simply crescendoing to an auditory zenith and everyone–following from the Dean Dome, on TV, on the radio–can hear ESPN’s Vitale[ix] gathering his breath for one final explosion, whether the shot falls or not, because either way is authentically dramatic, a real moment, one of the few times that ESPN or the AP or anyone especially Vitale doesn’t have to try to create or manufacture a storyline for a game. We hear the buzzer going off just as the ball is reaching its destination, signaling the official end of the forty minutes of regulation time, but that’s irrelevant now because the ball clearly left Rivers’ hand with time to spare, meaning no controversy will be erupting on Tobacco Road this evening, at least no justified controversy, and the outcome of the game is solely dependent on the vector and the speed and the spin and the flight of this ball.
One thing we don’t hear is the characteristic squeaking of sneakers on the hardwood, nor the scraping and elbowing and aggressive sweating and battling for rebounds, though; this game is over, rebound or putback or not, and for once all the players on the court are just like us fans–hoping, praying, and watching powerlessly at this defining moment.
And we see the ball drop through the hoop, Duke has won–incredibly, they’ve won–and we see Rivers turn and run down the court, trying to pose coolly but betraying his ecstasy immediately when he turns and is mobbed by his teammates. We see the Duke bench up to and including Coach K go crazy, a rare sign of expression for a team that is normally so reserved emotionally and businesslike in its on-court approach. We see Zeller’s expression go from hope to despair in an instant, the only tough decision remaining for him is whether he’ll lock himself in a sauna or a meat freezer after this game, not out of suicidal tendencies but just because those aren’t places the media, whom he’ll obviously want to avoid for the next week or two or possibly forever, typically reconnoiter.
And we’d see Harrison Barnes and Zeller stagger off the floor, dazed and confused, as well as Kendall Marshall slumped over like he might be physically ill, and if he is who can really blame him, and we’d see Papa D. Rivers hugging and cheering and undoubtedly saying “That’s My Son,” which has got to feel great for him on so many levels as a father and basketball player that his dopamine receptors are working overtime, and of course we’d see and relish the schadenfreude that comes from the stunned reactions of the UNC faithful.
We would see all of this, but by this point no Duke fan really has control of themselves; we’re all doing the same thing Doc is, and we’re hugging and pig-piling with our friends and our family and people we don’t even know but we don’t care, “this is as good as it gets, as good as it gets, unbelievable” we keep saying, and we can barely form words but we don’t have to because everyone’s just saying some variation of the same phrase, and we understand each other like never before. It’s all a blur, but somehow this one shot has allowed us all a kind of clarity that must have been previously locked and guarded, and now we’re free and flying and soaring over the constraints of society, running and gasping and shouting and just downright living in that cold North Carolina air, our fandom having opened up these doors we didn’t even know existed, and for one night, the ups and downs and pains and heartache of watching and cheering and rooting, everything, it’s all worth it.
[i] “Ball Don’t Lie” [sic] is Wallace’s trademark scream when he is done in by a–in his words–felonious foul call and the fouled player misses one of these free throws, proving to the aggrieved Wallace that he was and still is innocent, even if not in the eyes of the referee, the scorekeeper, the opposition, or his coaches and teammates.
[ii] Genuine Baller, but could also stand for Giant Ballhog under certain circumstances.
[iii] The jab steps coming under scrutiny from opposing fans for their tendency to shuffle Rivers’ feet in a way that constitutes a rarely-if-ever-called travel.
[iv] Name derived from that of ESPN First Take analyst Skip Bayless, whose arguments on sports range from the intentionally controversial to the downright retarded.
[v] Known and referred to by most NCAAB fans as the Dean Dome.
[vi] A colloquial expression meant to demonstrate that Rivers is having significantly more difficulty missing than making shots, or at least he has in the past 39 minutes and 50 seconds of game time.
[vii] We didn’t even begin to discuss how the action away from the ball handler on the pick and roll can actually be even more dastardly. Often, and especially if the ball handler uses the pick to drive, the defense will need a third defender to help with the ball handler and the man rolling to the basket, which often opens up looks for spot up shooters on the weakside, an especially enticing proposition for a team with 3-pt shooters like Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Andre Dawkins, who are all on the court right now accompanying Rivers and Plumlee.
[viii] For both your sake and mine, I think that’s enough clichés to convey the relatively simple point of the gravity of Rivers’ decision here.
[ix] a.k.a “Dickie V,” who has an almost symbiotic relationship with the Duke Blue Devils and especially their fans, and is thus despised by pretty much all of the remaining NCAAB fans but is still allowed to call nationally-televised games as a quote-unquote unbiased analyst.