On Saturday night, a thrilling, back-and-forth heavyweight brawl ended with the Kentucky Wildcats prevailing over the Wisconsin Badgers in the Final Four by a score of 74-73. Freshman sensation Aaron Harrison stared down the defense as the clock wound down before canning an NBA-range three-pointer with Kentucky down two and a mere 5.2 seconds to go.
And if it looks vaguely familiar, it’s because on March 30th, he rattled in equally pressure-filled deep trey with only 2.3 remaining from practically the same spot on the floor to beat the Michigan Wolverines in the Midwest Regional Final.
If that’s not clutch enough for you, in the semifinal against the Louisville Cardinals, with a comparatively glacial amount of time remaining—a whole 39.1 seconds—Harrison found himself alone in the corner, gathered in a pass from the bullish 6-9 power forward Julius Randle, and nailed the longball that gave the Wildcats the lead for good on the way to a 74-69 victory.
Yep, that makes three consecutive game-winning threes and left no doubt as to the fact that, as Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker said, “He has that clutch gene.”
Here’s the thing: in case you weren’t aware, there is no such thing as “clutch,” let alone an ineffable quality that’s embedded in a player’s very being.
For the statistically-inclined crowd that has infiltrated sports, there are more than enough reams of data available to suggest that, despite the number of times that your favorite cigar-chomping sportswriter reverently slaps the clutch label on Superstar X, it doesn’t make it so.
In a 2006 article, Nate Silver investigated the performance of David Ortiz, another player universally regarded as being clutch:
“Most of the damage was limited to just two seasons, 2000 and 2005. Take those two years away, and his lifetime clutch rating is essentially zero. He didn’t rate as a clutch hitter in 2004—at least not during the regular season—or in 2002. It isn’t a bad track record, but if clutch hitting really exists, one would expect more consistency out of the ‘greatest clutch hitter in the history of the Boston Red Sox’… Producing wins at the plate is about 70 percent a matter of overall hitting ability, 28 percent dumb luck, and perhaps 2 percent clutch- or situational-hitting skill.”
That’s not to say that clutch performances don’t exist. Of course they do (see Harrison, Aaron), but that doesn’t make any one particular player particularly predisposed to being clutch, as if there were something about the cut of his jib that made it so.
There’s an instinct to dismiss the statheads as a bunch of pencil-necked and pencil-pushing geeks trying to suck the life and joy out of the game. That’s not entirely incorrect either; it is a lot less fun to think of the memorable sports moments as a mere roll of fate’s dice, especially when the evidence in front of us—like Harrison’s incredible streak—seem to suggest otherwise and has the added benefit of creating a drama that is incredibly compelling, joyous, or heartbreaking.
But even if the clutch gene is a myth, it’s worth remembering that basketball itself is a kind of performance, and that whatever emotional content one derives from it is entirely dependent on the audience crafting a narrative based on past and current actions. And with any preconceived narrative, comes a set of expectations.
That’s where the drama is created. If you want to craft a dramatically compelling moment onstage, you can ultimately do two—and only two—things: You can either fulfill the audience’s expectations, or you can break them.
For example: the damsel is tied to the train tracks, the Pacific Union hurtling her way. Snidely Whiplash twirls his mustache evilly and snickers. We expect that she is doomed, when all of a sudden, out pounces Dudley Do-Right to whisk her away at the last moment and save the day. Expectation broken, and the result is happiness. If the expectation had been fulfilled, well, then our mini-playlet’s a horrible tragedy.
The final minute of the Kentucky-Wisconsin guilt was so astounding and so memorable precisely because it was a back-and-forth whipsaw of fulfilled and broken expectations, all leading up to the thrilling conclusion.
At 0:51, after Wisconsin had corralled an errant Harrison bomb, they worked Coach Bo Ryan’s swing offense to perfection, methodically probing the edges of the longer, bigger, more athletic Kentucky defense, trying to find a way to feed the ball to center Frank Kaminsky on the low block, while simultaneously running the Wildcats through a gauntlet of picks and dives to the rim, looking to free up one of their many long-range marksmen.
Point guard Traevon Jackson found himself isolated on the right wing outside the three-point line, the shot clock creeping ever closer to zero. He jab-stepped, deked, juked and probably traveled, before finally luring Aaron’s twin brother (and fellow phenom) Andrew Harrison off his feet, drawing a foul that netted three free throws.
Up until that point, Wisconsin had made 17 of 17 from line, and for the tournament, Jackson himself was a robust 18 for 20.
Odds are, you expected Jackson to swish all three, but first freebie dribbled off the front of the rim and suddenly, hope renewed! For Kentucky fans dreading a gut-wrenching defeat, suddenly the impossible was possible! For Badger-backers, pure dread began to well in their collective stomachs.
He converted the next two, and it was 73-71. Of course, Kentucky hadn’t made a three since their opening possession, but there was Aaron Harrison, waiting in the wings, ready to once again play the heroic white knight and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Dare we expect that he’d do it again?
And when he hit it, boom. Joy for Kentuckians, misery for Wisconsinites, and the fulfilling of an utterly implausible plot line, one that might be too hackneyed for even the most saccharine Hollywood sports movie trope. Heck, it’s practically the Theater of the Absurd.
There even was a tragic flaw in the Badgers’ armor. The strategy that had kept Wisconsin in the lead for a good portion of the game—packing the paint to stymie Coach John Calipari’s dribble-drive attack—ultimately ended up being their undoing, as Josh Gasser sagged off Harrison, giving him more than enough room to nail the game-winner. Oh, cruel irony!
But wait, it’s not over yet! Jackson got one final opportunity for redemption, a chance to shed the goat’s horns. He drove the length of the court and pulled up from 18 feet, but his desperation bank shot was inches too long, and the Kentucky players collapsed into a giddy, jubilant pile at center court.
That’s a perfectly crafted dramatic structure. Epic heroes, doom-struck warriors, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.
This play isn’t even over yet. On Monday night, Kentucky’s merry band of cardiac kids will take on the upset-minded UConn Huskies for the National Championship; a team fresh off a fairly shocking toppling of the prohibitive favorites, the Florida Gators.
Once again, Kentucky will have to use its superior speed, strength and size to prevail, this time to try to shut down a veteran team that’s overflowing with confidence, sports a deadly, pesky on-ball defense, and plays through the whippet-quick backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright.
Will a sage coach like John Calipari be able to outwit a relative newcomer in Kevin Ollie, he of a mere two seasons on the job? Considering that Coach Cal has taken the shackles off the Wildcats by instituting a fairly simple dribble-drive attack, while Ollie has changed gears on the fly, switching deftly between zone and man-to-man, and going uber-small with 6-7 DeAndre Daniels in the middle, once again the broken/fulfilled expectation wheel will spin ‘round and round.
Just to lend the final act of the Final Four a bit more juice, Kentucky has now won 11 straight NCAA Tournament games, with their last defeat coming at the hands of—
you guessed it—UConn in the 2011 Final Four.
We’ll be tuning in just to see if Aaron Harrison can bring the house down one more time, and that’s okay. Even if the master puppeteer that’s putting on this wild show does bring him center stage, and he misses, it doesn’t mean that he’s had the clutch gene expunged from his DNA.
And none of this should be interpreted as an indicator that when a shot comes within inches of changing the fortunes of a team and fanbase, the appropriate reaction would be to sit back stoically and burble, “Random chance. To be expected.”
It’s okay to be aware of the presence and power of subjective narrative(s), whether it’s the myth of the clutch gene or any other fairy tale, and still lose yourself in the pleasure of experiencing the story. That’s why we tell stories, to experience profound moments, and better understand the world, and sometimes, even better understand ourselves. It’s human nature.