It happens every March. Some college basketball player hits a late shot in the NCAA Tournament and Mario Chalmers’s phone blows up. After all, he nailed the three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left that tied the 2008 national title game against Memphis. He likes especially when posters include video. “I see that occasionally,” he said in a phone interview this week after a Memphis Grizzlies practice. “It’s not something I go looking for, but I’m still impressed. I still get butterflies in my stomach when I see it.”
So it was that last Sunday, as Kansas battled Duke all the way into overtime for a spot in the Final Four, that Chalmers phone pinged even more than usual. Because not only had 10 years passed since he made one of the memorable shots in NCAA history, but the Jayhawks also downed Duke to return to the Final Four for this first time since the 2011–12 season and this Final Four happens to be held in San Antonio, the site of Chalmers’s famous triple.
On Sunday alone, Chalmers received close to 200 text messages. Some noted the oddity that he plays for the Grizzlies now. “Someone wrote, you can’t play for the Grizzlies and be a KU guy anymore,” he says, with a laugh.
Sometimes, Chalmers can’t believe that shot happened 10 years ago. He can still recall that tournament: all the upsets, Davidson’s run, Steph Curry’s emergence into the national spotlight. He can still recall the setting: packed Alamodome, Monday night, the title drought at Kansas a full 20 years and counting. His Jayhawks trailed by nine with just over two minutes left. Lucky for them, Memphis could not shoot free throws. Their coach, John Calipari, has said he thought they would win at that moment. And they would have won, had they made their free throws. The Tigers missed four of their final five attempts in the final 75 seconds, and there came Kansas—and Chalmers—with a chance to tie on the final possession of regulation.
“You got to believe!” is what Chalmers remembers his coach, Bill Self, yelling, over and over, from the sideline. And he did believe. He believed in the call, a playbook staple the Jayhawks called “Chop,” where Chalmers was to take a handoff coming off a screen. He says Kansas ran through that exact play every day in practice. He believed in his teammates, and the play went off as planned. Chalmers went off the screen and guard Sherron Collins handed him the ball. He took one dribble and got a good look and, well, let Chalmers take it from there. “I found a little space and got it off,” he says. “I knew it was good the moment it left my hand. I knew we had them, too. You could tell on their face, they were defeated.”
The Jayhawks did have them. They won in overtime, securing Kansas’s first title since 1988 (speaking of improbability, ahem, Danny and the Miracles). Chalmers did his press conference, answering question after question about The Shot while wearing a national championship hat backward. He now says the Jayhawks had a small party at the team hotel that night, then returned to Lawrence, where a huge crowd met them at the airport. He rode in a Corvette for the first time, a red one, at the parade. “It felt like everyone in Lawrence was there,” he says.
It’s hard to believe, Chalmers says, that Kansas has won every Big 12 title since, a full 14 and counting, a streak he says that is unlikely ever to be duplicated. He says that starts with Self, who he labeled a players’ coach and “someone who doesn’t really have an ego.” He says his title team had its share of offensive stars but won because it bought into a defense-first philosophy espoused by Self.
This Kansas squad, which lacks a surefire first-round NBA Draft pick, does not remind Chalmers of his team, although he did notice when Self called the current group the “softest team” he has ever had this season. “That’s his tactic to get his team to play harder,” Chalmers says. “He did that to us, too.”
“This team is different than us,” he continues. “Hardworking group. Guys came together.”
Chalmers adds that he’s impressed with Devonte’ Graham, the conference player of the year and first-team All-American. Chalmers believes Graham’s jersey will hang in the rafters alongside his one day. He also has Kansas winning the national title in the bracket he filled out, naturally. He’s not sure history will repeat itself in San Antonio, but he can dream. “I’m going to hear about The Shot the rest of my life, and that’s OK,” he says. “But some day someone will hit another one.”