Out of the Darkness

Oct. 17, 2005
Oct. 17, 2005

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Oct. 17, 2005

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College Basketball
Life of Reilly

Out of the Darkness

When Darius Washington missed the biggest shots of his life, costing Memphis a trip to the NCAA tournament, his emotional collapse became a moment of TV infamy. But Tigers fans, instead of vilifying him, have embraced their fallen star

Look at him. He's all alone. ¶ You remember. You saw the replay, over and over, an endless loop on SportsCenter. You saw Darius Washington at the free throw line last March, all zeroes on the clock, his Memphis team down by two to Louisville. You recall the stakes: three free throws to win the game, the Conference USA tournament and a surprise berth in the NCAA field of 65. Three free throws for a slice of Memphis immortality. ¶ He sank the first. "Two to go!" boomed CBS commentator Verne Lundquist. ¶ The 19-year-old freshman, a 72% free throw shooter, turned to the Tigers' bench in Memphis's FedExForum and--get this--winked. It's over, he thought to himself. ¶ He stepped to the line, bounced the ball three times ... and missed the second free throw. The vise tightened: overtime or bust. "Verne," said Lundquist's partner, Jim Spanarkel, "I would be hard-pressed to tell you right now that you'll see a more pressurized situation this year."

This is an article from the Oct. 17, 2005 issue Original Layout

Everyone stood. Blue-sweatered Southern belles covered their mouths with both hands. Tigers coach John Calipari paced the sideline. Angst-ridden Memphis players linked arms on the bench. Washington took a long, deep breath and released.

The last free throw bounced once on the rim. It bounced twice. It bounced off.

Louisville 75, Memphis 74.

The image remains burned in the memories of college basketball fans. Washington wheeled toward the bench, his lower lip quivering, and as he fell to his knees he reached instinctively for his jersey. Years ago his father, also named Darius, had taught his only son a lesson: It's O.K. to cry, but cover your face with your shirt, because the photographers are always there. For three ... four ... five seconds he lay facedown in the lane, sobbing, as eerily lonesome a sight as Dustin Hoffman suspended underwater in the pool in The Graduate.

"Somebody's gotta go help that kid up," said Spanarkel.

"And sadly for Darius Washington Jr.," Lundquist concluded, as Calipari and teammate Jeremy Hunt tried (and failed) to raise Washington from the floor, "you've seen a moment that he will never, ever forget."

Funny thing about images and memory. When replays take on lives of their own, it's easy to lose track of what preceded them: in Washington's case, his game-high 23 points. Nor do they tell the story of what came next. You saw the replay, over and over, but you probably didn't see the aftermath. You didn't see a family, a team and a city make sure that Darius Washington wouldn't suffer alone.

SPORTS FANS, circa 2005, are an unforgiving lot. On talk radio and Internet message boards, they endlessly, mercilessly rehash bloopers, boners, chokes and wide-rights. Put Washington in a Memphis Grizzlies uniform, and he'd probably have earned a spot on the trading block. But something about his visceral reaction, something about college sports, sparked an outpouring of support that spread like a benevolent virus through Memphis and points beyond.

Forrest Goodman was hosting the postgame show on WMC, the Tigers' flagship radio station. His switchboard stayed lit so long that he extended his broadcast. "Sometimes I call the show group therapy," he says. "Grown men were calling, and you could tell they were in tears. Had Darius missed those free throws and just shrugged, they never would have done that. But you can't fake what he did."

Eli Morris gave the sermon that weekend at Memphis's Hope Presbyterian Church, where he's an associate pastor. "Darius Washington represents our own brokenness right now," he announced from the pulpit, "and we need to stand with him and pray for him." The congregation, more than 6,000 strong, broke into applause. Seven months later Morris can't get over how many hugs he gave that day to Memphians who felt deep sympathy for Washington. "That sporting event became this powerful human event," he says. "What he was living at that line is every kid's greatest dream--and greatest nightmare. The game didn't matter. Everyone was concerned about Darius."

Nor was the feeling just local. The actor Tyrese was in his trailer on the Toronto set of the film Four Brothers when he saw the highlight clip of Washington collapsing. "I really felt for him," he says. "That was passion that made him react that way." For the first time in his life Tyrese tracked down an athlete's phone number and called him to offer support. When he spoke to Washington, he shared his own fears of performing under pressure before millions. Then he passed along the daily mantra he uses for motivation: The depth of your struggle will determine the height of your success.

Watching the game at home in New York, Knicks president Isiah Thomas thought back to his most painful moment as a player, when Larry Bird stole his last-second inbounds pass, costing the Pistons Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. "When I got home [after the loss to the Celtics], I got a call from Bill Russell," Thomas recalls. "He had kind words for me then, and I thought it was time to pass it on." As he told Washington over the phone, Thomas too had seen a standout performance erased by a single, unforgettable failure. "But I didn't want him to think that's how it's going to be the rest of his career," Thomas says. "In basketball you're going to have setbacks, but you can always bounce back."

In the days before Memphis's opening-round NIT game against Northeastern, Washington's story triggered something close to a cultural phenomenon. After a season roiled by turmoil--including the suspension of star forward Sean Banks, who later was declared academically ineligible, and the suspension of Hunt after his arrest for an alleged domestic assault--one freshman's public pain galvanized the team's fans. A Tigers message board was deluged with tributes to the rebirth of Memphis basketball. The Memphis Commercial Appeal published letters of support for Washington, including one signed by four former Tigers point guards. Why, even old-school Memphis rapper 8 Ball checked in. "Yo, Darius," he told the Winter Park, Fla., native, "you're a true Memphian now."

More than 100 letters poured into the Tigers' basketball office: notes from Tennessee congressman Harold Ford and Temple coach John Chaney, a get-well card from Louisville fans, a letter signed by 32 members of a men's prayer group, a sticker collage from a four-year-old girl, a handwritten 3,000-word missive from a prison inmate on the meaning of failure and enough citations of Romans 8:28 and Jeremiah 29:11--14 to start a revival meeting.

Meanwhile, the messages were piling up on, Washington's website:

From hbengal: "Your heart & desire are what sports are all about. I was moved to tears, not for the loss but because I cared about you!"

From Tigerlover: "My boys have a new hero.... I picked them up at school today and my six-year-old wanted to hurry home so he could play his video game: 'I am going to be Darius and I am going to win the national championship so he won't be sad anymore.'"

As Washington surveyed the messages one night with his mother, Tarchelle, his voice betrayed his disbelief: "Are all these people writing to me?" Even now, as practice begins for a new season filled with promise (ESPNU will televise Memphis's Midnight Madness festivities this Friday), he's still overwhelmed by the response. "I appreciate people caring about someone they don't even know," he says. "I'm just someone they saw on TV. When I started getting letters from Kentucky and New York and Washington, I was like, A lot of people did watch that game. A lot of people did feel my pain."

One man in particular helped Washington conquer the most excruciating episode of his young life.


From the moment his son hit the floor, the question kept racing through the head of Darius's father, who was standing with his wife behind the opposing basket. "That's my son out there," he told security officials, and within seconds he was running toward a still-sobbing Darius Jr.

"We know our son," says the senior Washington, "and when that kind of situation happens, no one else can put his mind-set back in place, just me or my wife."

The assistant recreation director of a community center in Winter Park, the elder Darius says that, at 36, he may be the youngest father of any player in college basketball. "Darius and I kind of grew up together," he explains, recalling the days when a two-year-old Darius would sit with Tarchelle in the stands during his father's games at Edgewater High in Orlando. "We're from the same era, so he knows I'm his brother, I'm his homey, I'm his dad. He can come talk to me about anything, and I'll give him a straight answer. Most men don't say 'I love you' to each other, but we do. It's just one of those relationships."

Darius Jr., who speaks to his father as many as a dozen times a day, pays him a teenager's ultimate compliment: "I can be seen with my dad and not be embarrassed."

It was his dad who cried with him in a vacant room at the arena, who let him scream and throw his shoes against the wall, who finally hugged him and said, "You're not in this alone." It was his dad who made Darius watch the replays of his failure, again and again, to confront his anguish. And it was his dad who took his son for a walk through the Saturday-night crowds on Beale Street a few hours later. "That was a risky move," the father recalls, "but when I did, everybody just mobbed him. Don't worry about it! We'll get 'em next time! Nothing negative. We were just letting them know that we're not going to run and hide from this."

"If I didn't have positive people around me, I would have gone into a shell," Darius Jr. says. "My dad said, 'You have to go outside [eventually], so you might as well do it now so everyone can see you.' One day a little kid came up to me and said, 'Ain't you the dude who missed those free throws? How could you miss those?' I just said, 'Keep living. Things don't always come out how you want them.'"

Washington says he wouldn't change what happened--not the way he shot the free throws, not his desire to be on the line with a season hanging in the balance--except for one thing: He would have skipped the premature celebration. "Next time," he says, "I'll take care of business." In some ways he already has. It wasn't lost on anyone during the Tigers' run to the NIT semifinals that Washington made 23 of 26 free throws.

Before Memphis's NIT opener, Calipari made sure that Washington was the first Tigers player introduced, the better to bask in the communal bear hug of a minutelong standing ovation. It wasn't the coach's only show of support. Earlier in the season Calipari called a team meeting after Banks had tried to freeze out the freshman point guard. "Just so there's no confusion, I'm with him," Calipari announced, pointing to Washington.

"By the end of the year Darius had as much impact on a game as any guard in the country," Calipari says. "The pro scouts know he's fearless, but the biggest thing they want to see now is, Can he run a team? And you know what that will come down to: Can he show the compassion for his teammates that everybody had for him through all this? It's a great lesson."

Memphis certainly has reason for optimism. The Tigers are in the top 15 of most preseason polls. They have one of the country's most highly rated freshman classes, and both Washington and senior forward Rodney Carney were among 50 players named to the preseason list for the Wooden Award. Perhaps best of all, their star playmaker has a legion of new fans, many of whom have never followed Memphis basketball. Fans who just want to know, Is Darius Washington O.K.?

"I'm O.K.," he says, his once-quivering lower lip stretched into a beatific smile. "I'm O.K."


More college basketball coverage, including a photo gallery of players to watch, at

Letters of SUPPORT POURED IN, from a congressman, a prayer group, a prison inmate--even Louisville fans.
After his final attempt bounced off the rim, Washington heeded his dad's old advice and tried to cover his tears.
Washington has bounced back and will be the toast of Memphis at Midnight Madness.