Eli Morris gave the sermon that weekend at Memphis's Hope Presbyterian Church, where he's an associate pastor. " Darius Washington represents our own brokenness right now," he announced from the pulpit, "and we need to stand with him and pray for him." The congregation, more than 6,000 strong, broke into applause. Seven months later Morris can't get over how many hugs he gave that day to Memphians who felt deep sympathy for Washington. "That sporting event became this powerful human event," he says. "What he was living at that line is every kid's greatest dream--and greatest nightmare. The game didn't matter. Everyone was concerned about Darius."
Nor was the feeling just local. The actor Tyrese was in his trailer on the Toronto set of the film Four Brothers when he saw the highlight clip of Washington collapsing. "I really felt for him," he says. "That was passion that made him react that way." For the first time in his life Tyrese tracked down an athlete's phone number and called him to offer support. When he spoke to Washington, he shared his own fears of performing under pressure before millions. Then he passed along the daily mantra he uses for motivation: The depth of your struggle will determine the height of your success.
Watching the game at home in New York, Knicks president Isiah Thomas thought back to his most painful moment as a player, when Larry Bird stole his last-second inbounds pass, costing the Pistons Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. "When I got home [after the loss to the Celtics], I got a call from Bill Russell," Thomas recalls. "He had kind words for me then, and I thought it was time to pass it on." As he told Washington over the phone, Thomas too had seen a standout performance erased by a single, unforgettable failure. "But I didn't want him to think that's how it's going to be the rest of his career," Thomas says. "In basketball you're going to have setbacks, but you can always bounce back."
In the days before Memphis's opening-round NIT game against Northeastern, Washington's story triggered something close to a cultural phenomenon. After a season roiled by turmoil--including the suspension of star forward Sean Banks, who later was declared academically ineligible, and the suspension of Hunt after his arrest for an alleged domestic assault--one freshman's public pain galvanized the team's fans. A Tigers message board was deluged with tributes to the rebirth of Memphis basketball. The Memphis Commercial Appeal published letters of support for Washington, including one signed by four former Tigers point guards. Why, even old-school Memphis rapper 8 Ball checked in. "Yo, Darius," he told the Winter Park, Fla., native, "you're a true Memphian now."
More than 100 letters poured into the Tigers' basketball office: notes from Tennessee congressman Harold Ford and Temple coach John Chaney, a get-well card from Louisville fans, a letter signed by 32 members of a men's prayer group, a sticker collage from a four-year-old girl, a handwritten 3,000-word missive from a prison inmate on the meaning of failure and enough citations of Romans 8:28 and Jeremiah 29:11--14 to start a revival meeting.
Meanwhile, the messages were piling up on DWash.net, Washington's website:
From hbengal: "Your heart & desire are what sports are all about. I was moved to tears, not for the loss but because I cared about you!"
From Tigerlover: "My boys have a new hero.... I picked them up at school today and my six-year-old wanted to hurry home so he could play his video game: 'I am going to be Darius and I am going to win the national championship so he won't be sad anymore.'"
As Washington surveyed the messages one night with his mother, Tarchelle, his voice betrayed his disbelief: "Are all these people writing to me?" Even now, as practice begins for a new season filled with promise (ESPNU will televise Memphis's Midnight Madness festivities this Friday), he's still overwhelmed by the response. "I appreciate people caring about someone they don't even know," he says. "I'm just someone they saw on TV. When I started getting letters from Kentucky and New York and Washington, I was like, A lot of people did watch that game. A lot of people did feel my pain."
One man in particular helped Washington conquer the most excruciating episode of his young life.