This was the situation that had caused thousands of shot attempts towards the rim when growing up. Ball in his hands, his team trailing, Joe taking the shot to win or lose the game.
Of course, in his head he made that shot every time. It was just part of the internal narrative during practice. In reality, most of the shots he had put up in those theoretical practice situations had missed.
But it was an easy fix; reset the situation, claim he was fouled and could move to the free throw line, say he got the shot off quick enough that he could get the rebound and re-shoot or the ball bounced out of bounds with 1 tick left on the clock.
There were a lot of ways to “fix” a missed game-winning attempt in practice. In practice, he always won.
In game situations, however, that was no longer true. There became real pressure to make the shot instead of try to make the shot.
The difference was subtle but real. No harm done if he missed a practice game winning shot, but if Joe missed a real game-winning shot, he felt like he let the team down. It entered his head as one of those things he feared.At first, it had not been an issue as he had an improbable run of five consecutive times he made the shot in that situation. Then he had his first miss. He quickly recovered from the miss to make his next two, but then had missed three straight game winning shots.
Those situations had spread out across several seasons…high school, traveling teams, college…but the toll started to show.
At some point he stopped demanding to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line and instead started working to get rebound position while a teammate took the pressure shot.
Somehow, he had stopped being the “clutch” guy and become the “look like you are putting forth effort, but hope the ball does not come to you” guy.
It had been yet another sign that his skills were declining, though in this case it was his mental approach rather than his body breaking down.
The mental approach was huge and as he had aged, he had come to realize not all shots are created equal.
A ten foot jumper over a defender in a game with a 10 point separation was easy to make. That same shot against the same defender in a tie game or game separated by just a possession worth of points was more difficult by at least a factor of two. Add the pressure of being in the waning moments of the game and the doubled degree of difficulty found its self trebled.
Some players instinctively rise to the challenge. Others shrink from it. When he was 20, Joe was the former. Now that he was closing in on 40, he was the latter.
All those jump shots in the driveway to win the game were decades ago. He was separated from them by years of work, dealing with the wife and kids, dealing with the stress of bills and deadlines.
It did not help that his body was dealing with the stresses of injuries, being out of shape and not having been taking hundreds of shots a day. Yes, there was a time this was the position he wanted to be in. Now was not that time.
Still, he had the ball in his hands, the head-fake had moved the defender, and there were only 2 seconds left. Using the space his fake had created, he began to dribble left toward the free throw line.
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