Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Me and Flash

Last night Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat won their first NBA championship, and to my surprise, it brought back a few fond memories.

I already felt a little bit of kinship with Wade, ever since I found out he hailed from South Chicago. Back in the summer of 1997, I lived at 60th and Talman while serving an LDS mission, and the South Side has been a kind of second home for me ever since. In fact, I knew a kid named Dwayne there--a kid some of the other missionaries had been teaching--and until I finally remembered his last name, I wondered if that skinny little kid from Chi-Town had made it all the way to the NBA.

For that reason, and because he seems like a more amicable version of Kobe Bryant, I've been a fan of Wade. Can't say I'm a huge Heat fan, but I liked seeing Dwyane do well, because he seemed like the kind of guy that deserved the success. If the Jazz couldn't be there, at least a good guy would be taking home the trophy.

But after last night's finish, I feel even more bonded to the guy. Wade put up 36 points last night, another great effort in a solid series. But with 10 seconds left and a three-point lead, Wade went to the foul line with a chance to bury Dallas for good.

He missed both free throws.

Dallas had a shot to tie at the end, and a good one. Jason Terry got off a solid shot, but fortunately for Wade, he missed. Otherwize, Wade probably would have caught some serious grief for the free throws. I can't imagine how relieved he must have been when he caught that last rebound and chucked the ball up in the air in relief.

Actually...I can.

For several years from junior high through to the beginning of my mission, every winter was spent cycling through the church basketball season, and every year, the most hotly contested games were against our bitter rivals, the Bountiful 53rd Ward. They weren't contested in that they were close--they were contested in that we hated getting blown out by them every time.

They had more players, more talent, more height, more money, and more social status, and they loudly proclaimed their dominance both verbally and with their fast-breaking, overwhelming style of play. Losing to them--getting routinely blown out by them--was a humiliating experience, and a yearly tradition.

Finally, by the time I started high school, my ward--the 19th--had started to make up some ground on them. My sophomore year we actually held a lead on them at halftime before a 6 and a half foot player showed up and took over the game for the final 20 minutes. We just couldn't seem to get over the hump.

During my junior year we battled hard for the first half, and managed to stay even with them. I contributed my usual modest numbers--about eight points--and tried to add on as much defense and scrappiness as I could. Throughout the second half, to our surprise, we stayed with them, and as time wound down I fed a pass in to Brian Reese, our center, and he muscled up a shot over future Atlanta Braves prospect Jeff Garff for a one-point lead.

I don't have near the room here to do justice to the feeling that night, but the notion of us actually beating the 53rd ward was absolutely surreal. We held them on their next possession, and as time wound under a minute to go, we tried to stall on the offensive end. Eventually I put up a medium range shot and was fouled.

So I went to the line with a one-point lead and the chance to bury my hated rivals. Looking back, it was a rivalry that had only lasted four or five years, but at that age, it may as well have been my entire life. Somehow I held my nerves in check and sank the first free throw.

I missed the second one.

It wasn't quite the exclamation point I was looking for, but I didn't have time to think about it. We scrambled back on defense as Jeremy Call brought down the ball for a final shot. As he threw a pass over to the right side, I stepped over to help my teammate Chuck Bangerter double-team Chad Russon. Trapped, Chad threw a pass back to Jeremy, and I dived at him as he sent up a three-point shot.

If he'd hit that shot, I would have cursed that second missed free throw for the rest of my life. That's why the sight of my longtime friend Steve Jones pulling down the rebound over Garff at the buzzer is one of the happiest sights of my childhood. We finally put down our Goliath, but like Dwyane Wade, I knew things could have gone the other way very easily.

Just a touch of humility to temper a jolt of elation. Nothing wrong with that recipe.