As the ball sailed through the air in a momentarily quiet Welsh-Ryan Arena, Chris Collins didn’t know what to think.
“It was kind of surreal.”
To Collins, it looked like Nathan Taphorn’s full-court pass was going to sail out of bounds, and with just 1.7 seconds left in regulation and the score between Northwestern and Michigan tied at 65, an errant pass would give the ball to the Wolverines underneath the Wildcats’ basket.
A few inches too far, potential disaster. A few inches too short, overtime.
But, as generations of sports fans will come to remember, The Pass was just right. Dererk Pardon, waiting 93 feet away, caught the heave and hit the layup over Derrick Walton Jr. to give Northwestern a win that should propel the Wildcats to the first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.
Certain snapshots of sports history, only the best of the best, are lucky enough to earn their own name. The Immaculate Reception. The Shot Heard ‘Round The World. The Catch. The players behind those monikers -- Franco Harris, Bobby Thomson, Willie Mays — have been forever etched into sports lore.
The Pass may never reach that level of cultural significance, but it’s a definite that Taphorn and Pardon will never be forgotten for the magic they combined to create along the shores of Lake Michigan one March night.
The penultimate game at one of college basketball’s most rustic (for lack of a nicer term) arenas before a long-overdue renovation was the most fitting of settings for, oh, just the most important play in Northwestern basketball history.
College basketball, with its hundreds of teams and thousands of players across its various levels, produces unfathomably incredible moments often, so often that some plays get lost in the shuffle. Others, like Christian Laettner’s shot or Lorenzo Charles’ dunk, stand out. The Pass may be on an equal level.
Laettner, Charles, Tate George and Kris Jenkins are just a few of the players who — despite what they did or will go on to do for the rest of their lives — will always be remembered for that one instance when they did something great, something incredible, something extraordinary.
“I felt like Jimmy V back in ‘83, running around and looking for anyone to hug,” Collins said after the game, referring to Charles’ dunk off a Dereck Whittenburg desperation heave that led Jim Valvano’s N.C. State Wolfpack past Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Houston in the 1983 NCAA Championship. Sound familiar? (The Dereck and Dererk parallel is, admittedly, a little strange).
In the madness of the win, Valvano famously ran circles around the court, desperately trying to find someone to embrace.
Valvano later died of bone cancer in 1993, about eight weeks after delivering a famously inspiring speech at the first-ever ESPY Awards. Charles died in a 2011 bus crash. Their graves are separated by just 20 steps in a Raleigh cemetery, an eternal reminder of the bond forged by that fateful play.
Even Gordon Hayward, an NBA All-Star, will always be known as the guy whose half-court attempt to beat Duke in the 2010 NCAA Championship Game almost went in. He didn’t even make the shot, and his harmless heave will follow him wherever he goes.
For those fortunate enough to be at Welsh-Ryan on Wednesday, it was clear The Pass is not just a forgettable great play. It’s an all-timer, one that will be discussed in Evanston and by Wildcats around the world for, well, ever.
Northwestern, according to the prognostications of most college basketball experts, will finally hear its name called next Sunday in the NCAA Tournament field. The Pass, considering the Wildcats’ struggles of late, will no doubt shape the decision of the Selection Committee.
The Wildcats finally will be the bride, and no longer the bridesmaid. Just a few months ago, when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years, the entire city — when the parties, parades and celebrations subsided — wasn’t sure what to do. Like Hayward and his miss, the mere thought of the Cubs’ name first evoked the Curse of the Billy Goat and a historic championship drought. Then, the memories of Ernie Banks, Andre Dawson and Ron Santo could follow.
So when the Cubs finally won, that characterization had to change. How can a team be loved for losing when it stops losing?
If all things go according to plan, Northwestern will face a similar problem in nine days. Graphics featuring tournament ineptitude always lead with Northwestern, the only power conference team to never have had the honor of dancing in March. Now what?
In a way, being a tournament outsider has been an identity for Northwestern basketball. The members of the current team proudly wear it like a badge of dishonor, one they want to trade in for a newer, prouder version. Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh have had nothing to do with the program’s historical struggles, yet they feel innately connected to them.
While The Pass was just one play in a game featuring hundreds of them in a season with thousands, it felt like more than a lucky prayer answered by a divine being that may have made the mile-long trek west of Garrett Theological Seminary to the corner of Ashland Avenue and Central Street.
It was a way to lift the spell off what some long-time fans may call a cursed team. For Northwestern, even in times of success, something has always gone wrong to derail a promising season. Scottie Lindsey’s midseason sidelining due to illness, and the Wildcats’ subsequent struggles, appeared to validate that theory. However, Northwestern bounced back and kept its composure, even after the heartbreaking loss to Indiana this past Saturday.
Right after the ball left Taphorn’s hand, it seemed to stay suspended above the court for longer than the time usually allowed by the laws of gravity. It was almost as if the basketball gods were deliberating on the issue of finally giving Northwestern the break it has been searching for since 1933.
“They deserve this,” one could have said to the other. “Remember all the other times we’ve screwed them over?”
The ball fell through the net before the second had the chance to respond, and the buzzer sounded. Students rushed the court, not only for their own joy but for that of those who came before them.
Welsh-Ryan Arena officially holds 8,117 people, and the renovated version may fit even more. On Wednesday, March 1st, 2017, though, right as the clock struck 8:00 p.m. according to Central Standard Time, that number felt like a gross understatement.