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Blessing In Disguise

The 7-year-old squirt can't miss! He's in a halftime free throw shooting contest, at a junior college game, and that's 11, 12, 13 straight makes. Why isn't he nervous? Shouldn't he be nervous? The crowd of 250 is on its feet, eyeballing him, and if that isn't pressure enough, there's a door prize if he wins: free pizza. Dinner's on him. Three years later, all eyes are on the squirt again. His AAU team is in the national final, down one with three seconds left, and he has two free throws to win the whole deal. Why isn't he nervous? Shouldn't he be nervous? There are 500 people eyeballing him, and if that isn't pressure enough, the boys lining the lane are saying, "Miss it, fool." Both shots hit bottom.

Nine years later it's March 2005, and the little squirt isn't little anymore. He's playing for the Memphis Tigers in the Conference USA tournament final, against sixth-ranked Louisville. His team is down 75-73 with six seconds left, so he's in a hurry. He races the length of the court like a Ferrari, like he's done this before, and just beyond the arc, he contorts, creates contact, misses the 22-footer … and hears a whistle. Foul!

He's clapping. Hard claps, then a nod. Why isn't he nervous? Shouldn't he be nervous? There are 10,500 people eyeballing him, and millions more tuning in, and if that's not pressure enough, there's no time on the clock, no one lining the lane, no one even breathing in Memphis' FedExForum. The referee motions for three free throws. Make two, and it's overtime. Make all three, and he gets a new door prize: an NCAA Tournament bid.

"Anybody want to be here more than you?" asks his coach.

"Nobody," Darius Washington answers.

The first shot? Straight in.

IN THE stands a certain calm washes over Big D. Gym hours, he's thinking. Gym hours are why the next two free throws are a done deal. That's his boy out there, Darius Washington Jr., and the two of them have spent the past 10 years preparing for just this day. When Big D used to shoot hoops at dawn, so did young Darius. They were attached at the hip. Big D and Mini D. It had been that way forever, or at least since the letter.

Big D played some basketball himself. Problem was, he used to curse out his coaches. From 1988 to 1995, he says, he attended 13 different jucos and small colleges because he couldn't or wouldn't be coached, and his wife and son followed him everywhere in a U-Haul. Young Darius loved it. St. Petersburg (Fla.) JC was where the kid won the pizza in 1993. The next year, Georgetown (Ky.) College was where Darius began to play Big D one-on-one. And Flagler (Fla.) College, Big D's final stop, in 1994 and 1995, was where he watched his dad finally become a big-time college scorer.

By that time, Big D, a 26-year-old senior, had started to dream NBA. The Jacksonville Shooters selected him in the eighth round of the 1995 USBL draft—three picks ahead of Rebecca Lobo—and he says he had a decent enough season. Next, he signed with the Black Hills Posse of the IBA, in Rapid City, S.D., because he'd heard NBA scouts lurked up there. But it was a hellacious trip from the Washingtons' home in Winter Park, Fla., and 9-year-old Darius had to stay home with his mom, Tarchelle. The boy cried his eyes out when he found out—the same way he wept whenever his team lost—and Big D told him what he always told him: never cry in public. And if you do, cover your face. Young Darius nodded.

One month later, Big D received a letter. The gist of it was: come home, Daddy. I know you're chasing your dream, but I have the same dream and I can't get there without you. Big D melted. His dad and his dad's dad had been absentee parents, and that wasn't going to be him. He was going to head back home, stick it out, break the cycle. The NBA wasn't looking for 27-year-old rookies, anyway.

Big D took a job with the local rec department. That gave him 24-hour access to the Winter Park community gym, and he and his son just about moved in. He pushed Darius to make 300 free throws a day—"Not shoot 300, make 300," the boy says now—and that wasn't the half of it. Big D had him in the gym by 6 a.m., and Darius couldn't leave until he'd converted 10 straight layups while his dad pounded him with foam pads. "I'd hit him across the face so he'd learn to finish," Big D says. "I thought he was picking on me,'' Darius says.

Darius also hated the drill Big D called Donkey Kong. He'd have to dribble the ball ankle-high, at full speed, for three quarters of the court before stopping, cutting and shooting. One morning Darius kept losing the ball off his foot, and Big D kept restarting the drill. Ten do-overs later, Darius punted the ball and shouted, "This is dumb! Why do you want me to do this?"

"Because I said so," Big D shot back.

"F- that," Darius said.

Big D couldn't believe what he was hearing. His own son cursing out a coach? His dad, no less? Big D chased after him with a floor mop.

Darius went home to Mom to pout. But Big D told his son to trust him, that all these drills would come in handy down the line—like having to make seven of 10 free throws left-handed to hone his concentration, or like having to run in a shallow pool with sneakers to strengthen his legs. "You'll thank me one day," Big D said.

By Darius' senior year at Edgewater High, Big D's alma mater, he was averaging 31 a game and slapping five with Dad as he ran downcourt. Big D sat in the front row, announcing his arrival with a bird whistle, and he always wore his Flagler game shorts under his jeans-"because it was my gameday too." Darius wore Flagler shorts under his uniform too. Big D and Mini D.

The whistles continued during his son's first season at Memphis. Big D didn't miss a game until bad weather kept him from TCU on Jan. 29. It was the first game he'd missed since the letter, and he drank a fifth of Hennessy as he monitored the proceedings on the Internet. He actually called Darius' cell six times during the game. When his son finally phoned back, Big D was drunk, asleep on the floor. He vowed never to miss another one, which is why he arrived at the C-USA tourney two days early.

And now, on this March afternoon, all those gym hours, all that attention, were about to pay off. Think about it. Against Louisville, Darius had to go the length of the court in six seconds-Donkey Kong revisited. He bullied up court just the way Big D had drawn it up in those wee-hour workouts, and now he had three free throws to validate it all and send Memphis to the Big Dance.

Big D, sitting on the opposite baseline, chuckled when the first shot splashed in. "He can make these in his sleep,'' he thought. Then he watched Darius turn to the Memphis bench and wink and holler to his coach, "I got this."

Second shot? No good.

THE BALL faded right and crashed off the rim. And that's when the eyes of three men changed.

Darius needed a moment to digest the miss. The words that first spilled from his mouth were, "Oh, no," but his body language suggested even worse. John Calipari sensed his freshman was in shock. The giveaway was the distant look, the open mouth. Problem was, the coach had only five seconds to do something about it.

Should he call timeout? No coach calls a timeout there. The critics would have said, "Calipari's icing him!" But that would have been the beauty of it. He could have told Darius, "It's on me now. If you miss again, they'll blame me. So relax." That's what he should have done … if he'd had more than five seconds to think about it. Then again, he says he'd never been there before, not in 429 games as a college coach or 184 as a pro coach. Never had one of his games, much less seasons, come down to free throws with no time on the clock. Memphis needed a win to reach the NCAAs-a 19—15 record wouldn't earn an at-large bid-and Calipari made the snap decision to do … absolutely nothing. "I know this kid," he thought. "He's gutsy. He's making this."

Big D felt the same way, although he now had a faraway look in his eyes too. He flashed back to December, three months earlier, when Darius was shooting a horrid 50% from the line, distracted by the faces behind the backboard. Over Christmas break, Big D had taken a mop-the one he'd once chased his son with-and waved it behind their hoop back home. Darius took shot after shot into that distraction. By season's end, he was at 73%.

Gym hours, that's what the kid had going for him now. That's what Big D was thinking and Coach Cal was thinking. But no one knew what Darius was thinking. Not until he turned to the bench and predicted out loud: "Overtime."

Third shot? No good.

THERE WAS no direct route to the floor. Big D hopped an arena banister, but his sprint to the free throw line was blocked by a security guard. They started to tussle, Big D saying, "I'm not a fan, I'm a parent, and I need to get down there." The guard radioed for backup. A cop arrived. Wait, what were they going to do, arrest him?

About 100 feet away, Darius was face-down at the foul line, almost spread-eagle, bawling. Remembering Big D's rule-cover up when you cry-he submerged his head in his jersey. No one could pull his face out of that shirt. Coach Cal tried. So did a teammate. But Darius had worked his entire life for this moment … and blown it. There were no words. Or enough Kleenex.

Eventually his teammates dragged him to the sideline, where quickly a familiar voice was in his ear. Another security guard had recognized Big D and escorted him to near the team's bench. Now the dad was whispering to his son as he grabbed him in a light chokehold: I know this is hard, but we'll deal with it. What we need to do now is get up, shake the other team's hand and go to the locker room. Then we can talk. Coach Cal then led Darius to a private room in the bowels of the arena. There, Calipari told Big D, "You love him, and I'll coach him," and shut the door, leaving father and son alone.

Right away, Darius tore off his jersey and sneakers and hurled them against a wall. "This can't happen to me!" he howled. "I don't miss free throws! I live for that type of moment! I'm not playing anymore! I quit!" He was sobbing, and so was his dad. This was killing Big D. He'd worn his Flagler shorts to the game, as usual, under his cream-colored outfit. This was his gameday too.

Those were his free throws too.

But the wallowing had to stop. Big D let Darius dump it all out for almost an hour before saying firmly to his son, "You're not in this alone. My name is Darius Washington too. I've got to carry this burden too, my man. You've got to move on. Deal with it." And the crying stopped.

Darius spent the next 90 minutes in the shower by himself. Calipari peeked in, and Darius, still impetuously thinking about quitting, said, "See you 'round, Coach."

Later, back at Big D's hotel, the family settled in for a long evening. Big D flipped on SportsCenter, and when the replays of Darius' foul shots began, he implored his son to watch. No way, Darius said. But Big D wasn't going to let him hide. He'd seen Nick Anderson of their hometown Orlando Magic miss four huge free throws in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals and never recover. So Big D wanted to treat the wound while it was fresh. He made Darius watch his misses "nine billion times" that night on TV. Then he paraded him down Beale Street.

Darius thought he'd catch hell from the fans, but as soon as he walked out of the hotel someone said, "Don't worry about it," and another said, "We're still behind you." A man with dreadlocks and gold teeth hugged him and said, "I'm a thug, and I cried today, dude." By nightfall Darius was signing autographs as his website, dwash.net, was being inundated with keep-your-chin-up posts. Because he'd keeled over and wept, Darius had endeared himself to a nation. That's why Isiah Thomas and Larry Brown called to wish him well, and why CBS wanted him for an interview the next day.

Right before that interview, in Memphis' empty training facility, a sullen Darius stumbled upon a stray basketball. Under the dimmed lights, and with only Big D watching, he took three free throws. Swish, swish, swish.

"Damn," Darius said.

THAT JUNE, father and son are in their Winter Park gym with a circle of friends when, out of nowhere, Big D calls for a ball. He takes it to the foul line, dribbles twice and asks, "Who am I?" He takes a shot and sinks it. Takes another, bricks it and makes an I-can't-believe-it face. Takes a third, bricks it again and mock-wails on the floor. Then he turns to Darius, clutches his throat and says, "You choked."

For three long months, it had been taboo to mention the misses. But at some point, someone was going to have to open his trap. Who else but Big D?

The method seemed harsh, but that's how the Washingtons worked. If Darius had made those free throws, he'd have been the first to say, "You'd have missed 'em, Pops." This was Big D's way of creating normalcy. He'd thought it through. Darius wasn't ready for the ribbing in March, but now he was fair game. Later that day in the Winter Park gym, Big D told Darius, "Your shorts went up your ass before those free throws, didn't they?'' He wanted a reaction, wanted to wake up his boy. These were the new gym hours.

People assumed Darius was over it because he made 23 of 26 FTs in the NIT. In reality, he was still apologizing to his teammates, still tortured. He had worked the Calipari Basketball School earlier in June, which meant he had to teach 7-year-old squirts how to-oh, no-shoot foul shots. Eventually, one squirt came right out and said it: "Shouldn't you be the one practicing free throws?" That hurt. So did getting cut from the U.S. Under-21 team in July for what the coach, Phil Mortelli, called a lack of focus. Soon after, Darius went to Los Angeles with his cousin, Washington Wizards guard Chucky Atkins, and got a tattoo that said "Loved By Few, Hated By Many."

So this was Big D's challenge: to get his son to snap out of it. Big D began to approach anyone at his gym to ask, "Can you make three straight free throws?" If the guy missed one, Big D turned to Darius and said, "See?" If the guy made all three, Big D said to the shooter, "Did I tell you there's no time on the clock?"

Darius was amused by the antics, at least on the outside, but it didn't fully lift his cloud. He'd see a replay of the missed shots, and the embarrassment would flood back. And Big D just wouldn't shut up. He was going around bragging, "I would've made 'em." He even invited an Orlando TV station to film him taking three free throws.

Near the end of the summer, the station called him on his boast. With a camera crew in his face, Big D stepped to the line at his gym and … clanked three shots. He'd choked too. Darius doubled over in laughter.

The kid was cured! "See?" he yelled. When the cameras were off, Big D made three straight, and they hugged and wagged fingers in each other's face. The unintentional comedy-and seeing Big D speechless for once-had done the trick.

By the first Memphis practice in October, Darius was a changed man, and he started his sophomore season by drilling 13 of 16 free throws while averaging 19.5 ppg in the NIT Season Tip-Off. Ask him now how he missed those shots last March, and he says: "Somebody must have put the AC on fullblast." Ask him about his crying, and he says, "I had something in my eye." But ask him about Big D, and he says, "If it weren't for him, I'd still be in my apartment. Hiding."

His head is out of the jersey now. Recently, another squirt came up to him on the street and asked, "Ain't you the dude that missed those free throws and started crying?" Darius didn't deny it.

"How'd you miss them?" the kid asked.

"Things don't always turn out the way you want," Darius said.

"Well, I would've made mine," said the kid.

"I used to be you," answered Big D's son, with a smile. "I used to be you."