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THE CLOCK STARTS WHEN THE SHOOTER CATCHES the ball, on the left wing, 24 feet from the basket. Two seconds left. He has run off a screen from the baseline, so his momentum carries him toward midcourt. He pushes hard off his right foot and pivots back to the left. One-point-four seconds. When he rises off the floor, the force of this hard cut is still carrying him left. One second. He believes Jesus will guide this shot.
The shooter flicks his right wrist at the peak of his jump, and if you photographed him now, you could put it in a textbook. Eight tenths of a second. The ball is still airborne when time expires and the horn sounds. The shot is almost perfect. But the shooter was drifting left, as you recall, and the ball lands just left of the target. It hits the back of the rim, the boxy part with the springs, and the springs rattle. The ball caroms from back rim to front, seeming to gain speed as it goes, and it suddenly leaps out of the cylinder.
The secret things belong unto the Lord our God. The shooter believes this because his King James Bible says so, and because of what he has seen, and soon he will believe it more deeply than ever. The ball sails toward the backboard, hits the center of the white square, and falls through the net.
This shot does nothing to change the game's outcome. And yet, for pure utility, it may be as great as any play in the history of sports. Eight minutes later, on the evening of March 14, 2008, during this Southeastern Conference tournament game between Alabama and Mississippi State, a tornado will roar through downtown Atlanta, and high winds will breach the Georgia Dome, and metal will strike the hardwood, and players will flee for cover, and it will seem to be snowing indoors. By morning Mykal Riley's three-pointer will be known as The Shot That Saved Lives.
Each life turns on a trillion silent hinges, and every act has an infinite series of prerequisites. For Mykal Riley to be where he was and do what he did, an incalculable number of things had to happen just so.
Before he could play for Alabama, he had to quit two other colleges and happen upon a third.
Before he could play in high school, he had to wash sweaty uniforms and sweep the gym floor.
And before he could learn the jump shot, someone else had to fire a gun.
YOU COULD trace this chain of events back to the Great Flood. Or you could start on Christmas Day 1962, in Milwaukee, when 13-year-old Freddie Riley tears the wrapping paper off his first electric guitar: a self-amplifying Tesco that runs on a nine-volt battery, bought by his mother with cash she earned cleaning houses.
Freddie teaches himself to play. Well, sort of. If you asked him about it today, he would tell you he offered God a bargain: Teach me to play, and I'll play just for you. No rock and roll. No rhythm and blues. Just hymns and gospel songs like the ones they sing at St. James Church of the Firstborn.