So I imagine it went something like this:
Melo: Hey, remember that time when I was 18 and I beat your heavily favored veteran team to win the NCAA championship?
Mr. Thunder: Hey yeah, I don’t really remember. Welcome to OKC, I think you’ll help us get over the golden hump. We’ve saved a spot for you over there next to Funaki’s dirty socks.
Where were you on March 30th, 1987?
I know where I was. I was in my quiet town of Cazenovia, sitting in a basement with my Cub Scout pack following a weekly meeting. We convinced our parents to let us stay up and watch the NCAA final, which featured a team — OUR team — the Syracuse Orangemen, as they were about to take on the Indiana Hoosiers and the dastardly Bobby Knight. Little did I know, I was about to experience a defining moment in sports fandom. Specifically, what it feels like to go through a guillotine level loss. Here you go.
I was 10 at the time.
That shot, that freaking Smart Shot, became emblematic of what it meant to be a Syracuse fan during that era, my era. It was the kind of moment that you think you can recover from — after all, the ‘Cuse would be returning some of their all-timers the very next year — Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman, Stephen Thompson — and would eventually welcome blue chipper Billie Owens the following season as well.
It didn’t matter. Despite varying levels of regular season success, the Orangemen always struggled in the tournament, recording a number of 1st and 2nd round defeats. The 1987 magic became a mirage. It took them a full 10 years to reach the championship game again, that time as scrappy underdogs who eventually lost to the supercharged Kentucky Wildcats.
And so that shot, that Smart Shot, that became MY moment. Even as I grew into NBA fandom and experienced the luminescence of Larry Bird and the transcendent ferocity of Michael Jordan, and as much as I enjoyed seeing them win titles, they never provided a personal salve for me because they never really hurt me in the first place.
And then Carmelo arrived to central NY. He came with even more fanfare than Billy Owens did so many years ago (and in fact was a natural evolution of Owens), and was considered the equal to a 17-year old prodigy named LeBron “the Chosen One” James. Carmelo brought with him a gaggle of youngsters, including Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick, Billy Edelman, and Josh Pace (a kid who shot the ball like he was pulling it out of his ear). And these youngesters SHINED, like the Fab Five Wolverines, but without the cultural influence. And none shone as bright as Melo, a joyful bundle of smiles, cornrows, and a jump shot so elegant that it looked like a calligraphy brushstroke.
These kids, now nearly a decade younger than me, were about to deliver to me a second Moment that I could call my own.
If you will permit me a small portion of potential sacrilege:
sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper
In a small, almost silly way, Carmelo delivered something to me, and many long-suffering ‘Cuse fans, something that encapsulated the past, the present, and the future, and with the future, the freedom to move on and never stress about Syracuse basketball again. True liberation. That’s what Melo gave me.
Which is not to say I haven’t followed his pro career; I have. I even own his Nuggets jersey. But somewhere, at some point along the line, reality hits us all. Maybe I don’t have a Nolan Ryan fastball. Maybe I’m not going to grow to 6’5”. Maybe my guitar skills cap out at 4 chords. Maybe I’m not...
I’ve wanted Melo to win for a long, long time. But as he recently stated:
"I would be very happy walking away from the game knowing that I've given the game everything I have, knowing I played on a high level at every level: high school, college, won [a championship at Syracuse] in college and possibly three gold medals.
"I can look back on it when my career is over -- if I don't have an NBA championship ring -- and say I had a great career."
Reality sure can bite us, can’t it? But that doesn’t have to be the end. It doesn’t have to be bitterness. It can be something else entirely: peace. A contentment that transcends understanding, simply because you’ve figured out who you are meant to be. Has Melo figured out who he is? An Olympian 3rd-banana sniper? Secondary to a Russell Westbrook supernova? Even ... be still my heart ... a championship role player (Manu smiles knowingly)?
It is somehow full circle for me, with the player who completed my sports fandom once, arriving on my proverbial doorstep to offer a second time that same salve that he did so many years before.
So Carmelo, could you spare a Moment?