Game Time: What If Gordon Hayward's Shot Goes In?

As sports fans, I think we probably let single events define players and coaches more than we should. In this era where we want to evaluate things quickly and neatly, it's always easier (and oftentimes, lazier) to just let one play on a big stage define somebody. It's clear, it's concise, it's also often incorrect, but it allows us to move on.

A last-second field goal sailing wide left or sneaking just inside the upright is the difference between Hunter Lawrence getting death threats and Hunter Lawrence never having to pay for a meal on 6th Street ever again.

Just ask Scott Norwood.

Certainly, there are different flavors of these defining moments. There are the "routine task" defining moments whereby you simply need to execute your job and doing so (or not doing so) will forever alter your existence -- kicking a field goal inside 45 yards, knocking down free throws in the waning moments of a basketball game, getting three batters out in the ninth inning of a playoff game. You're either a hero or a goat. Do your job, you become an icon. Fail at your job, you enter the witness protection program. No worries, right?

Then there are the "upside only" defining moments where there is some sort of divine intervention, and a hand comes down from the sports heaven and turns a highly improbable outcome into reality, forever changing the destinies of everyone involved. There is no equal and opposite downside to these moments not occuring; in other words, if Doug Flutie's "Hail Mary" to Gerard Phelan falls to the Orange Bowl turf in 1984, Flutie is not viewed as some sort of loser who can never stroll around Quincy Market ever again. However, the fact that it was caught sewed up a Heisman Trophy for the BC quarterback and sealed a place in college football immortality.

If that pass is incomplete, is Flutie any less a quarterback than he was before the prayer was answered? Of course not. But the "Hail Mary" gave us what we as humans and sports fans crave -- simple clarity. It happened, therefore he's great, end of story.

We came within inches of having one of those moments on Monday night in the NCAA men's basketball championship game. Down 61-59 with the clock running out, Butler forward Gordon Hayward heaved a half-court shot that caught glass, then rim and bounced off to preserve the win and the title for the Duke Blue Devils; what would have been a miraculous, possible "greatest game of all time" 62-61 win was instead a heart-pounding, very watchable near miss with an ending we've seen three times before -- Coach Mike Krzyzewski and Duke cutting down the nets as champions.

This was clearly an "upside only" defining moment. The shot NOT going in doesn't change our favorable impression of Hayward; if anything, his overall performance in this tournament has elevated him into the public consciousness to where, if he decides to stay in school, he'll be a favorite for pre-season Player of the Year. The NBA probably also likes his game more now than they did three weeks ago, so he's got a decision to make. But what if that shot at the end of regulation went in? This is the "upside only" defining moment that us "what if-sters" out there dream about...broad ramifications impacting both sides, changing legacies, defining careers, and touching off great sports-bar debates. So I pose this question to you, the loyal "Game Time" reader...."What if Gordon hayward's shot goes in?"

Let's pretend that it did. What changes?

Let's start with the guy who launched the shot, Hayward. What this would mean to him career-wise we'll get to in a second. But let's just get the "place in history" part of this out of the way. If that shot goes in, it becomes the most famous shot in the history of the greatest annual sporting event in our country. Moreover, Gordon Hayward becomes THE legendary basketball figure in a state that views itself as the Fortress of Solitude to the sport of basketball; basically Gordon Hayward becomes Superman if he hits that shot. I mean...a small private school from Indianapolis, that plays their home games in the gym where Hoosiers was filmed, and a babyfaced kid from Brownsburg, Indiana hits a half court shot to knock off Duke...IN INDIANAPOLIS?!? I can't write anything cheesier than that. And yet, that's what we were inches away from on Monday night. Trust me, I went to college in Indiana during the Damon Bailey Era; Gordon Hayward would never have paid for a house, a car, a meal, or a topless shoeshine in Kokomo ever again if that shot goes in. Ever.

As for the career ramifications for Hayward, he's a guy whom NBA people certainly knew about before the tournament and whom other college coaches knew about as well, as he was a member of the U-19 National Team coached by Pitt's Jamie Dixon. However, we all know how much performance during March Madness can move the needle on an NBA prospect's profile; going all the way back to the likes of Villanova's Ed Pinckney becoming a top 10 pick in 1985, the list is long and the graveyard is full of NBA players overdrafted based on two weeks in March

It's safe to say, though, that NBA front offices won't all of a sudden become smart in 2010. If Hayward knocks down that shot, it does likely raise his profile to where he's drafted five to ten spots ahead of where he should be. If nothing else, depending on how Hayward does in workouts for NBA folks so that it wouldn't be viewed as a complete and total reach, it would have opened up the possibility of the Indiana Pacers at least having to ponder taking him if they are at the back end of the lottery, picking say around ten through twelve (which is right where they're hovering right now).

And if you think I'm crazy that it would get kicked around in Indiana's war room, just remember this:

1. We are discussing this under the auspices of Hayward having HIT the shot. Remember, he is now Superman, Ironman, and Damon Bailey all rolled into one.

2. Indiana is one of a handful of teams struggling MIGHTILY at the gate right now; as Bill Simmons mentions in this column they are one of eight teams in the "We Make Less Than $500,000 Per Game" club. Drafting the hometown kid who just hit the biggest shot in the history of the sport would sell a few tickets. (This is a striking parallel to what the Jacksonville Jaguars are debating internally right now with respect to drafting Tim Tebow, on many levels including both guys being a reach at, say, the tenth overall pick.)

3. Mike Dunleavy, Tyler Hansbrough, Troy Murphy, Josh McRoberts....yeah, the Indiana Pacers are not afraid to employ white forwards.

4. If you think I'm crazy about this "Hayward to the Pacers" theory, go watch the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called Winning Time about former Pacer great Reggie Miller and his rivalry with the Knicks. They devote about ten minutes of the documentary to the Pacers' drafting of Miller with the eleventh overall pick in 1987 and how badly Pacers fans wanted the team to use that pick on Indiana Hoosier (and at the time, NCAA champion) Steve Alford, who played high school ball down the road from Indy in New Castle. The footage (which includes Alford watching the Miller selection on television and looking like somebody shot his dog) is incredible, especially when we now know that Miller became a Hall of Famer, and Alford was coaching Manchester College within four years of being drafted in the SECOND round by the Mavericks. Nonetheless, I don't think Pacers fans have become any less rabid for their local legends since then, at least I would hope not. Especially for one that hit the biggest shot in the history of basketball (remember, we're still pretending here).

(Cool side bar -- When you go to YouTube to get the link to Hayward's near miss on Monday night, the second video to come up is his buzzer beater in his senior year in the 4-A State Championship Game in Indiana. As someone who lived in Indiana when it was all schools in the same tourney, I HATE seeing the words "4-A" in front of a state championship game in Indiana; bring back the "old" Indiana tourney, everyone in the same pool! That's how it was until the late `90's. But I digress...)

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