Look at him. He's all alone. � You remember. You saw the replay, over and over, an endless loop on SportsCenter. You saw Darius Washington at the free throw line last March, all zeroes on the clock, his Memphis team down by two to Louisville. You recall the stakes: three free throws to win the game, the Conference USA tournament and a surprise berth in the NCAA field of 65. Three free throws for a slice of Memphis immortality. � He sank the first. "Two to go!" boomed CBS commentator Verne Lundquist. � The 19-year-old freshman, a 72% free throw shooter, turned to the Tigers' bench in Memphis's FedExForum and--get this--winked. It's over, he thought to himself. � He stepped to the line, bounced the ball three times ... and missed the second free throw. The vise tightened: overtime or bust. "Verne," said Lundquist's partner, Jim Spanarkel, "I would be hard-pressed to tell you right now that you'll see a more pressurized situation this year."
Everyone stood. Blue-sweatered Southern belles covered their mouths with both hands. Tigers coach John Calipari paced the sideline. Angst-ridden Memphis players linked arms on the bench. Washington took a long, deep breath and released.
The last free throw bounced once on the rim. It bounced twice. It bounced off.
Louisville 75, Memphis 74.
The image remains burned in the memories of college basketball fans. Washington wheeled toward the bench, his lower lip quivering, and as he fell to his knees he reached instinctively for his jersey. Years ago his father, also named Darius, had taught his only son a lesson: It's O.K. to cry, but cover your face with your shirt, because the photographers are always there. For three ... four ... five seconds he lay facedown in the lane, sobbing, as eerily lonesome a sight as Dustin Hoffman suspended underwater in the pool in The Graduate.
"Somebody's gotta go help that kid up," said Spanarkel.
"And sadly for Darius Washington Jr.," Lundquist concluded, as Calipari and teammate Jeremy Hunt tried (and failed) to raise Washington from the floor, "you've seen a moment that he will never, ever forget."
Funny thing about images and memory. When replays take on lives of their own, it's easy to lose track of what preceded them: in Washington's case, his game-high 23 points. Nor do they tell the story of what came next. You saw the replay, over and over, but you probably didn't see the aftermath. You didn't see a family, a team and a city make sure that Darius Washington wouldn't suffer alone.
SPORTS FANS, circa 2005, are an unforgiving lot. On talk radio and Internet message boards, they endlessly, mercilessly rehash bloopers, boners, chokes and wide-rights. Put Washington in a Memphis Grizzlies uniform, and he'd probably have earned a spot on the trading block. But something about his visceral reaction, something about college sports, sparked an outpouring of support that spread like a benevolent virus through Memphis and points beyond.
Forrest Goodman was hosting the postgame show on WMC, the Tigers' flagship radio station. His switchboard stayed lit so long that he extended his broadcast. "Sometimes I call the show group therapy," he says. "Grown men were calling, and you could tell they were in tears. Had Darius missed those free throws and just shrugged, they never would have done that. But you can't fake what he did."