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, Paul Pierce remembers the game that ended No. 1 Kansas’s 1997 national championship run.
Being from Inglewood, California, I was recruited very hard by Pac-10 schools out of high school.
But even though I always assumed that I would end up on the West Coast, it only took one visit to Lawrence, Kansas to convince me that I wanted to be a Jayhawk. The unrivaled passion of the fanbase just made me want to win a national championship there.
And my sophomore year, I really thought it was going to happen.
Our team was just about unstoppable that season — we started the year 22-0. ESPN was calling us the national title favorites. Our only loss during the regular season was against Mizzou in double OT, and we beat them by double-digits the next two times we faced them.
We entered the 1997 NCAA tournament that year as the No. 1 overall seed and won our first two games convincingly. In the Sweet 16, we were set to face No. 4 Arizona. We had beaten them the previous season in the Sweet 16, so I felt like we were ready.
Arizona was good — they had a tremendous backcourt comprised of Mike Bibby and Jason Terry — but I didn’t have much doubt that we would win. Honestly, I thought we would crush them. Our team was stacked with NBA talent. The expectation was that we were going to bulldoze through the early rounds of the tournament. I had my sights set on the Final Four, where I figured we’d probably meet Kentucky, the defending national champs. That was the game we were all looking forward to.
But Arizona came to play, and we weren’t at our best.
It was pretty close throughout, but late in the second half, the Wildcats built a lead that was as many as 13 late in the game.
I remember that we were down 79-71 with just over 1:30 left and Arizona had to inbound the ball under their own basket, so we started pressing. They threw the ball long and I deflected it like I was a cornerback, which led to a steal and a bucket.
Down by six.
On the ensuing inbounds pass, we pressed again and I came up with another steal — it was unbelievable.
We went down the court and swung it around to Billy Thomas, who hit a three-pointer to bring us within three with a minute left. And at that time, I started to get really excited. We had all the momentum. I thought I was about to be part of an exciting win on our way to the national championship.
With 18 seconds left we were still down by three. I wanted the ball in that situation. I’ve always loved those moments, from the time that I was in high school to today as a 17-year NBA veteran.
I found an open spot on the perimeter, but the ball never came to me and we missed our last shot.
Coming all the way back from a big deficit and me not having a crack at the final shot made it hurt that much worse. I just remember crying in the locker room after that game. All of us were crying — the entire team was completely devastated. To us, it was a wasted season.
I played with Jason Terry in Boston and Brooklyn the last couple of years, and we’d talk about this game from time to time. It was memorable for both of us for very different reasons.
The tournament is unforgiving. If you have one bad game, that’s it. Throughout my career I’ve had many losses, but all these years later, this is one that still stings.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.