Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Syracuse’s Hakim Warrick recalls the 2003 National Championship Game.
The only number you need to know is zero. That’s how many points we gave up in the final seconds of the 2003 National Championship Game. It’s also the amount of doubt we had that we could win it all. But most importantly, it’s the number I saw on the clock when it was all over. That’s when it was real. That’s when the Madness really began.
We weren’t even supposed to be there. We were unranked to start the season, and after missing the NCAA Tournament the year before, nobody expected much from us. But we had two new freshmen, Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara, and as soon as they stepped on the court at Syracuse, I knew that we were gonna have a pretty good team because they weren’t typical freshmen.
A lot of people doubted us because of our inexperience — we started two freshmen in Melo and Gerry, two sophomores (including myself) and just one senior in that tournament — but I think that was our biggest strength. We were too young and inexperienced to understand the gravity of what we were doing. The moments couldn’t be too big for us because we couldn’t even grasp how big the moments were.
Even as a No. 3 seed, most of the experts didn’t think we had a shot at getting to the Final Four. But when we upset top-seeded Oklahoma by 16 in the Elite Eight, they saw what we knew all along: We were not only capable of getting to the Final Four, we could win the whole thing.
After beating Texas in the Final Four, we faced Kansas in the national championship game. They had just beaten Marquette by 33, and we were huge underdogs, but we came out of the gate hot. We kinda punched them in the mouth, and I think it caught them off-guard. We led by as many as 18 in the first half. But they were a tough, veteran team, so we knew they were gonna get back into it. We just had to hold on.
In the second half, they fought their way back, just like we expected, and with 13.5 seconds left in the game, we were clinging to a three-point lead.
Both teams missed a few free throws down the stretch, but I was facing the most crucial free throw of the game.
That’s when I went to the free throw line.
I can ice it right here, I thought. I was a 66.7 percent free throw shooter on the year, and if I could make at least one of these two free throws and make it a two-possession game with 13.5 seconds left, that might wrap it up.
I missed the first one.
Both teams missed a few free throws down the stretch, but I was facing the most crucial free throw of the game. Make it, and it’s a four-point game. Miss, and with Coach Boeheim playing everyone back on defense rather than fighting for a potential rebound, Kansas would get the board and have a shot to tie.
The shot went up, and it felt good, but it rimmed out.
It didn’t even register. I didn’t have time to get upset. Kansas immediately pushed the ball back up the court, and I had to get back on defense. I was forced to play out of position because we went small to defend the three, so when Kansas swung it around to the wing for a corner three, I was still under the basket trying to adjust to our alignment.
I just remember looking to the corner, seeing Michael Lee wide open, and thinking, “No way…”
I didn’t think I had any chance of blocking it. I was still under the basket, a good 20 feet away, and he was at the three-point line. I just wanted to get close enough to challenge the shot — maybe get a hand up and throw him off a little. But as I got closer, I realized I made up a lot of ground in just a couple of steps, so in that split-second, I went from thinking I’d never get there to leaping for the ball and trying to avoid fouling him on the follow-through.
I got all ball.
After the block, I looked up at the clock and jumped up and down thinking, “That’s the game!” They put 1.5 seconds back on the clock the clock, but it didn’t matter. Kansas couldn’t get a good shot off at the buzzer and that was it.
I looked up at the clock again. Zeroes.
We were National Champs.
I wasn’t known as a shot-blocker. It was crazy that I was even able to make that play, because the reason we were in that predicament is because I didn’t ice the game with the free throws when I had the chance. For me to have that kind of redemption was crazy. It all happened so fast.
I try not to think about what would have happened if we lost that game because of those missed free throws. In fact, the last time Syracuse and Coach Boeheim were in the national championship game back in 1987, it was on that same court at the Superdome in New Orleans. With a one-point lead and less than 30 seconds left, Syracuse’s Derrick Coleman missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Indiana pushed the ball down the court to Keith Smart, who hit a long two from the corner with one second left to win it.
The same corner where I blocked Michael Lee’s shot to seal our victory.
A lot of people think my favorite moment from that game was the block — that moment when my hand swatted the ball out of the air and all but sealed the national championship for my team. But it wasn’t. It was that moment when I looked up at the clock and saw: 0:00.
Even old ladies who probably never watched basketball in their lives would recognize us and thank us.
Remember, we were young and naive and we didn’t get how big of a deal this was, so after we won, we did what any other 18-21 year olds would do in New Orleans — we hit Bourbon Street. We walked out there like it was a normal night — not like we just won the national title or anything — and we got mobbed. It was too crazy for us. We had to flee back to the hotel. That’s when we first realized what we had done and how big it was.
We realized it even more when we got back to Syracuse.
There aren’t any professional teams in Syracuse, so the city lives and dies by Syracuse athletics. When we got back, even old ladies who probably never watched basketball in their lives would thank us. Everyone in town knew who we were. We couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized.
As an athlete, you spend your whole life working to get to that moment where you can compete for a championship, but the real joy comes not from winning it for yourself, but in seeing what it means to everyone around you — the community, the university, your teammates, and especially Coach Boeheim. After that heartbreaking loss in ’87, he finally had his title.
I’ll never forget that block, but what I’ll always remember is the response when we returned to Syracuse and what it meant that that community. That’ll be my lasting memory.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.