- Dana O'Neil, College Basketball Reporter
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His view of the court obscured, Michael Lee watched the big screen in the Alamodome as Mario Chalmers planted beyond the 3-point line on April 7. Lee saw Chalmers release the ball and watched it arc toward the basket with nothing less than the national championship on the line, and at that moment, Lee was the only person of the 43,257 in the building whose mind momentarily strayed elsewhere.
Five years earlier, wearing the same Kansas colors Chalmers sported, Lee had planted his own feet beyond the 3-point line on the night of April 7. He released the ball and watched it arc toward the basket with nothing less than the national championship on the line.
From a distance that seemed too far to be covered by anyone not wearing a cape, Syracuse forward Hakim Warrick jumped in front of Lee. In the same split second it took Chalmers' shot to swish through the net and send the Jayhawks into overtime and ultimately to coach Bill Self's first national title, Warrick swatted Lee's shot into the Superdome stands, ending Kansas' hopes of overtime and securing coach Jim Boeheim's first national championship.
One shot goes in. One does not.
Chalmers is a hero; Lee was a prisoner of his own dorm room.
"For two, maybe two and a half weeks, I just shut down totally," Lee recalled. "I didn't want to talk to anybody because I knew how much it was on everybody's mind. I didn't go out unless I absolutely had to, like to go to class or something. I just hid in my room."
With the salve of time and the shine of Kansas' newly minted title, the sting from that 2003 championship night in New Orleans has eased for Lee.
To an extent.
He has watched the entire game just once, choosing every other time to stop the tape or walk away as the final seconds play out.
But he can talk about it now, even joke with a perfect sense of gallows humor.
"I didn't even know my shot was blocked because I couldn't find the ball," he said. "Then I heard the whole crowd scream, 'Oooh,' and I realized the reason I couldn't find the ball was because it was about three rows back."
When Lee got the ball in the left corner, he was convinced there was no way Warrick could get to him, so convinced that when he glanced at Warrick in the middle of Syracuse's 2-3 zone, he didn't give him even a second thought.
But when the game was over and the Jayhawks left empty-handed, Lee wondered what happened. A friend told him that he often took too long to get his shot off.
He wondered whether maybe his friend was right or whether Warrick had just made a superhuman play.
So in one of the painful nights after the game, Lee let the tape run and forced himself to watch the finish.
He found out his friend was right.
And Warrick was superhuman.
"I was stubborn, said, 'No way, my shot is fine,'" Lee said. "My friend was right, but I also know that when [Kirk] Hinrich passed the ball, Hakim was 1 foot out on the wing on the other side of the basket. When I caught the ball, I wasn't even nervous because I knew I had plenty of time left and there was just no way he could get there. I underestimated his length, his athleticism. I just underestimated him. He made the perfect play."
It seems only fitting that Lee was in the gym as Chalmers righted history and made the perfect play. Serving as a graduate assistant coach to Self this past season, Lee saw the whole thing unfold in slow motion.
He saw Chalmers catch the ball and saw the release, and his mind raced back to 2003. In his mind, he saw his own shot; in his gut, he felt the same nerves he knew Chalmers must have been feeling.
"I just sat there frozen," he said.
When it was over, when Chalmers' shot killed Memphis' momentum and propelled Kansas to a walkover in overtime, Lee called his old teammates, celebrating the championship he claimed as a member of the Kansas coaching staff.
He was envious of the team because he knows how fleeting such chances are, but he was in no way jealous of Chalmers, he said. He didn't even bring up his own missed opportunity afterward, but simply patted Chalmers on the back and said, "Man, great shot."
"I wanted him to enjoy his own moment," Lee said.
Ironically, in the midst of his alma mater's celebration, Lee found time to empathize with Memphis.
"I knew exactly how they felt," he said.
It's a cruel twist of fate, really. If Lee's shot had gone in, who knows? It would have led to overtime, and Syracuse might still have won. (And truth be told, Kansas didn't lose the game on Lee's shot. The Jayhawks lost because they failed to make 18 free throws, which ought to sound eerily familiar to Memphis fans).
But what if Kansas had won, and instead of being a footnote in history, Lee had made history?
Now two months into an assistant coaching job at Gardner-Webb, Lee doubts many of his players know who he is, other than a former Kansas player. Might they know him if he had made that shot?
"If I made that shot, maybe my career would have turned in a different direction, but I don't regret a thing," he said. "Naturally, I wanted to win, but I played for a national championship, and a million people would have wanted to be in my situation."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Lee had a shot at a game-tying 3 in the 2003 title game, but Hakim Warrick swatted it away. Five years later, Lee can't help but wonder (especially after Mario Chalmers' 3) what might have been, writes Dana O'Neil.