Willing to take 'the shot'

Originally Published: December 24, 2003
By Jay Bilas | Special to ESPN.com

There is nothing more exciting, or gut-wrenching, than the last shot in a one-possession game. The idea of having the ball in your hands, and the fate of your team, with one shot can make the knees of even the most battle tested veteran shake. When victory or defeat is on the line, and there is time to think and contemplate the consequences of each outcome, pressure can get to the best of men.

Of course, strategy often dictates which player will take the last shot. The last shot can go to the best player, the best shooter, or the best matchup in a particular situation. Talent and circumstances contribute greatly to a decision about which player pulls the trigger on the most important shot of the game -- the last one.

But more important than all this is the mentality of the person tabbed with taking that shot.

How many times have you heard the phrase, "He wants the ball at crunch time ...?" Everybody knows how to say it, but precious few know how to handle the pressure and responsibility of handling the last shot of a game, or potentially, a season.

Taking the last shot is the ultimate test of mental toughness. In my judgment, we shouldn't criticize those players who don't want that shot, but commend those that do. There are not many of them.

Jameer Nelson
AP PhotoJameer Nelson never shies away from a big shot. Just ask Cal.

Whether you have played basketball at a high level or not, everyone can relate in some way to the psychology of the last shot. If you have ever played golf, and had to stand over a 10-foot putt to win a match, you know the difference in thinking, "I am going to make this" vs. "I hope I make this".

The guy you want taking the last shot is the person who thinks only about the positive outcome, not what happens if he misses. That's the guy with ice water in his veins, the one who cares not about the negative consequences, only about the positive outcome. He's the guy who, when he comes to the island green surrounded by water, takes out a brand new ball and sees only the green, not the drink around it. He doesn't concentrate on the trouble, and doesn't let the bad things that could happen even enter his mind.

When I was an assistant coach at Duke, Christian Laettner was the guy who took the most last shots for his team. I remember Mike Kryzyzewski saying about Laettner's late-game heroics, and his mentality, "He may miss, but he'll never choke."

That was really true about Laettner.

Laettner thought only about the prospect of winning, and not at all about the consequences of missing, yet he did miss sometimes, and knew what it felt like. When Laettner was a freshman, he missed key free throws late at Arizona in a loss. He did not let one failure define him, however, and from that time forward, hit more big "last shots" than anyone else in college basketball history.

In a last-shot scenario, players have a heightened sense of awareness, which can lead to tightness. It also causes a player's mind to wander into areas that are not conducive to operating at a high level of efficiency. The player best suited to take the last shot is the one who couldn't care less about the prospect of losing, or the negative impact of missing. He is more concerned with what comes from making that shot, and the prospect of winning.

My favorite representation of that idea is from the movie "Hoosiers". In the timeout before the last shot, Gene Hackman decided to use his best player, the one everyone thought would take the last shot, as a decoy. The team was bitterly disappointed and showed it. Then, Jimmy Chitwood looked at his coach and said, "I'll make it."

That mentality gives you chills.

Whether a player makes the last shot is irrelevant to his mentality in taking it. In Wisconsin's win over Marquette this past weekend, Tom Crean designed a player to get Steve Novak a 3-point attempt to tie the game. He came off a double screen, squared up, and shot a good ball that went in, and out. Novak may have missed, but he certainly didn't choke.

Like others in similar situations this season, Novak had the guts to step forward and take the last shot with nothing in his mind other than making it. Anyone who missed out on the tough fashion in which that kid handled the situation is missing the boat.

The mentality of the last shot keeps sports psychologists employed. To me, it is simple to understand, but difficult to deal with. When tied or behind with the ball in your hands and the clock winding down, you have nothing to protect, and nothing to fear. The game isn't yours, it has to be won. You don't have to keep from doing something negative to win, or just hang on, you have to go out and do something positive. You have to go out and take.

If your mind is disciplined enough to focus on doing something positive, and only the benefits attendant to that, you'll never choke. The guy that takes the last shot can never account for how others will process the situation, or what others may think. That's their problem.

The guy that steps forward and takes the last shot is a special breed. If you see one, celebrate him, and don't disparage the guy who doesn't. And when you step up to a putt to win a match, or the equivalent in your life, think only about making it.

Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send Jay a question to possibly answer in his weekly mailbag on ESPN.com.

Jay Bilas

College Basketball analyst

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