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Sports writer cheers a player he once covered
You stop cheering when you become a sports writer.
You may love sports -- basketball especially for me -- but you don't root for specific players and teams. Objectivity is the key, as taught in Journalism 101. I've never had a problem with that. The last college hoops game that really meant something to me was nearly 10 years ago just after I graduated from Indiana University. Since then, I haven't clapped for any college team. I couldn't care less what the Hoosiers do these days; and I grew up in Chicago, so I never actually followed one college program or felt any allegiance to one school.
On Thursday night, I stopped being a journalist for a moment, though. Alone in my living room watching the NCAA tournament, I slipped and became a fan again.
For a moment, I clapped and yelled in excitement for Butler's Willie Veasley.
I first met Veasley back in the fall off 2003. Our first encounter came during the opening days of varsity basketball practice at Freeport High School in Freeport, Ill. He was a freshman on varsity, and I was the new Journal-Standard beat writer. He was already built like a man -- his calves have always been the size of steel pipes -- but he was as shy as any 14-year-old. He spoke quietly, but politely.
Over time, Veasley would loosen up. For two and a half years, I would interview him countless times. From his debut, in which he had 10 points and eight rebounds for the Pretzels -- yes, that is their nickname -- to his time playing with the Illinois Wolves on the AAU scene, I was there to chronicle his career.
The attraction of covering Veasley was his status as the pinnacle player in the region. The Freeport area wasn't basketball poor. It had teams, coaches and players who knew the game and could play it; but for the most part, it was small-town basketball. There were a handful of kids in each conference capable of playing Division III basketball. Within that basketball context, though, it was enough for a basketball junkie like myself to get by on as a reporter.
Veasley was at another level. He was the type of player I was accustomed to having watched -- players like Ronnie Fields and Corey Maggette -- in high school. Veasley was a definitive Division I player. He was 6-foot-3, but he soared above the rim like he was at least 6-foot-7. He had an instinct for the ball that only the special ones possess, which didn't make it out of the ordinary for him to get 15 to 20 rebounds on a given night. His offensive game was a work in progress, but by the end of his high school career, he had learned to dominate games and often would entertain the crowd with a vicious dunk or two.
In a way, covering Veasley began my path to writing for ESPNChicago. It was through him that I became familiar with AAU basketball and was introduced to the state's other top players. Having experienced that, I had the idea of creating an Illinois high school basketball e-magazine called Ill. Hoops. In 2004, I left Freeport and returned to Chicago to start that. The business had its up and downs over five years, but it brought me freelance work with the Chicago Sun-Times, ESPN and a variety of other places. Finally last fall, it all led to me landing a position with ESPNChicago.com.
So back to Thursday night.
I was sitting on my couch closely watching the final minutes of the Butler-Syracuse game. The Bulldogs were ahead by one with less than 2 minutes left when the ball was swung to Veasley in the left corner. He caught it, elevated and released the ball.
His shot dropped inside the rim, circled out, propelled into the air, hit the very top of the backboard glass and fell straight into the net.
In that instant, I yelled.
I couldn't contain myself. Veasley had just hit the biggest shot of his life. He had been a high school star when I knew him best and ended up being a successful role player at Butler for four seasons -- he's played in four NCAA tournaments -- but this was beyond anything he had ever and may ever accomplish. He had just made an unforgettable 3-pointer to put Butler ahead 58-54 against No. 1-seeded Syracuse.
I watched the shot in slow motion a few times before fast-forwarding to actual live play again. And on Friday, I had the opportunity to discuss it with Veasley himself.
"The shot? I don't even know how to explain it," Veasley said. "It's kind of a H-O-R-S-E shot. I was actually headed down the court thinking I had missed it. I was upset by it. I did turn around in time and see it fall through. I had a little celebration going down the court by myself. I just had a huge smile. I was just staring at the crowd and at my teammates."
Nearly a minute later, Veasley added to what will certainly be a grand tale he'll one day tell and then show his children on DVD. With 59 seconds remaining, Veasley closed the door on Syracuse as he tipped in a miss by teammate Shelvin Mack and put the Bulldogs ahead 60-54. It was a similar basket to ones I had seen throughout his high school career.
I cheered again, this time a little more softly.
Veasley obviously felt something unreal after making both of those crucial baskets. I could still hear the excitement in his voice on Friday.
"It's been an experience to say the least," Veasley said. "Words can't explain it."
There was something more to it for me, too. I hadn't cheered like that in a long time. Whether that happens again or not, it was definitely nice to be a fan again.
Willie Veasley, thank you.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.