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THE SHOT THAT SAVED LIVES

March 16, 2009
March 16, 2009

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March 16, 2009

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Mykal Riley
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THE SHOT THAT SAVED LIVES

One year ago Mykal Riley sank a three that kept fans out of the path of a tornado. But Riley would never have been there if not for an intricate web of chance meetings, false starts and a terrible crime

THE CLOCK STARTSWHEN THE SHOOTER CATCHES the ball, on the left wing, 24 feet from the basket.Two seconds left. He has run off a screen from the baseline, so his momentumcarries him toward midcourt. He pushes hard off his right foot and pivots backto the left. One-point-four seconds. When he rises off the floor, the force ofthis hard cut is still carrying him left. One second. He believes Jesus willguide this shot.

This is an article from the March 16, 2009 issue

The shooter flickshis right wrist at the peak of his jump, and if you photographed him now, youcould put it in a textbook. Eight tenths of a second. The ball is stillairborne when time expires and the horn sounds. The shot is almost perfect. Butthe shooter was drifting left, as you recall, and the ball lands just left ofthe target. It hits the back of the rim, the boxy part with the springs, andthe springs rattle. The ball caroms from back rim to front, seeming to gainspeed as it goes, and it suddenly leaps out of the cylinder.

The secret thingsbelong unto the Lord our God. The shooter believes this because his King JamesBible says so, and because of what he has seen, and soon he will believe itmore deeply than ever. The ball sails toward the backboard, hits the center ofthe white square, and falls through the net.

This shot doesnothing to change the game's outcome. And yet, for pure utility, it may be asgreat as any play in the history of sports. Eight minutes later, on the eveningof March 14, 2008, during this Southeastern Conference tournament game betweenAlabama and Mississippi State, a tornado will roar through downtown Atlanta,and high winds will breach the Georgia Dome, and metal will strike thehardwood, and players will flee for cover, and it will seem to be snowingindoors. By morning Mykal Riley's three-pointer will be known as The Shot ThatSaved Lives.

Each life turns ona trillion silent hinges, and every act has an infinite series ofprerequisites. For Mykal Riley to be where he was and do what he did, anincalculable number of things had to happen just so.

Before he couldplay for Alabama, he had to quit two other colleges and happen upon athird.

Before he couldplay in high school, he had to wash sweaty uniforms and sweep the gymfloor.

And before hecould learn the jump shot, someone else had to fire a gun.

YOU COULD tracethis chain of events back to the Great Flood. Or you could start on ChristmasDay 1962, in Milwaukee, when 13-year-old Freddie Riley tears the wrapping paperoff his first electric guitar: a self-amplifying Tesco that runs on a nine-voltbattery, bought by his mother with cash she earned cleaning houses.

Freddie teacheshimself to play. Well, sort of. If you asked him about it today, he would tellyou he offered God a bargain: Teach me to play, and I'll play just for you. Norock and roll. No rhythm and blues. Just hymns and gospel songs like the onesthey sing at St. James Church of the Firstborn.

He gets prettygood on his nine-volt electric, and in a few years he is traveling the U.S. aslead guitarist for such gospel groups as the Harmony Kings and the Chariots.One morning in 1979, at a church in Milwaukee, a striking young woman takesnote of Freddie's skill on the fingerboard. Her name is Betty Beard, and shehas come from Arkansas with her mother and father and five brothers andsisters, all crammed into a '70 Pontiac Bonneville. They are the Beard FamilySingers, here in Milwaukee for a gig. Betty plays a Stratocaster.

Freddie hears herplay, hears songs of praise coming from her powerful lungs, and he is smitten.He follows Betty back to Pine Bluff, Ark., and marries her. He becomes the leadguitarist for the Beard Family Singers. And on July 14, 1985, Freddie and Bettyhave a son.

Mykal, six poundsand four ounces, is slight and unassertive, slow to cry, quick to sleep. Butthere is music in his blood. At age four he appears onstage with the BeardFamily Singers, in bow tie and sienna plaid jacket, singing Jesus on theMainline like a wise old soul.

In 1994, whenMykal is nine, Pine Bluff is a dangerous place. Drug dealers flourish androbbers run the streets. There is gunfire, too. We'll come back to that.

In the middle ofall this Mykal's grandmother Dottie Beard does something extraordinary. She hasa full concrete basketball court built under the pecan tree in her spaciousbackyard, a block and a half from Mykal's house. She has the foul lines andthree-point arcs painted in yellow. She puts up chicken wire above herchain-link fence so the ball won't bounce into the street. She hangs twofloodlights above the court. Beside it she installs an aboveground swimmingpool with a clear plastic dome to keep out the mosquitoes. She tells hergrandchildren to come visit anytime.

Swearing is notpermitted at Dottie's park. Nor is fighting, bickering or playing without ashirt. Betty keeps the grounds immaculate with a leaf blower and a push broom.Freddie puts Mykal and his younger brother, Don, through intense drills:lefthanded dribbling, backdoor cuts and screens and, of course, shooting.Release the ball at the peak of your jump, he says. Snap your wrist. Let itroll off your fingertips.

The boys go thereevery day after school and play well past dark. On weekends and in the summerthey show up in the morning and sometimes stay till 1 or 2 a.m. Experts havetheorized that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. If so, hisgrandmother's backyard is the place where Mykal Riley masters the jumpshot.

Summer 2000, PineBluff High. The gym smells of dust and lacquer. A cartoon zebra snarls on thewall. Varsity coach Ronald Moragne sees Mykal sitting alone in the bleachers."It's O.K. for you to go out and play," says Moragne, who uses open-gymsessions like this one to evaluate talent.

"O.K.,Coach," Mykal says, but he stays in the bleachers. He has developed hisgame in isolation, and at 15 he is all skin and long bones. When he finallygoes in, he gets knocked around on defense, loses the ball under pressure andgets so rattled that he can't do the one thing he does better than everyoneelse. Everything is easy in Dottie's backyard. But in games, when it actuallymatters, Mykal is afraid to shoot.

Still, Moragnelikes this kid. He offers him a spot on the Zebras as team manager, otherwiseknown as water boy. Mykal minds the clock, keeps statistics, does the laundry.At halftime, when he takes the rack of basketballs back to the locker room, hekeeps his head down so he won't have to look at anyone he knows.

But he nevermisses a practice. He steps in on drills when the team needs an extra body, andby 11th grade he is good enough to join the junior varsity. He makes varsity asa senior, and though he often leads the team in prayer before games, he is onlythe second or third man off the bench. The Zebras win the Arkansas 5A statetournament in 2003, but Mykal—a defensive liability who still hesitates toshoot—plays barely five minutes.

Two months afterthe season Mykal walks into the gym and stuns Moragne. He has grown nearly fourinches, to 6'4", and put some muscle on those long bones. Moragne calls afriend who coaches at Division II Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia,Ark., and gets Mykal a spot on the team, but Mykal has trouble with grades anddrops out without playing a minute. He comes home, enrolls at SoutheastArkansas in Pine Bluff and drops out again. Still, he keeps playing andpraying. He keeps growing. He stays on Moragne's mind.

One day in 2004Moragne is watching his son play at Centenary College of Louisiana inShreveport when he sees another coach wearing a shirt with the logo of Panola,a junior college across the border, in Carthage, Texas. Moragne walks up tohim. "I'm a high school coach from Pine Bluff, Arkansas," Moragne says,"and I've got a kid who can play."

The Panola coachis Scott Monarch, famous in junior college circles for his Full-Court Expressoffense, and when Moragne describes Mykal to him—6'6", with Go-Go Gadgetarms and a rare shooting touch—Monarch agrees to take a look. He drives fourhours to Pine Bluff and watches Mykal shoot around at the high school gym. Hesees the snapping wrist, the effortless stroke, and he needs less than 10minutes to decide. "Mykal," he says, "I've got a full scholarshipfor you." Mykal hesitates. "I walk out this door," the coach says,"I ain't comin' back."

"Coach,"Mykal says, "I want to go to school."

The Full-CourtExpress is Monarch's fast-break system, partly based on Confederate generalNathan Bedford Forrest's philosophy of war: Get there first with the most.Every time Panola gets the ball, the players run predetermined lanes toward theopposing goal. Mykal runs the two lane, which means he sprints down the rightside of the floor and sets up outside the arc. If he gets the ball and is open,he shoots. He must shoot. There is no decision. If Monarch had sat down todesign the perfect scheme for Mykal Riley's game, he could have done no betterthan the Full-Court Express.

The Ponies scorenearly 100 points a game, and Mykal gets far more shot attempts than he wouldin a traditional half-court set. He averages 16 points, seven rebounds and foursteals in his first year. He scores 18.4 points per game the second year, andsoon Division I schools are recruiting him. His first choice isAlabama-Birmingham, because coach Mike Anderson's Forty Minutes of Hell remindshim of the Full-Court Express, but Anderson is hired away by Missouri. He andMykal lose touch, and when Alabama coach Mark Gottfried flies in to see him,Mykal signs his name.

Now he is notafraid, because he has trained himself to forget every miss. He hits threethrees and scores 17 points in his first Division I game, against JacksonState. He scores 14 in 12 minutes against South Carolina to carry the CrimsonTide to a comeback win. At the end of his junior season he drills a 28-footerat the buzzer to send the game into overtime against UMass. He is even betterthe next year. He is not a superstar, not even truly a scorer, because herarely drives to the hoop. Mykal is a shooter. He averages 14.9 points andmakes 43.3% of his three-pointers. That's 26th best in the nation.

Although Alabamahas its worst season in 10 years, Mykal hits eight threes and scores 26 pointsin the first round of the SEC tournament to lead the Tide past Florida, thetwo-time defending national champion, in an 80--69 upset. That puts Alabama inthe second round against Mississippi State, the top-seeded team in the SECWest, two hours before the wind blows a hole in the heart of Atlanta.

TEN MINUTES aftertip-off, at 7:48 p.m., the National Weather Service issues a warning for astorm approaching the metro area. Frequent cloud to ground lightning and windgusts to 45 mph, it says. Brief heavy downpours will cause ponding of water onroadways. A smear of green and red appears on the radar near the Alabama stateline, about 100 miles to the northwest. Mississippi State leads 10--4, andMykal is 0 for 3, thanks in part to the defense of Ben Hansbrough, youngerbrother of North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, who will soon be named NationalPlayer of the Year. "Hansbrough so far has been like Velcro on MykalRiley," says Joe Dean Jr., the color commentator for Raycom Sports.

Mykal forgetsthose misses. A few possessions later he hits his first three, beginning a runof 13 points in 11 minutes that concludes when he steals a pass and breaks awayfor a two-handed tomahawk jam. Alabama leads 36--29 at halftime. There is hardrain in Taylorsville, 40 miles northwest of Atlanta, and the storm isdeveloping signs of a hook echo, the comma shape that often precedes atornado.

The second halfcomes, and Mykal goes cold. He gets called for traveling, shoots an air ball,misses a layup, has the ball slapped away by Hansbrough. With 2:37 left in thegame Hansbrough nails a three to give the Bulldogs a 54--52 lead, their firstof the second half. Hailstorms in Cobb County show white on the radar.

Gottfried callstimeout with 20.8 seconds on the clock and his team trailing 58--56. It is 9:20p.m. "Mykal Riley has been absolutely no factor in the second half,"says Tim Brando, the Raycom play-by-play man. Mykal catches the ball near thetop of the key with about 15 seconds remaining, but his left foot slips. Hefalls to his knees and hurls a wild pass. A whistle blows. Mississippi Statecoach Rick Stansbury makes a wheeling motion with his hands, imploring the refsto call a travel, but they do not. They say Hansbrough kicked the ball, so itgoes to Alabama, still down by two, with 13.1 seconds left. It's 9:22, and thestorm is spinning toward the Georgia Dome from 12 miles northwest.

On Alabama's nextpossession forward Richard Hendrix drives for a game-tying layup, butMississippi State's Jarvis Varnado leaps just high enough to tip it away.Bulldogs guard Barry Stewart emerges with the loose ball, and the referees calla foul on Alabama. The storm is six miles away, moving at 35 mph.

Stewart hits thefirst free throw, giving Mississippi State a 59--56 lead with seven secondsleft. Stansbury calls timeout to tell his players that if Stewart misses hissecond free throw, they must foul before anyone from Alabama can shoot athree.

Stewart steps tothe line for a chance to seal the game. His parents have come from Shelbyville,Tenn., to watch him play tonight. His shot bounces out.

Hendrix grabs theball and throws it to Alabama point guard Brandon Hollinger, who pushes it upthe left side of the floor. Four seconds. Three. Two. Stewart follows hisinstructions. He lunges at Hollinger, trying to foul him, but he only succeedsin knocking the ball out-of-bounds. Stewart will later determine that his twofailures near the end of the game helped save his parents' lives.

Gottfried callstimeout. He tells Mykal to run off a baseline screen and catch the inboundspass and fire away. Mykal is exhausted. Lord, he prays, forgetting his misses,please let me hit this shot. Five hundred miles away Betty and Freddie Rileyare watching on their cabinet-style Zenith, which is parked in the living roomto the right of a print of Jesus at the Last Supper that plugs into the walland sends out radiant beams of light. Betty and Freddie are praying too.

Stansbury knowsMykal will get the ball. He tells Hansbrough to foul him as soon as Mykalcatches the inbounds pass. A foul before the shot would put Mykal on the line,where he would get no more than two free throws. That would leave Alabama onepoint short.

The referee givesAlabama forward Demetrius Jemison the ball on the left sideline, just beyondhalf-court. He sees Mykal coming off the screen and hits him with a pass on theleft wing. Mississippi State fans bellow.

Dee-fense!Dee-fense!

Hansbrough swipesat Mykal, but no foul is called. His own parents, Gene and Tami Hansbrough ofPoplar Bluff, Mo., are here tonight, and they will soon conclude it was a mercythat their son could not do what his coach commanded. The shot goes up. It's9:30.

"Riley forthreeeee," says Brando. "Ohhh! Got it! The iron was kind! We're goingto overtime!"

About eightminutes later, with 2:11 left in overtime, a roaring sound is heard inside theGeorgia Dome. The white Teflon roof ripples. A small hole is torn in the wallnear the west end of the building. Insulation floats down toward the floor,reminding some people of snowflakes, and loose metal washers fall from highcatwalks to the court. There are 14,825 people in attendance. No injuries arereported inside the stadium.

Outside, thetornado passes just north of the Dome and screams through Centennial OlympicPark with winds of 120 mph. Glass rains down from hundreds of broken windows.Siding is ripped from the Dome's exterior. Potted plants go flying. Metal isdriven into the side of a covered walkway. Cars flip over. Two 65-foot lighttowers topple in the park.

To the east, neara neighborhood called Cabbagetown, a homeless man is killed by a collapsingbrick wall. But no serious injuries are reported downtown because thethunderstorm that came before the tornado has driven almost everyone off thestreets, and 14,825 are safe inside the Dome, watching the overtime forced byMykal Riley.

There is no way toprove that his shot saved lives. We can know only what did happen, and whatdidn't. Nevertheless, all the people interviewed for this story about theirexperience in the Dome that night believe that Mykal's shot prevented injuriesand even deaths.

Georgia Domespokeswoman Ashley Boatman explains the prevailing theory. This was a walkingcrowd. Most of the fans had come from out of town to stay at the Omni or theWestin Peachtree Plaza or other hotels nearby. Tickets were sold in multigamepackages—that is, those who paid to see Alabama and Mississippi State also paidto see Kentucky play Georgia afterward—but it is common for fans who have cometo see the early game to skip the late one. If Mykal had missed the shot andthe game had ended then, several thousand fans would have headed for the exits.They would have had eight minutes before the tornado struck. Most of thosegoing back to their hotels would have headed east down Andrew YoungInternational Boulevard, toward Centennial Olympic Park, and between a fewhundred and a few thousand would have been walking in the path of thestorm.

ALL THESE livesturned on a trillion silent hinges. Freddie gets the nine-volt guitar. Bettyrides to Milwaukee with seven Beard Family Singers. Mykal swallows his prideand becomes a water boy, thus earning the trust of Moragne, who goes to a gamein Louisiana and runs into Monarch, who drives four hours to see an obscurecollege dropout based on the word of a man he just met. Monarch signs theplayer after watching him stroke a few jump shots and puts him in a system thatforces him to shoot and takes away his fear and puts him on the radar ofDivision I coaches, including one in Birmingham whose sudden departure putsMykal on the path to Tuscaloosa.

And so on. Butthere is one prerequisite we have not yet discussed, and for the Rileys, whobelieve God can do anything but fail, it is the hardest one to understand.

The secret thingsbelong unto the Lord our God. Dec. 27, 1994. A young man kicks in the door ofan apartment. He has four-inch fingernails and an IQ of 72. He is the productof a one-night stand. He has come from a house full of mice and cockroaches,where his mother uses belts and extension cords in her ongoing attempt to beatthe devil out of him. His name is Roderick Leshun Rankin, and he is 19 yearsold. He carries a Hi-Point 9-mm pistol.

He is here for hisex-girlfriend, Sonyae Reynolds. He has said he would kill her whole family ifshe left him.

He can't findSonyae because she is hiding in a closet. But he finds her sister, ZenaReynolds, mother of two toddlers, and shoots her in the head. He finds hermother, Ernestine Halford, and shoots her in the head. He finds her stepfather,Nathanial Halford, and shoots him in the head. Ernestine Halford was once leadvocalist for the Beard Family Singers. She was Betty's older sister.

Fourteen yearslater Mykal Riley is playing professional basketball for Aget Imola in Italy.He doesn't sing much, except with his iPod, but he still takes every jumper inthe name of Jesus, and he prays for a shot at the NBA. He says the shot he madeagainst Mississippi State drew him closer to God. He had a chance to tie thatgame with a layup with one second left in overtime, but it rattled out. Thatwas his last shot for the Crimson Tide.

"I don'tquestion God's decisions," he says when asked about his Aunt Ernestine.

His grandmotherDottie didn't have much money. In fact, she filed for bankruptcy the yearbefore she died, in 1999, of congestive heart failure. But she keptlife-insurance policies on all her children, including Ernestine, and Bettysays that check helped pay for the basketball court in their mother'sbackyard.

For Riley to do what he did, an incalculable number ofthings had to HAPPEN JUST SO.
The tornado SCREAMS THROUGH Centennial Olympic Parkwith winds of 120 mph.
PHOTOPhotograph by Gary BogdonTHE PAYOFF Countless hours of practice preceded Riley's jumper at the Georgia Dome, which tied the SEC tournament game just before the storm arrived.PHOTODave Martin/AP [Seecaption above]PHOTOGARY BOGDONLOVE SONG Betty first met Freddie in church, where both of them were performing gospel music.PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE RILEY FAMILYLONG HAUL Mykal rose from water boy (left) to varsity player in high school. After graduating he went to three colleges before 'Bama.TWO PHOTOSCOURTESY OF THE RILEY FAMILY[See caption above]PHOTOKENT GIDLEYJOY AND SORROW While Riley (below, center) and teammates celebrated in the Dome, the storm was wreaking havoc nearby.PHOTOJOHN BAZEMORE/AP[See caption above]