A reminder to relive a fantastic finish

My mom is 88. Her mind is as sharp as ever, but her vision isn’t. So she doesn’t read much anymore. When she did, though, she “cheated” on books. Always.

She would go to the conclusion of a book well before she was even halfway through it and read the ending. Sometimes, she’d read merely a few pages before cheating. When I was old enough to realize she was doing this, I was baffled as to why.

After all, wasn’t reading a great joy partly because you didn’t know how a book would end until you got there? Not to my mom. She said, “I’d rather know early on how it ends. So if I don’t like the ending, I won’t waste my time reading the whole book.”

If a person has this mindset, you really can’t argue with them about it. But, foolishly, I tried.

“How can you be sure that you like or dislike the ending when you’ve only read a little of the beginning?” I asked. “How do you even know if the ending makes sense? You can’t know all the characters, or what else happens to them.”

Mom: “I can always tell if I like the ending no matter how much of the book I’ve read.”

Me: “That’s absolutely absurd. It’s just not possible with every book.”

Mom: “It is for me.”

So I took a different approach: “But doesn’t it take away some of the suspense or enjoyment of reading the whole book if you ‘know’ what’s going to happen at the end?”

Mom: “No! I want to know. I don’t like to be surprised.”

OK, I mention all this not just so you can see how I lose every debate with my mother. But because in talking with Seattle’s Sue Bird recently, I asked her about the book “Bird at the Buzzer,” written by Jeff Goldberg. It was the first time I’d spoken with her since reading it a while ago.

Jeff covered the 2001 Big East tournament title game that is the subject of the book, and a decade later, that contest seems just as imporant as it did that night. Or maybe even more so.

But this is a book where you don’t have to be a cheater like my mom and skip ahead to the final pages to know how it turns out. We know that already.

Bird and UConn won that particular battle against Notre Dame, but the Irish ended up winning the war. With UConn down two All-Americans due to injury – Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph, who was hurt in the Big East title game – the Huskies still made the Final Four, but lost there to the Irish.

Notre Dame won the NCAA championship. Bird came back to lead UConn to a perfect season the following year, then was the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 2002. She’s since won two WNBA titles with Seattle, two Olympic gold medals with the United States, and been a champion overseas in Russia, too.

So, yeah, we know how the book ends. And yet I hope if you haven’t read it already, you take time to do it. It’s been out for a while. But with the WNBA soon to start its 15th season, it’s a neat time to reflect on how many people involved in that March 6, 2001, game are still so relevant in women’s basketball.

Especially the title character, who has made enough of a habit of buzzer-beating that whenever she does it, I call them “deja-Sue” moments.

Bird is now 30, hopes to lead Seattle to another WNBA championship this year, will be the U.S. Olympic team’s point guard again next year, and has firmly established herself as a Hall of Famer.

It’s one of points that Jeff makes in his book: If we thought back then that game was a special collection of some of the most remarkable players and personalities (including the coaches) ever in one place at one time, now it seems even more magnified. Because we know how successful so many of the participants then, like Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, have continued to be even a decade later.

To read the book reminds you of all the details, the context and the emotion of that particular night. And it may bring back your own memories if you’ve been a follower of the sport for at least 10 years.

When Bird beat the buzzer, I was standing in the drafty hallway outside the media room of Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, watching the game on a television that was set up on a security table. (Some bored person had to sit there and make sure nobody slipped into the media room who didn’t actually have a credential. As if there was much threat of this happening.)

It was the first round of the Big 12 tournament that Tuesday night. I was covering that, but didn’t really need to be at courtside glued throughout to Texas’ 17-point win over Nebraska and Baylor’s 16-point victory against Kansas State.  I slipped away to watch UConn-Notre Dame, which for some reason we weren’t getting in the media room. I had to go out to the TV in the hallway to see it.

The bored security person and I yelled with amazement when the game ended – one of those things you just do involuntarily at such a finish. I remember thinking then: “That’s it, UConn is going to repeat as national champion. Even if Shea Ralph is hurt. They’ve totally got the mojo now.”

It didn’t happen that way … but I think that makes the whole story even better. Now, I know UConn fans won’t think so. But that season actually stands out to me all the more because so many things went against predictable “script,” if you will.

UConn and Tennessee had met for the NCAA title in 2000, won by the Huskies, and there was every reason to think they’d play for it again in 2001. But then injuries struck both squads; for Tennessee, it was the devastating loss of Tamika Catchings. Meanwhile, Notre Dame somehow stayed healthy despite the fact that the Irish were almost completely reliant on their starting five.

Tennessee lost in the NCAA Sweet 16. So did another No. 1 seed, Duke. And like I said, after UConn had prevailed in the Big East tournament, it just seemed like it going to be the Huskies’ year again. But it wasn’t, as they fell in the national semifinals.

At any rate, I asked Bird what it was like to “re-live” that game _ she watched a tape of it with Jeff while he was writing the book _ and then how she felt reading though it.

Like most great athletes/performers still in the midst of their careers, Bird doesn’t spend a lot of time reviewing the past. And it is not in her nature to be self-congratulatory, or for that matter, be very interested in other people lauding her.

What instead she found most intriguing was realizing the things about the game that really had not stuck with her, plus how the Irish had viewed that contest.

“I like to think I have a good memory, but it was crazy the stuff I didn’t remember,” Bird said. “I felt like I could tell you play-by-play of that game, but there were some things I didn’t recall at all.

“For instance, I didn’t remember that I was one of the first people to help Shea when she went down. I don’t know if I blocked that out of my memory or what. I remember going and seeing her at halftime, but not being right there.

“And reading Notre Dame’s perspective, about their preparation – that was really interesting, too. So my favorite part of it was not really about just re-living the last part of that game, but everything about it.”

Seattle coach Brian Agler always says that as much as Bird is appreciated by participants and observers of the sport, she still isn’t appreciated enough. He’s right.

As she starts her 10th WNBA season, Bird is just as focused and committed to the detailed process of winning as ever. “Bird at the Buzzer” chronicles one of the epic games in her basketball career. But she’s still got more of those in her. She keeps authoring an on-going happy ending.

About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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One Response to A reminder to relive a fantastic finish

  1. Stephen Philbrick says:

    Heh, I wasn’t sure whether the anecdote about your mother was going, but you tied it in very nicely. Phil