This could be the name of a children’s book. Maybe I should attempt to write it. Any illustrators out there? If you can draw a blond-mop on a stick-figure body, with baggy neon-yellow shorts, a too-large neon yellow jersey with navy blue letters spelling M-i-c-h-i-g-a-n, give me a shout. Actually, children’s books are almost always fictional, so I guess this will have to be more of a children’s reference book.
The book’s title: The Little Spike That Could: The Spike Albrecht Story. or The Golden Spike: Spike Albrecht and the Second Foul. The book would be dedicated to Spike’s grandfather, apparently one of his biggest fans, who passed away back in little Crown Point, Indiana, about fifty miles south of Chicago, just before the season started. In last night’s riveting national championship game between Michigan and Louisville, the national consensus player of the year, Trey Burke, who will undoubtedly be a lottery pick in this June’s NBA draft, was whistled for his second foul with 13 minutes to go in the first half.
By then, Albrecht had swished his first two wide-open threes (one on a great no-look by Tim Hardaway, Jr. in transition–by the way, one sign of aging is being almost double the age of the athletes on the court, another is vividly remembering watching the father’s of two of the title game’s premier players (Tim Hardaway and Glenn Robinson) as a teenager myself. Also, can we stop with all the children named after their fathers? The memorable second foul on Burke prompted Michigan coach John Beilein to thrust his diminutive backup point guard into a more prominent role, as ball-handler and leader of his Wolverines. By the end of the first half, Steve Kerr believed Albrecht was having an “out of body” experience. The Michigan fans had turned into an early 1990’s mosh-pit, screaming themselves hoarse, and Albrecht was pumping his fists with every swish, as if he’d embedded the corny “Rise to the Occasion” team t-shirt logo into his psyche and would not be denied. The proverbial Marv Albert phrase reserved for Michael Jordan, “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him,” came to mind. Steph Curry’s masterful 54-point barrage on the Knicks came to mind.
The rest of the first half will forever be known as Spike Albrecht’s entrance onto the big stage. Out of the estimated 23.4 million average viewers who watched the majority of Monday night’s men’s college basketball final, how many of them sat there in slack-jawed amazement as a 5’11” 170 lb, spark-plug whizzed his way around the court, knocking down open 3-pointers at first, and then buzzing his way into the paint and finishing scoop lay-ups among the trees? Albrecht finished the half with 17 points in 15 minutes of play, swishing all four of this three-pointers, two layups, and missing only a free-throw. Only when time stopped was Albrecht forced back into reality. The free-throw line is reality. The rest was just flow and momentum.
Sometimes it’s all about that first shot. A shooter feels good in warm-ups, then sits on the bench biding his time. Then he enters the game, races down the sidelines, finding an opening in transition, catches a pass, raises up and releases, and absolutely swishes the first one, and suddenly, the rim is as open as the ocean. Spike Albrecht and all of those fans of the underdog, the too-small shooting guard, or simply people who watch, hoping to glimpse the rare and unpredictable moments of unreality that wash onto the sporting landscape every so often, we all wished that first-half would never end. That Spike’s moment could extend through the rest of the game.
After the half, was it reality or gravity, or the sense of Rick Pitino? Louisville wasn’t about to let the little guy out of their sight. Or was it just the fact that Spike Albrecht’s mojo was gone and what was left on the court was an undersized and over-confident 18 year-old playing against some of the best defenders in college basketball. The opening six minutes of the second half highlighted Burke and Hardaway, while Spike was blanketed and kept silent. At the 13:38 mark, with Michigan down 2, there was a Spike turnover. With the clock at 11:28, Albrecht finally missed a three-pointer, the magic dust having vanished. With 7:20 remaining, and Michigan down 4, Spike lost the ball with an errant pass. With 5:13 left in and Michigan down 3, Albrecht looked ridiculous, spinning out of control driving down the lane and scooping a layup that missed everything while he tumbled out of bounds. On the ensuing Louisville fast break, Burke made an incredible block, but was wrongly whistled for a foul, in one of the game’s turning points. The lead was 5, then 7, and with Luke Hancock’s 5th and final 3-pointer, the lead was up to 10 and Michigan would eventually fall to the Cardinals, 82-76.
Hancock, who would be awarded the Final Four’s MVP, finished with 22 points on only 6 field goal attempts (5-5 from beyond the arc, and 7-10 from the line), has an improbable story all of his own. Having transferred from George Mason after his coach left, and coming back from two shoulder surgeries, Hancock played the entire tournament with a heavy heart. His father is gravely ill, but made the trip to Atlanta from his home in Roanoke to watch his son in the biggest game of his life. Of course, Hancock would not have been on that court for more than a few minutes if Kevin Ware’s freak-injury had never occurred. Which brings us back to the original idea: these games have the potential to engage us on this deeper level than any predictable Hollywood drama because truth is stranger than fiction. The guys who are supposed to win the games, whose exploits are discussed and dissected endlessly, those guys are on the bench cheering on their teammates. There wasn’t room enough in this game for both Spike Albrecht and Luke Hancock. So they took turns. As Kevin Ware watched from the sideline, both teams won this game when the confetti floated down from the rafters and the mojo floated off into the ether, waiting for the next unsung hero to emerge from the shadows.