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IS DARIUS O.K.?
From the moment his son hit the floor, the question kept racing through the head of Darius's father, who was standing with his wife behind the opposing basket. "That's my son out there," he told security officials, and within seconds he was running toward a still-sobbing Darius Jr.
"We know our son," says the senior Washington, "and when that kind of situation happens, no one else can put his mind-set back in place, just me or my wife."
The assistant recreation director of a community center in Winter Park, the elder Darius says that, at 36, he may be the youngest father of any player in college basketball. "Darius and I kind of grew up together," he explains, recalling the days when a two-year-old Darius would sit with Tarchelle in the stands during his father's games at Edgewater High in Orlando. "We're from the same era, so he knows I'm his brother, I'm his homey, I'm his dad. He can come talk to me about anything, and I'll give him a straight answer. Most men don't say 'I love you' to each other, but we do. It's just one of those relationships."
Darius Jr., who speaks to his father as many as a dozen times a day, pays him a teenager's ultimate compliment: "I can be seen with my dad and not be embarrassed."
It was his dad who cried with him in a vacant room at the arena, who let him scream and throw his shoes against the wall, who finally hugged him and said, "You're not in this alone." It was his dad who made Darius watch the replays of his failure, again and again, to confront his anguish. And it was his dad who took his son for a walk through the Saturday-night crowds on Beale Street a few hours later. "That was a risky move," the father recalls, "but when I did, everybody just mobbed him. Don't worry about it! We'll get 'em next time! Nothing negative. We were just letting them know that we're not going to run and hide from this."
"If I didn't have positive people around me, I would have gone into a shell," Darius Jr. says. "My dad said, 'You have to go outside [eventually], so you might as well do it now so everyone can see you.' One day a little kid came up to me and said, 'Ain't you the dude who missed those free throws? How could you miss those?' I just said, 'Keep living. Things don't always come out how you want them.'"
Washington says he wouldn't change what happened--not the way he shot the free throws, not his desire to be on the line with a season hanging in the balance--except for one thing: He would have skipped the premature celebration. "Next time," he says, "I'll take care of business." In some ways he already has. It wasn't lost on anyone during the Tigers' run to the NIT semifinals that Washington made 23 of 26 free throws.
Before Memphis's NIT opener, Calipari made sure that Washington was the first Tigers player introduced, the better to bask in the communal bear hug of a minutelong standing ovation. It wasn't the coach's only show of support. Earlier in the season Calipari called a team meeting after Banks had tried to freeze out the freshman point guard. "Just so there's no confusion, I'm with him," Calipari announced, pointing to Washington.
"By the end of the year Darius had as much impact on a game as any guard in the country," Calipari says. "The pro scouts know he's fearless, but the biggest thing they want to see now is, Can he run a team? And you know what that will come down to: Can he show the compassion for his teammates that everybody had for him through all this? It's a great lesson."