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A horrible missed call, an invested young fan, and a million memes: The story of the Crying Northwestern Kid

Y’all remember what it was like to watch the ‘Cats in the Big Dance?

The Northwestern men’s basketball team might not reach its lofty tournament goal set at the beginning of this season (much to the chagrin of one soon-to-be-broke Jon Rothstein), but that’s not going to stop us from rehashing one of the most viral moments in tournament history, sparked by none other than the Northwestern Wildcats.

The only similarity between the Northwestern and Gonzaga men’s basketball programs is they have both never won a national title (and if you said to this to the face of a ‘Zags fan, they might mimic the face in the photo above).

The 2016-17 Bulldogs were the story in college basketball that season, winning their first 29 games before faltering against BYU, and quickly avenging that with more domination in the West Coast Conference Tournament on their path to the school’s second one-seed selection in program history. The Zags were stacked with soon-to-be pro’s in Zach Collins and Killian Tillie, a transfer point guard in Nigel Williams-Goss who had emerged as a second-team All-American and the iconic Przemek Karnowski running things in the middle, Santa Claus-esque beard and all. The consensus was clear — this was the greatest Gonzaga team ever assembled, and the best shot head coach Mark Few had at climbing the final mountaintop.

However, while the ‘Zags were front and center in the college basketball world back then, another storybook season had been brewing out of Evanston. Often characterized as the worst program in the sport’s history among power conference schools, Northwestern had started the 2017 season 18-4 behind the perimeter trifecta of Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey. The ‘Cats stumbled toward the end of the season, dropping seven of their final 12 games, but a miraculous full-court pass from Nathan Taphorn found Derek Pardon ended in a buzzer-beating win over Michigan which sent NU to its first ever NCAA Tournament in school history.

Entering as an eight-seed in the West Regional, Northwestern first defeated Vanderbilt by the slimmest of margins to advance to the second round due to one of the bigger gaffes in recent basketball history (thank you again Matthew Fisher-Davis).

Thus it’s only fitting that it was another blunder that defined Northwestern’s infamous tourney match against the top-seeded ‘Zags. However, unlike the Commodores’ error in the previous round, this screw-up was completely out of any player’s control.

It would’ve been easy for a team like 2017 Northwestern to fall into the “happy to be there” trap. They were playing a juggernaut on the national stage and had already secured the title of best team in program history, and through 28 minutes, it was playing out just like one would expect. Two free throws from Tillie had put the ‘Zags up 56-39, and the loss seemed all but secure.

But then a beautiful execution of “Hammer” led to a three from Law, and minutes later, senior Nathan Taphorn hit back-to-back triples to cut the lead to single-digits. McIntosh suddenly started to shake loose with his herky-jerky isos, and Law punctuated the run with a putback slam that set turned the entire arena up to 11.

But you all see that kid in the number four Northwestern jersey. You all know how this story ends. Down five with plenty of time remaining to complete the comeback, McIntosh drove right and dished off to Pardon for what looked like an easy dunk, which Gonzaga’s Collins went up to contest...

Suddenly a game-changing 19-7 run was remembered not for what happened during the surge but what ended it. An obvious goaltend was missed by the officials, leading to an understandable though untimely technical foul assessed to head coach Chris Collins. From there, the Bulldogs held serve and ultimately won the second round matchup 79-73 over the Cinderella story-team from Evanston.

Though Collins’ reaction might have been the most costly to the ‘Cats that day, it was certainly not the most memorable.

That’s when the world met John Phillips, or, as they came to knew him, the Crying Northwestern Kid.

As the CBS broadcast cut from shots of Collins’ hand blocking Pardon’s shot through the rim and Collins shouting in response as the game continued following the missed call and ensuing tech, the cameras found John, the son of then-NU Athletic Director Jim Phillips, who wasn’t exactly thrilled with the officiating.

Now, look. Is it fair to a 12-year-old that the whole world saw him at a moment when he was most emotionally vulnerable, the moment after his beloved team — one which he was likely closer to than any other kid his age on account of his dad’s job — was royally screwed by the refs in the biggest moment possible? Probably not.

But fair or not, John’s visceral reaction resonated with sports fans everywhere. For non-NU backers, his raw emotion reflected how they, too, felt at points without actually being connected to their teams’ misery. For the purple and white faithful, he was a symbol of the moment that the Wildcats’ Cinderella story, which had taken many fortunate bounces to lead them to that point, finally lost its magic.

And so the Crying Northwestern Kid meme was born.

Phillips’ face was plastered all over Twitter, where #NorthwesternKid trended. The meme gave the social media platform’s users something to work with, and they handled the rest.

One user, Dan Shuftan, happened to be right when he made the following prediction:

As it turns out, unlike NU’s men’s basketball program itself, the meme stood the test of time, and was used two years later in a Pizza Hut 15-second ad placed during and around March Madness games. As was highlighted in a Chicago Tribune article published upon the commercial’s anticipated release, Phillips could have received compensation totaling “a year of Northwestern tuition, at least” in exchange for the use of his likeness, according to his mother. Phillips told the Tribune that he opted to have the money donated to Pizza Hut’s “First Book” youth literacy charity and its “Harvest” national food surplus donation program.

“Any potential negative parts of this never became that negative because I didn’t really let it get to me,’’ John told the Tribune. “The opportunity to use this moment — me going viral — as a source of positivity for others, well, that’s the biggest benefit that could have come out of this.”

At the end of the day, Phillips’ story provides hope that even the emotional, embarrassing aspects of being a Northwestern fan can lead to some good. And with the ‘Cats looking unlikely to make it back to the men’s Big Dance in 2022 after a string of close losses in the regular season, the Crying Northwestern Kid meme continues to offer an easy visual representation of the struggles of being an NU supporter.