There was no play call. Coach Romar tried to call a timeout, but I waved him off. Not tonight, coach. Nineteen seconds left in a tie game with the Pac-10 championship on the line? I had the ball. I was taking that shot.
Coach Romar backed off, like, “Okay, do your thing.” It was the first time he let me call him off like that, and it was because he trusted me. I had it going the whole tournament, and we both knew I was still feeling it.
It was the 2011 Pac-10 Championship Game, and Arizona was ranked No. 16 in the nation. We beat them at home by 17 earlier in the year and they beat us later in the year, 87-86, on a last-second block by Derrick Williams. This was the title game everyone wanted to see, and it didn’t disappoint.
We went punch-for-punch. We were down by as many as four late in regulation, and C.J. Wilcox and I each hit three-pointers down the stretch to help send the game into overtime. As soon as we went into overtime, I knew we had it.
The overtime period flew by. Arizona had just hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 75 with 19 seconds left. When I took the inbounds pass, I waved Coach Romar off and walked the ball up the court slowly — I wanted that clock to tick down. I held up four fingers and waved everyone down to the baseline. We called it “four flat.” It was our isolation play, to get me one-on-one with the defender.
As I walked the ball up the court, I thought about a couple of nights earlier, when Kemba Walker hit his famous step-back game-winner at Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament. I remember watching that and thinking, “Damn, that’s a big shot.”
My plan wasn’t to step back like Kemba. I wanted to wait until time wound down and just cross over and shoot. I’d crossed that same defender pretty hard earlier in the game, so I figured I had it, but this time he played it well — so well that as I crossed, I thought I had a better shot taking it to the basket instead of pulling up.
In that split second of hesitation, I lost the ball. You can see my head turn back to locate the ball, knowing I was in trouble and I had to get a shot off.
I had to step back. That was my only choice. But I’m left-handed and I was fading back to my left. As a shooter, you want to step back opposite your shooting hand. Kemba, who’s right-handed, stepped back to his left.
It was actually the accidental step-back that freed me up. If I hadn’t lost the ball, I don’t think I would’ve had the space to get the shot off. It gave me so much separation that the defender didn’t even have a chance.
It was the first time I ever stepped back to the left and shot, and as soon as I let it go, I knew it was good.
It was perfect. Just as it hit the net, the clock hit zero and the backboard lit up as if to say, “Yeah, dude just hit that.” I couldn’t have timed it more perfectly.
I hit a few game-winners in high school, but never in a championship game and definitely never at the buzzer. I was so excited, I didn’t even know what to do with myself. When I turned to celebrate, I was alone in the middle of the court. There was a camera right there on the floor — I just looked into it and let it out.
People still tweet the video at me. Every time, I watch it over and over. Aside from getting drafted, it was the biggest moment of my basketball life.
Just like movies, great highlights have great soundtracks. As good as the shot was, having Gus Johnson call it made it that much more special. Like my favorite song, I can recite every word.
“Shot clock turned off. Game clock at eight.”
“He’s gonna do it himself.”
“Thomas … Shake … Crossover … Step back …”
Everywhere I went after that, people would call out: “Cold-blooded!” And it was because of Gus Johnson. I made the shot, but he made it that much better. Even when I was playing in Phoenix, I would hear it. There were a lot of Arizona fans out there, so I’d just smile back, knowing that they were cheering for me now and I had to do ’em like that.
I got so many text messages after that game — Isiah Thomas, Jason Terry, Damon Stoudamire, Gary Payton, Jamal Crawford. I knew it was a big shot, but it hadn’t really sunk in yet. It was just so surreal.
After my rookie year in the NBA, we had an alumni game back at Washington with Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy, Spencer Hawes and all the other guys, and it was sold out. They honored us by playing highlights on the Jumbotron, and at the end of the reel, they played my shot. The whole arena went crazy, and that’s when it really hit me.
“Damn. That’s a big shot.”
This is the latest installment of The Best Play I Ever Made, a series where athletes break down (you guessed it) the best play they ever made. You can read other athletes’ entries here.