My mind was worlds away. The crowd was maybe a few hundred, but to me it felt like Arrowhead in the playoffs. Choking was my biggest fear, and I wanted that scooter badly.
Nice and acquainted with the ball, I stood under the basket nearly quaking in my customized Air Force Ones. But, this was no time to shake in terror. The fruits of my hours of practice in Student Rec were ripe for the plucking. They introduced me over the PA, and I gave the crowd a wave and a Gator chomp. "On your mark, get set, GO!"
Back in November, a dream of mine came to fruition. I've been to quite a few sporting events in my lifetime, and I have always dreamed of getting picked from the crowd for a halftime show. I love free stuff, and getting a chance to win some in front of a live audience has always been a thrilling idea. So, I decided that every time I attended a Gator sport, I would pop off the best fit I could to increase my chances of getting picked. My go-to has been a Gators club hockey jersey, shorts, and a sweet pair of custom AF1's I have dubbed the Gator Force Ones.
When the Gators Women's Basketball Team took on the Bethune Cookman Wildcats on November 18th, I was in attendance, and I was finally picked. I caught T-shirts in a bag while my teammate chucked them from across the court. It was a D1 performance from the both of us (Tebow to Harvin-esque), and we took home the W, winning a Mountain Dew prize pack (t-shirt, drawstring bag, notebook).
Ever since that night, I've been chasing that high.
Lucky for me, since then I have coincidentally been able to form a pretty good relationship with the UAA Marketing project team lead for women's basketball, Kelsi. We were discussing my halftime show performance, and to my surprise I found out that sometimes they actually have trouble finding willing student participants for the halftime shows.
I informed her of my intense desire to take the court once more, and she cut me a deal. The next time they did a shot contest for halftime, she would be my informant, and I could be the shooter. She said the most probable game they'd do it was senior night vs. Alabama, so I had a couple weeks to prepare.
The stakes for the shot contest are much higher than the T-shirt competition. Not only would I be the only performer on the hardwood, but the big prize is much bigger. It is not a Mountain Dew drawstring bag, it is a moped scooter.
I am an out-of-stater Gator. All of my money goes to tuition. I have no car or transportation of any kind. All I have is my own two feet, so a scooter would be a game changer. I wanted to win.
For the shot contest, you start under the basket for a layup, and if you make that you win a T-shirt. Once you make the layup, you go to the freethrow line to shoot for a $25 Amazon gift card. If you make that, you go to the top of the arc for a three. Make that, and you win a jersey. Then, once you make all of those, you shoot from half court for the moped. The catch is, you only have 30 seconds, and you have to get your own rebounds (no warmup or anything obviously). One bad brick and scooter hopes are squashed.
Over the two weeks before senior night, I hit the court at Student Rec to practice. I have no competetive basketball experience (I was a baseball kid, not a hooper), so I needed to hone in my stroke the best I could.
The morning of game day, Thursday, Feb. 23, I hit the court before my lifeguard shift to shoot around one last time. I timed myself, and I was pretty confident. My layup was lockdown every time, my free throw was decent (I could get it within a couple tries at most), and my three wasn't horrible. I felt great about my halfcourt form, too. I chose quarterback style to make sure it would bounce back to me if I missed and hit the backboard. I was the Patrick Mahomes of UF Student Rec.
Getting closer to gametime though, the nerves started to set in, especially when I got this text from my informant, Kelsi.
The stakes were already the Empire State Building, but they became the Burj Khalifa. I wanted to impress the HBC. In my head, I dreamed of a Disney movie scenario where I hit the halfcourt shot for the scooter and look over at a jaw-dropped Steve Spurrier sitting courtside. I go over and dap him up, and he gives me a witty comment and maybe even a "nice shot, champ." This all happened while I was eating dinner at the Reitz Union with a couple pals, and I was stressing.
But, my nervousness was soothed when I got this fortune from Panda Express. It had to be true if it came out of a fortune cookie.
I walked into the O'Connell Center dripping in orange and blue from head to toe. As they say: look good, feel good, play good.
During the first half, I spotted Steve Spurrier. He was sitting courtside right behind the cheer team, which happens to sit behind the basket on the right side of the court. The same basket I'd be shooting on. During a commercial timeout, Emmaline, his grandaughter on the cheer team, was honored at halfcourt, so he and his wife Jerri joined her.
With four minutes left on the clock in the second quarter, Kelsi and the other UAA Marketing Interns (aka Blueshirts), took me down to court level. We waited in the tunnel behind Alabama's bench on the right side of the court.
While waiting, I got some words of encouragement from the Blueshirts, O’Dome staff, and fans. “Breathe. Just breathe," one gentleman in the front row of the stands told me.
They gave me the ball I'd be using, and I dribbled around a little in the tunnel to get a feel for the ball. Then, I was ready to put on a show. I stood in the tunnel waiting to go. Basketball under my arm. Gator Force Ones flat on the ground. Halftime hits, the buzzer sounds, and the Gators are up 45 to 30 on their way to pulling off the upset over the 20-8 Crimson Tide.
Steve spurrier, the HBC, stands up.
He walks in my direction, but he stops and waits a second for Jerri. Classy. It was at this moment I realized he was headed for the tunnel I was standing in. Right before one of the biggest athletic performances of my life, I’d get a shot to meet the one and only Head Ball Coach.
He made a fast break towards the tunnel. It seemed like he was in a bit of a rush, and I thought maybe he had to pee or something. With the ball under my left arm, I stuck my right hand out for a handshake and gave a courteous "Mr. Spurrier" greeting. Four feet away from me and closing in, Spurrier put his hand out for a fist bump. Awkward.
“How’s it going see ya see ya!”
I used very little punctuation in that quote because there was very little. The man was clearly in a hurry.
He’s a busy guy, and I was not offended by any means. I very much understand if he did not want to shake hands with a grubby college student. He’s got a restaurant to run and it was dinner rush.
Although it wasn’t the heartwarming and inspirational moment I hoped for, I still got a fist bump from the only guy to win the Heisman, coach a Heisman, and win a natty. More than enough for me.
Halftime festivities began, and first up were the senior women’s basketball student managers. They were recognized at half court, getting flowers and a big round of applause for all of their hard work.
Then, it was my time to shine. My chance to win transportation by Trial of The Court.
"On your mark, get set, GO!"
I was off. All attention was on the rim. "Start small," I told myself, "the layup is lockdown." I tossed up the ball off one hand to bank it off the backboard and in: just like I practiced. But, I missed. "It's the nerves. On a miss you always make it second try." I got my rebound instantly and fired up another one. Too much sauce. It bounced off the top of the box and the front of the rim. Uh oh. "Stay composed. Make the damn layup." I threw up a third shot. Another miss. It was all crumbling down. My Vespa hopes, my pride, everything. Hundreds of people just witnessed me miss three layups in a row, and part of me wanted to run under the bleachers and hide to never see the light of day again. And, it wasn't over. Layup number four goes up and bounces off the rim a couple times. Miss. I felt the mood of the crowd move towards pity. I had missed not one, not two, not three, but four layups.
Fortunately for me, I had one saving grace. Thanks to mild self-esteem complications dating back to elementary school, I have never taken myself too seriously. I saw the comedy in the situation. I wanted to put on a show, and although it wasn't the one I imagined, it was still a show. After this sudden epiphany, I felt my load lighten. Layup number five was a splash, the T-shirt was secured, and I was onto the freethrow.
With 20 seconds left, I planted my feet behind the charity stripe. The layup troubles were behind me. I shoot. I score. First try; very NBA of me. With the Amazon card secured, I ran up and grabbed the ball under the hoop. 13 seconds left. I hustled to the three-point line, took a beat to compose, and fired from downtown. Call in the tellers, the bank was open. It was another first-try splash, and I was the People's Curry. My shortrange shortcomings were no longer a worry. I was a sniper, and I bagged the Gator basketball jersey.
The realization of my progress hit me. I was on the final shot. I bolted to get the ball. Thanks to my rough start, there were only four seconds left for me to get to halfcourt and let one Hail Mary rip. My royal blue soles leapt off the wood. Final seconds ticking. I looked up at the clock on the other side of the court. There was one second left as I crossed the halfcourt line. I didn't have time to turn around. Putting my faith in almighty Steph, I threw it backwards over my head.
It was very much a dud; it barely made it past the freethrow line. In retrospect, I realize that physics was working against me. I threw the ball backwards when all my momentum was moving the opposite direction as I ran, hence the pathetic looking halfcourt attempt.
But, it was no matter. It was the final halftime show of the season for women's basketball, and I put on a Broadway worthy theatrical performance, copping some cool prizes in the process. I walked off Billy Donovan Court pleased with the redemption arc I had achieved in those last 20 seconds. I didn't win a scooter, but I didn't embarass myself completely.
My informant and enabler, Kelsi, gave me my prizes. I walked out of the O'Dome a happy man, determined to keep chasing the high of halftime show competitions.