Twenty-three seconds to go, the score stood at 55-52. Ironton, the defending state runner-up, had just scored to come within one shot of returning to the Ohio State High School Basketball Tournament. I watched from the stands, nearly sick with worry. My brother, Nick, played for the opposing team, the Wheelersburg Pirates. After the basket, Wheelersburg in-bounded the ball amidst Ironton’s frantic, full-court defense. Catching the ball, Burg’s guard swiftly spun out of a trap…20 seconds. He then flung the ball across half-court to Wheelersburg’s center … 18 seconds. The center turned and immediately threw the ball to Nick … 17 seconds. Ironton then quickly fouled him to stop the clock. Sixteen seconds remained. It would come down to free-throws. Nick made his way toward the free-throw line, ready to shoot. But not yet. Ironton called a timeout, hoping the added time would make him miss.
This was it — what every high school player dreams of — a chance to go to the state tournament. If Burg made it, it would be the first time in 11 years. It would be only the fifth time ever. Whether or not they would rested on my brother’s shoulders. This was make or break time. It is a time like this when one sees excellence…if you know how to look.
Nick had been around. He was the lone senior on the team. One-by-one he had watched others quit. Now he was the only one from his class. In his four years, Nick had seen it all. Now in the regional finals, he’d certainly seen rougher times. There had been mediocre seasons with modest records. There had been teams with lackluster talent and short tournament runs. He had remained through it all. Excellence perseveres.
Nick joined the rest of the team on the sideline, waiting to take the biggest shots of his life. The coach asked an assistant how many timeouts they had. With all the noise, the assistant misheard and said, ” Coach, they don’t have any left. ” The coach yelled back, angrily, “I said us, not them!” Smiling, Nick interjected, “Coach, fire him.” Excellence is loose, confident; it is cool under pressure.
The timeout continued. Nervously sitting in the stands, I thought of all the years that had led up to this point. The countless hours he’d spent in the gym perfecting a jump-shot. The weekends spent traveling across the state to play even though it was
Summer — off-season. He’d definitely always had talent. But it was never just that. Talent is part of excellence; but it is not all of it. Excellence is ability honed by discipline, by hard work. Excellence is determined.
Both teams broke to return to the court. The noise continued at ear-splitting decibels. The sound from the opposing crowd was especially intense. For Ironton was not alone in wanting Wheelersburg to loose. The Pirates had dominated local basketball for most of the last 30 years. This past season had been no different. Cries of “Elitists,” “Stuck-ups,” and “Snobs” were nothing new, but remained. Here, sports can be and often is a definer of social status. Win the conference, get your name in the paper, and you are a celebrity. Maybe living in America, the land of equality, fuels such resentment. We don’t always like those who are the best; unless they are us. Sometimes, excellence fosters jealousy in others.
Nick stepped to the foul line. Now was the time. No bragging. No talk. Just two shots. The referee handed him the ball. The crowd grew even louder. Nick took three dribbles. He lifted his head, eyeing the basket. He rose up and followed-through. The ball sank through the net. 56-52. Wheelersburg’s crowd cheered. Nick was given the ball for a second shot. He went through the same routine, dribbling the ball and eyeing the goal. He released. Swish. 57-52. The crowd erupted. He’d made them both. Excellence is more than words. Excellence is action; it gets the job done.
But the game was not over. Ironton swiftly in-bounded the ball…14 seconds. The ball passed half-court…12 seconds. Dennis Gaigai, Ironton’s best player, caught the ball and faced the basket. With 28 points to his name already, he rose up and shot a three pointer…10 seconds. The shot missed, only to be grabbed by another Ironton player…8 seconds. He put the ball up, making the shot with 6 seconds left. 57-54. Wheelersburg threw the ball in to a guard who quickly heaved it down the court to Matt Jenkins, the back-up point guard 4 seconds. He took several dribbles and threw the ball high into the air as the clock read 3…2…1. The game was over. They had done it. Nick had done it. Wheelersburg was going to the state tournament. Excellence triumphs.
I left the arena, almost exhausted from cheering. On the radio, the coach talked about my brother, hero of the game. “He’s a good kid. He’s a strong Christian and an example to the rest of the team.” I fought back tears. Excellence knows what is most important. Better yet, excellence lives according to that knowledge. It is a living example to those around it.
I had always been proud of my brother, though I never said it enough. He had left his mark long before those free-throws sealed a trip to state. And it was not just on the basketball court. In the classroom, at home, at church, wherever he was, he exemplified character, determination, and hard work. In all he did, he was the very definition of excellence. Those free throws didn’t make him excellent; they merely showed it once again.
I saw him later on that night. He was unable to sleep, still too excited from the game. I put my arm around him and hugged him, doing my best that he would not see the twitch of a tear in my eye or the choke of crying in my voice. I said, “Good job, Nick. I’m proud of you.” Excellence, finally, commands respect. It demands admiration.
Adam Carrington is a junior from Wheelersburg, Ohio, majoring in Political Science.