The Escape

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, Michael Carter-Williams remembers Syracuse’s Sweet 16 upset over Indiana in 2013.

During the second half of the Cal game in the Round of 32, I looked up into the stands and saw that my mom was crying. I was so confused. She gets stressed during games, but we were in control. Clearly something really bad had happened. I didn’t know what to do — I mean, I’m in the middle of a game. It almost didn’t feel real. Like a bad dream or something. So during whistles I kept looking at her like, “What’s going on?” She mouthed that everything was fine, but I knew it wasn’t. I finally called a timeout and asked the coaches what was going on. I noticed she had left her seat. They said they didn’t know but they would send someone to find out. I ended up finishing the last 10 minutes of the game not knowing what was happening. It was by far the longest 10 minutes of my life. Right after the buzzer, our coaches took me to see my mom. She hugged me and told me that our house had burned down. My stepfather and twin brothers were watching my game on TV when a fire started in our basement. My stepfather had called to tell my mom what happened during the game and she couldn’t control her emotions. It’s crazy because if my brothers were in bed like they normally would have been instead of staying up so late to watch my game on west coast time, they could have been killed. The roof collapsed right in on all of the bedrooms. Miraculously, everyone was awake watching the game at the time.

They grabbed what they could before escaping, but pretty much everything from my childhood went up in smoke. All my keepsakes from the Jordan Classic and the McDonald’s All-American game were gone, but I was lucky in that I still had a roof over my head at Syracuse. The worst part was that my three younger siblings didn’t have a home anymore. They still had to go to school and get on with life, but they had nothing left but the clothes on their back.

We were all the way out in San Jose in the West region. My family lives in Hamilton, Mass. I felt so far away from them. I was really down and feeling a little torn that I was in the middle of such an incredible experience and my family was dealing with losing everything. I remember my mom just being so strong and saying, “We’re going to be OK. Just concentrate on basketball.”

The Sweet 16 games were in Washington D.C., which was a lot closer to my family. Even though they were all trying to figure out what the next step would be, my family promised me they would be there. I kept thinking that if we kept winning, it would be a nice distraction for them. I knew us winning would give them something positive to focus on amid the stress that comes with figuring out how to start working toward a new home.

But we were up against No. 1 Indiana in the next game. There was a lot of hype around them, and rightfully so. They had a great team with Victor Oladipo and the big fella, Cody Zeller. We went into the game as the clear underdogs.

We get to the game, and it turns out I needed my family more than I thought. We walk out for warmups and there’s a small section of orange with our faithful traveling fans, but it felt like everybody was wearing red in the stands. That’s when I turned to the guys and said, “Okay, this is going to be a road game. We need a road mentality.” In a way, I think the hostile atmosphere helped us. We kind of felt like we had nothing to lose.

March Madness is really nerve-wracking because you know there’s not much room for error. Nobody wants to go home. For me, that feeling was multiplied by 10 because I really didn’t want to go back to reality. I wanted to keep my family on the road with us and give them something else to think about.

Before the game, I thought about something I had lost in the fire. It was a basketball jersey belonging to my friend Richard Jones that hung on my bedroom wall. Richard passed away of a heart condition while playing at Canisius College a few years earlier. He was a few years older than me and my stepfather had coached him when he was in high school. He was one of the guys I grew up watching and wanted to be like. I just remember thinking that his jersey was gone, but he was still with me. I went out there that night thinking, Just leave it all on the floor. Be aggressive. No hesitation.

Right from the jump ball, we dominated. But it was a physical battle. I knew they wanted to keep me from getting to the lane, so they gave me a few open looks early, and I buried them. That changed everything. We jumped out to a 10-point lead early on, and you could’ve heard a pin drop in there. That whole sea of red was so quiet. Indiana had such a great year — I don’t think anyone expected us to start off so strong.

The moment I’ll always remember is when our big man, Baye Moussa Keita, went up to block a shot and ended up getting flipped and landed right on his face. It looked really bad.

Baye had a nasty gash on his head and he waved off help, but he wouldn’t even come out of the game. He staggered to his feet and lined up for the free throw.

The ref noticed he was bleeding, so he went over to the sidelines for a second and the doc patched him up like a boxer right there on the spot. He came right back in — didn’t even sit down. There was only two minutes left in the half. He could’ve easily come out and no one would’ve thought anything of it, but that’s exactly the kind of mentality we needed to knock off a No. 1 — “You’re going to have to carry me off this court.”

That’s when I knew there was no way we were letting Indiana come back.

They switched Oladipo on to me in the second half. He’s an incredibly athletic guy and a great defender. He also had the boost of playing in front of his hometown crowd in D.C., so he really tested me. Indiana had cut the lead to nine with 10 minutes left, and I knew I had to get to the rim.

I beat Victor off the dribble at the top of the key and then finished with a tough bank shot off the glass. That was one of those By Any Means Necessary finishes that you have to get against defenders like him.

The next time down the floor, the defense collapsed on Brandon Triche and he kicked it out to me. I was wide open for the three. There was no hesitation. I remember letting go of the ball and thinking it was the dagger.

I drained it.

We controlled the rest of the game and I finished with my best all-around game of the season: 24 points, 6 rebounds and a couple steals. That was the game that really put me over the hump and made my NBA dreams a reality. After the game, I met my family for dinner, and we were all so excited about making the Elite Eight that we almost forgot about the house and everything they were going through. The thing I love about basketball is that it’s a complete escape. Anything else could be happening in the world or with your family, but when you’re on the court, you’re totally free, and your game can help others escape their problems, too.

I saw my mom cry again a few months later. This time, it was because they announced my name at the NBA Draft.

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