My heart broke in Omaha, Nebraska.
I’ve dreamed of going to the Final Four for as long as I can remember. As all kids do, I dreamed of being the star player. I imagined leading my team through the tournament and hitting the buzzer-beating shot in the national championship game. I visualized confetti streaming down from above and constantly thought about climbing a ladder and cutting down the nets. Perhaps the most amazing part of all of my dreams was seeing my father–my best friend–there in the stands cheering my name.
The one problem, however, was that I was one of the worst basketball players anyone had ever seen. Shoot, dribble, pass…you name it, I couldn’t do it. The game just didn’t come naturally to me and no amount of practice or time changed that. I decided to hang it up and ease the strain on everyone else’s eyes, opting instead to follow my other passion: soccer.
The whole soccer thing really worked out for me. From Tab Ramos’ NJSA Academy, where I gained my first (and only) recommendation for US Youth National Team Camp, to New York Cosmos Academy, where I played alongside a young man named Tim Weah, to trials at FC Groningen and SC Cambuur in the Netherlands, just to name a few stops along the way, the beautiful game took me on an astounding journey across the world.
Nonetheless, a major championship always eluded me. As a teenager, I lost three consecutive state championship games at the club and high school level. All of which were major heartbreaks. Some of these losses were more understandable than others, like the high school title game we lost my sophomore year as a huge underdog to a powerhouse school. Others, not so much. During the Spring of my sophomore year, my club team made a magical run to the New Jersey State Cup championship game. I saw the game as an opportunity to make good on the heartbreak of the previous year and After jumping out to a 1-0 lead early, we missed chance after chance and left the other team a window of opportunity. In the final 15 minutes of the second half, they scored two goals, including one seconds before the final whistle, to win the title. During my junior year, my high school team came back with a vengeance. Rolling through the regular season, we became the first team in the history of our league to finish undefeated and brought our school its first-ever league title. We experienced the same success in the playoffs, continuing our momentum into our second straight state title game. We’d already beaten the opponent twice that year, and we thought that we’d win the title for sure. As you might have guessed, we lost.
At the beginning of my senior year, our local newspaper published an article titled, “Poly Determined to Bring Home State Soccer Title After Two Near Misses.” In it, the author discusses our previous two defeats and quotes me heavily on our team’s determination not to let it happen again. Those weren’t just empty words for me. I thought we had a damn good chance to be better than we had ever been, and I thought that there was no way in the world we could lose a third straight time. We did, of course, but for much different reasons than ever before. Two weeks into the season, our starting striker passed away suddenly, shaking our team to its core and leaving a deep void in our hearts. We never really recovered from that loss, as much as we tried to use it to motivate us. Our season ended way too soon, in the state quarterfinal at home to a heavy underdog.
Going into that game I never thought about how it might be the last time I ever played soccer competitively and how it was the end of the amazing journey I had started so many years before. I never thought that I would regret what happened on that field in Brooklyn, New York for the rest of my life. That’s the cruelty of sports. You never really know how and when things are going to end, and you never really get the chance to think about it beforehand.
One of the hardest things to understand about these kinds of losses is the finality of it all and the fact that after the final whistle blows, the group of people on the field will never be together in the same way again. Before and during the game that’s one of the last things that you think about. Instead, you’re focused on winning. When it’s all said and done, however, the reality hits you that for the rest of your life you will remember that your last time together ended in defeat and a missed opportunity.
Heartbreak in the Heartland
As you can tell, my soccer playing career never really seemed to go as I hoped. It just seemed like I could never catch a break. I never expected what my life would become once I got to Duke, however. In a way, things really came full circle for me two weeks into my freshman year when I was offered a position as a student manager for the Duke Men’s Basketball team. After thinking my dreams of the Final Four had died out many years before, I suddenly found myself deeply involved with the most decorated and prestigious college basketball program in the country. The dream of winning a national championship was suddenly real. Winning, especially after all of my sporting-related trauma and heartbreak, would be a poetic end to a wild ride.
Placed in the Midwest Region, we traveled to Omaha, Nebraska for our Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games. My father made the 20-hour drive to Omaha to see us. After squeaking by a pesky Syracuse squad 69-65 in the first game, we were set for a date with Kansas in the Elite Eight. I felt like a little kid again, like I had all of those years before. This time, however, the dream was real, and I was right on the doorstep of the Final Four. I spent two sleepless nights thinking about the game and visualizing victory. I thought again of confetti flying and embracing my father. I thought of cutting down nets and returning to hundreds of fans awaiting us in Durham.
The game went pretty much as I imagined it would. Back and forth, back and forth, the two teams battled each other in a thrilling and fast-paced affair. Both teams took five point leads at different points, with Kansas’ coming in the second half. Duke clawed back to keep themselves in it. With 5:55 left on the clock and the shot clock winding down, Gary Trent recovered a loose ball on the left wing and fired a deep, circus-style three pointer with a hand in his face. In what seemed like slow motion, the ball arced high into the air and fell through the net. I started to think that if something like that could go in, I might finally be about to catch the break I’ve been looking for.
With Duke up three points with 28 seconds left, Kansas’ Svi Mykhailiuk nailed a three pointer from the right wing to tie the game. Duke would have the last shot, and my heart pounded. We put the ball in the hands of our Senior Captain, Grayson Allen, and let him go to work. The whole play happened in slow motion. Starting from the left wing with 8.8 seconds left, Grayson dribbled right and probed the defender, trying to get him to show his hand. He crossed over to his left and then immediately back to his right, dribbled to the free throw line, then spun and hesitated with 4.7 seconds to go. He then lowered his head and dribbled left, stopping with 3.2 seconds left amongst three Kansas defenders and releasing a shot with both of his feet sprawled out in the air.
While it was happening, the whole thing reminded me of a buzzer-beater he had hit to beat Virginia in Cameron Indoor Stadium two years earlier when I was a freshman. The similarity of his move was uncanny. Just look at this:
GRAYSON. ALLEN. @Duke_MBB gets it done over #7 UVA with @GraysonJAllen's game-winning buzzer beater. #IceWater pic.twitter.com/vYNZMVDEqU
— Blue Devil Network (@DukeBDN) February 14, 2016
Thinking of the Virginia shot, I immediately thought “Oh my god, it’s happening again.” The ball struck the backboard at the top of the box, and I stood staring at the rim which was straight in front of me (see me in the blue polo in the video below). After hitting the backboard, the ball came down and hit the front of the rim, and then the right side, and then popped up and hit the backboard again. When it came back down, it moved slowly and looked moved so softly I had no doubt it would fall through the rim. Somehow, however, it walked as if it was on a tightrope along the right side of the rim and fell off. A Kansas defender batted the ball away and regulation ended with the game tied.
GOODNESS GRACIOUS. Grayson Allen was a slight roll away from becoming a Duke Icon. pic.twitter.com/NxLqC3465s
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 25, 2018
I will never understand how this didn’t go in, and I will never get the image out of my head. I can sit here for hours watching the video and thinking “maybe this time I’ll see it fall.” We went on to lose in overtime 85-81, and my heart broke again. I’d never felt so close to glory before, so close to achieving what I’ve been dreaming of my entire life. I felt heartbroken, dejected, and cheated by whatever gods there be. My bad luck was becoming almost laughable.
And just like that, after thinking for a brief second that I was going to the Final Four, I had to deal with the pain of saying goodbye, of seeing all of my brothers together in the same locker room for the last time.
Robbed of Victory: The Hand(ball) of God
In all of my musing I tried long and hard to think of an event on the soccer field that left me with the same heartbreak, anger, frustration, helplessness and dejection that I had experienced in Omaha. I tried to remember a time when a team had been teased with victory only to have it sneak away from them. I tried to think of a time when a team was right on the doorstep of victory only to have it ripped excruciatingly away from them. That team, without a doubt, is Ghana, and that game is the 2010 World Cup Quarterfinal against Uruguay.
It seems appropriate to compare this game to Duke’s Elite Eight defeat, as both outcomes left teams just short of the semi-final. World Cup 2010 was the first World Cup ever held on African soil. Thanks to both the fans and the teams on the pitch, world was truly treated to a display of African pride, character, creativity, and resilience. One can see such traits in Tshabalala’s goal to open the tournament and the ensuing celebration:
In the Quarterfinal round, Ghana was the last African team standing. They had placed second in their group after defeating Serbia, drawing with Australia and losing a hard-fought match to Germany. In the Round of 32, they beat the United States 2-1 in extra time.
Now, they sought to become the first African nation to ever reach the World Cup semifinal, and to be able to do so on African soil would make their triumph so much sweeter. The video below does the game much more justice than I could in writing:
Not once, but twice did Ghana find itself inches from victory. Like Duke, they were cheated by the gods of fate and chance. After visualizing glory only for a second, they felt the most bitter defeat. After losing on penalties, they left the game with the trauma of what had just occurred, forced to live the rest of their lives replaying the images they had seen and hoping that it was all just a bad dream. It is amazing to me the similar emotions associated with two events in two different sports that happened halfway across the world from each other.
I’ve been through a lot on the pitch and on the court, but its taught me the ephemeral nature of being a member of a sports team. I’ve had to think long and hard about loss and I’ve been forced to appreciate the fact that every time I participate in a sporting event it is the last. The real beauty of sports is the way in which they bring people together over the course of a season and the way in which a unique bond is formed between a group of individuals when they step from the bench across the out of bounds lines. People don’t appreciate that enough and often don’t realize it until it’s too late.
The one hope I have is that things are going to be different next time around and that we’ll learn from our defeat. Part of me feels, however, that sports aren’t so conducive to such sentiments.