I stepped to the free throw line with six seconds remaining in the game, my team trailing by a single point. Six seconds may be an eternity in the NBA, but in our rec league, it’s an instant. If I didn’t make at least one of these free throws, there wouldn’t be enough time to execute a last second hail mary. This was it. As I received the ball from the referee, I searched my soul for the career-defining C-word that elevates athletes to superstars.
Paul George knows what I’m talking about. With only two seconds left in overtime and the Pacers down by two, George calmly knocked down three free throws to give his team the lead. (Unfortunately for George, they weren’t able to maintain that lead.) As Marv Albert described, it was
“a cool performance at the free throw line, clutch shots by George.” What’s cooler than being cool? Being called cool by Marv Albert after hitting the biggest free throws of your career, on the road, in the conference finals, against the defending champs. George is golden now; from this moment forward, he will forever be seen as clutch.
This wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in this situation. It’s happened several times before; in fact, I was here less than two months ago. It’s hard to describe what I feel in these moments. There’s really nothing of significance riding on these games, it’s just a rec league. Or so I try to tell myself. In truth, pride and ego are at stake, and those things matter. I pride myself on being dependable, and it’s that particular pride that can be reassured by making these free throws. In basketball, nothing defines dependability more than free throws at the end of a game. So I brush aside nervousness, push away apprehension, and search for clutch.
And I miss. Twice.
I can definitely describe what I felt after missing: disappointment. I hate letting others down, I hate letting myself down, and I had literally just missed my golden opportunity. These are the moments when I feel I can relate the most with NBA players, yet still feel so distant from them. Fortunately I’m not in the NBA and my career aspirations don’t rest on my ability to make free throws. I can remind myself that I made two huge three-pointers that gave our team a shot at winning in the first place. I remember that two months ago, I made those free throws and won the game. On that particular day, I was more like Paul George, and less like Dwight Howard. But most importantly, at the end of the day, I can kiss and hug my daughter and realize that it’s okay to be neither one of those guys, and just be me.
There’s more than one place to find clutch.