HOUSTON -- So everybody who paid for a ticket to the national championship game between North Carolina and Villanova got a seat cushion. It was just sitting there waiting for you when you showed up. It was the color of a basketball, and it had the Capital One logo all over it, because Capital One is a corporate champion. The cushion probably cost about seven cents to produce, which is almost certainly the only reason the NCAA would give it away for free.
With 4.7 seconds left in that national championship game, and Villanova leading 74-71, five seconds away from their first national championship in 31 years, North Carolina guard Marcus Paige grabbed a loose pass and, in a panic, jumped into the air and double-clutched a wild 3-pointer. It was a shot that had nearly zero chance of going in, and he seemed to know it.
He'd just made a ridiculous putback mere seconds earlier, but this was not a shot imbued with confidence. It was one of desperation. The season was ending. It was a final prayer.
Within roughly one second of that shot going in, the magnificent lunatic of a shot, about 1,000 of those seat cushions, almost at once, almost as if it had been coordinated and timed with military precision, went flying into the air. It honestly looked like they were part of some sort of fireworks display. It was like a cannon had gone off.
At their best, sports inspire in us involuntary motion: We scream in a way that we don't even realize we're doing until we've already done it. We scream in joy, in surprise, from the spasm that comes from the world as we had understood it dissolving and reconstructing itself out of nowhere, forever. After Paige hit that shot, thousands of people, without even thinking about it, grabbed the thing that was closest to them -- that cheapass cushion -- and just winged it into the air. Thousands of people went insane, at once. Throwing those cushions -- the rain of corporate schlock falling from the sky -- was an involuntary reaction thousands of strangers had to something they couldn't believe they were there in person to see. It's something that happens once in a lifetime.
Or twice in five seconds.
* * *
Just watch it again, too much is not enough.
Kids are going to be pretending to be Kris Jenkins for the next 40 freaking years. Down came more seat cushions.
* * *
Every time a team wins a championship, it secures their place in the history of their sport. But while all championships are equal, some champions are more equal than others.
Certain teams just stand out as iconic. Some are full of eccentric and memorable personalities (the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 1986 New York Mets). Some of them are just unusually dominant (the 1972 Miami Dolphins, 1998 New York Yankees). Some of them are emblematic of their time in a way that makes them eternal (the Showtime Lakers, the '70s Steelers). Some teams are all three (the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls).
The 1985 Villanova Wildcats are one of those champions that'll live forever.
• were, as a No. 8 seed, massive underdogs nearly the entire tournament.
• full of vivid personalities.
• coached by an old-school character in Rollie Massimino. (Who will now be known as "the guy on television crying after The Shot.")
• Played a perfect game against a team most had thought unbeatable.
• Ended up with a page-turning scandal when it turned out one of the team's star players spent the season -- and several NCAA games, and the trip to meet President Reagan at the White House -- high on cocaine.
When you close your eyes and think of a national championship game … that Villanova team, and that game, comes to mind. Most schools or franchises don't get one of those.
Villanova now has two. Shoot, people might not even remember the first one now.
All it took was those five seconds.
* * *
I'm not sure it is physically possible for an NCAA championship game to be more purely enjoyable, and overwhelming on a sensory level, than the game we saw Monday. All people will remember is the ending, and with good reason, but it was fantastic long before that. Led by Ryan Arcidiacono, a player who is a lot more likable wearing a Villanova jersey than he would be wearing a Duke one, Villanova -- a team that is unlikely to have a single player start in the NBA, or maybe even be drafted -- had every answer for a more talented, much larger North Carolina team.
The first half was the tonic fans needed after a downright miserable Saturday, with both teams playing splendidly on offense. North Carolina, which had famously missed its first 12 3-pointers in Saturday's win over Syracuse and is renowned for eschewing the 3-pointer-barrage strategy that's en vogue in both college basketball and the NBA, promptly went out and hit 7-of-9. Paradoxically, this hot shooting gave more hope to Villanova boosters than it did despair: If UNC could shoot that well and only be up by five points, what would happen when they cooled off?
It turned out that Villanova would pounce. For all of the Heels' talent, they were the team that looked rattled down the stretch, and the precision Villanova showed in their dismantling of Oklahoma on Saturday re-emerged. The Wildcats built a 10-point lead with 5:29 left, and it looked like the Wildcats would have their title in the efficient, steady way they played this whole tournament. But the Heels had one last run, because that was the part they were destined to play in this whole thing: They had to make this immortal. It made you grateful for them.
* * *
It was fitting that, when Jenkins was asked about his shot, the first thing he did was praise Arcidiacono for getting him the ball. "He's one of the best players I've ever played with," Jenkins said. "For a senior to get the ball and make the right play and not try to shoot the ball in double coverage just shows a lot about him and what he's about."
And the way those last two shots went down was apt as well: North Carolina's was a wild feat of athleticism and skill, while Villanova's resulted from two upperclassmen who knew each other well enough to understand instinctively what the best shot was. Arcidiacono even noted that it's a play they regular run in practice.
And just talking about it makes me want to watch it again.
It's a game that just couldn't be improved on if you tried. It was a game that, it's now clear, was building up to Jenkins' moment all along. It was a game that you just felt honored to get to see in person. Everybody knew it, at once.
We deal with a lot of junk from sports -- too much. We rationalize, or just ignore, its numerous faults and corruptions, its messy, inextricable and unfortunate connection to the deeply flawed real world we walk around in every day. We put blinders on because otherwise, if we were rational actors, we'd have to look away. It can be exhausting. Sports are pretty ugly sometimes.
But this is why we do it. This is what we're always waiting around for. This is what replenishes it all. This is the whole point. You think it'll never pay off. And then it does, in a way that so little else in life truly can.
The shot went up, and it went in. You screamed. You grabbed whatever was nearby and you threw it, goddammit. Then you screamed again. Villanova fans won't stop screaming for years to come. I'm not sure the rest of us are going to either.
* * *
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow me @williamfleitch; or just shout out your window real loud, I'll hear you. Point is, let's talk.