What Could've Been

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, Baron Davis recalls UCLA’s bittersweet 1998 Sweet 16 run his freshman year.

I remember thinking, I’m going to take over this tournament. I was 18 and I was hungry.

You’ve played in big-time games before. McDonald’s All-American games. High school championships. Pac-10 Tournament games. No big deal. You got this.

That’s what I was telling myself as a freshman at UCLA going into my first NCAA Tournament. Then I walked into the Georgia Dome and took one look at the crowd.

The first thing I thought was: this is not a college arena, this is a stadium, dude.

Sure, later in my career in the pros, I played in bigger games. But that was the biggest stage I’d ever been on. Wearing the same jersey as all those great Bruins teams that won 11 titles — that’s a big deal for an 18-year-old. The pressure was really sinking in — and I always liked to rise to that kind of pressure.

If you’re not familiar with UCLA’s fan base, it’s hard to explain how special it is. We were in Atlanta, across the country, and Bruins fans were everywhere. I remember seeing people changing out of their business suits and into their UCLA hoodies and sweaters. Electricity and anticipation in the building. So many people. You feel the energy and the camaraderie settling in. To be embraced by the support of all things UCLA, that was truly special.

We had Miami in the first game. My first NCAA tourney game. The grand scale of it made it feel like I was playing in the blind, you know? The lights were brighter than usual. The noises were louder than usual. There was more media than I’d ever seen. I’ll never forget the bounce in my step during warm-ups. I can honestly say, I’ve never jumped so high or run so fast, just based on the atmosphere and energy alone.

Miami was tough — a really good defensive team. They had good college players like Kevin Norris, Mario Bland and Tim James. But we found our rhythm and got past them, 65-62. Toby Bailey, J.R. Henderson and I all shot high percentages, and I think that gave us the feeling like, We’re not shying away from this stage. Let’s keep it rolling.

After the Miami game, we had a day off. That’s something no one talks about. During the Tournament, you have a lot of down time. You’re basically a kid in new city — it’s like sleepaway basketball camp. We didn’t have to go to class, so when we didn’t have practice or film sessions, we hung out at the hotel. What’d we do? Played James Bond on Nintendo 64. That was the big game at the time. (Still a classic.) After practice we’d go back to the room and just crack jokes, play Bond, laugh, stay loose. It helped us calm our nerves. Of course, we were counting down the minutes until we could get back out in that stadium.

We all had a feeling that this could be our moment — our chance to make a deep run. Because all the teams that we were matched up against, we really liked our chances.

Next up was Michigan. Tractor Traylor, Maceo Baston, Louis Bullock. Our seniors reminded us not to look past anyone. That experience is crucial in college basketball. If you look at that Bruin team, we were the Old and the Young. Our seniors, like Toby and J.R., had won the 1995 Championship as freshmen. They looked up to guys like the O’Bannon brothers. Then you had the freshmen, guys like me and Earl Watson, who looked up to Toby and J.R. We knew going into that that it was going to be the last time we would have the opportunity to play together. For us, listening to the seniors’ stories about when they were freshmen and how they got there and how they won it, it was uplifting and inspiring to us.

The fairy tale script took a hard right turn the next day. In the first 10 minutes into the Michigan game, that’s when I tore my ACL. And that’s when my hopes and dreams for that Tournament faded away. But right when it happened, I refused to accept it. I was just so determined to play that I didn’t believe anything was wrong. My ACL was torn but I was thinking, Just a sprain, just a sprain. I was so determined to play that the doctor was like “Okay, he’s clear to go.” And they checked me out and they sent me back in the game. And then after 30 seconds, I knew I couldn’t play. Ten minutes into the game, I was done. It was crushing.

I just kind of felt like that was going to be my breakout game. The Michigan game was the one I was looking forward to. They had Robbie Reid, Lou Bullock, some other guards, and I was thinking, If you’re going to make a name for yourself, you’ve gotta do it against the best guards in the country. I thought I played well against Kevin Norris, an experienced guard for Miami and one of the most underrated guards in the country. Up against Michigan’s backcourt, I was ready — and it was just all cut short.

We wound up winning the game, beating Michigan, and then it was on to the biggest game yet, Kentucky. The two seed. Having all this anxiety and hype built up and then you get hurt and not be able to participate in it, it’s almost like everything becomes deflated. I felt that had I not been injured, I could have given us a much better showing against Kentucky. I hated sitting on the bench.

Everyone talks about the magic of March Madness. No one talks about the could-have-beens. It’s devastating when you’re a kid because, up until that point, you live your whole life waiting for that magic, waiting to feel that light and that energy. For me, I got a chance to do that my freshman year. I’m thankful I got to suit up in the Tournament, but I wish I could have taken it farther. You can’t always write things the way you want. Even all these years later, I wish I could go back and get another shot.

For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.

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